Policing Under Pressure: Will a Rational Mindset Help?

Policing is a demanding and complex environment, therefore, an effective approach for helping those employed within law enforcement to maintain their psychological wellbeing is vital. In my current work as a Performance Psychologist within a police force, Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT) has been a popular and effective psychotherapeutic approach. My work within policing began when I conducted some applied research within a local constabulary in the United Kingdom, in collaboration with Staffordshire University. The REBT intervention I applied was so impactful, that it led to me being employed as a full-time Performance Psychologist within the force.

But, why did REBT work so well? In my view, there are many reasons. In this article I outline, what I think, are some of the most important ones.  

A Simple Structured Model

REBT provides a simple structured model, is active-directive in nature, can be brief, and is user friendly (for the practitioner and client).  Usually within one session, clients can begin to experience the performance and wellbeing benefits of adopting a rational mindset. The advantages of a simple structured model (ABCDE) are that it provides clients with the framework needed to challenge their own thinking in the pressure filled situations in which they often find themselves. Furthermore, the simplicity of the ABCDE system can be observed in others’ responses and allows individuals to relate better with one another in challenging environments. One big advantage of training employees with REBT skills has been the ability of those officers lower in rank to find ways of challenging up the chain of command, and in doing so finding an autonomous voice in what is otherwise perceived as an obedient and authoritarian organisational structure. This benefits the organisation greatly, because it unlocks a great deal of expert knowledge which is, otherwise, never heard.

An Active-Directive Approach

The active- directive nature of REBT is welcomed in the policing environment. In general, individuals who receive REBT sessions welcome the challenge to their current mind set and become more and more open to the range of perspectives REBT provides. Doing so appears to have a large and positive impact on stress. Once individuals perceive that there are a range of perspectives within their control and that they can exercise choice over how they perceive events, they often report an immediate moment of insight which they experience as being less stressful. It could be that understanding their choice and realising that they can take responsibility for that choice bolsters their wellbeing and provides a “rational safety net” on which they can base future actions.

Brief Interventions

Once clients have understood the basics of the ABCDE model, interventions can be brief in a large amount of cases. This is an advantage in an environment that is fast spaced and short on resources. What I have found also is that once individuals have understood the model well, they share their learning with others. When this happens, there is a real sense of achievement for me as a practitioner and of “making a difference” which is what working in this environment is all about. In addition, this begins the process of cultural change, whereby effective stress management is shared and propagated as part of the environment.

Some Challenges of Using REBT

As a practitioner, there are moments where I find that I have to have faith in the model. Often, I am confronted with, what feel to me, extreme examples of challenging experiences. All of which are just another day on the job for the people I work with. For example, outside of the police environment clients perceive threat and the model tests the physical reality of that threat. This could be the belief that it is “awful” that one failed at a certain task. In such cases clients would be guided to identify the physical threat and are helped to see that no physical threat exists.  But in policing, the threats are often perceived as being quite real and the responsibility for making sound decisions and taking the best course of action is extremely important. It is therefore, important for individuals to perform as well as they possibly can under pressure and reviewing the reality of worst case scenarios through the disputation process promotes a rational mindset under pressure which maintains motivated practical responses. And so, even in highly threatening situations, assessing the reality of situations from a rational perspective becomes crucial for decision making.

Another area which has been challenging to articulate within the policing context is the idea of acceptance. The semantic meaning of this word for many people equates to “its ok that this event has happened or will happen”. Some people misconstrue this idea of acceptance as “giving in” or just “putting up with things”. In REBT, it is acceptance of the self, others and life events that is promoted rather than situational passivity. I have found it of great benefit to shift away from the term acceptance and replace it with the word acknowledgment, a tip I first learned while studying for my primary and advanced practica at the Albert Ellis Institute in New York City. By acknowledging events, individuals can see the challenges that lie before them and find workable ways to let go of the beliefs that debilitate their progress.

To summarise, I have found REBT to be an invaluable mode of working with police employees. This adds to the wide variety of contexts in which REBT has been shown to be useful (e.g., sport, exercise, business, the military). The simplicity of the model, its active-directive nature, and the efficiency in which individuals can makes changes, renders REBT a good fit for the context in which I work, truly helping me to make a difference.


Jenni Jones is a Force Performance Psychologist for Hampshire Constabulary and has worked as a consultant in Sport and Performance Psychology in a range of contexts, with expertise in psychological performance development, leadership development, change management, stress and wellbeing.

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