Police Psychology | Anticipatory Anxiety Meets String Tricks

Posted: April 7, 2016 in Mastering Resilience
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Police Psychology |

Anticipatory Anxiety Meets String Tricks

Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP


My 9-year old daughter was in a third-grade talent show last Friday.  She was doing “string tricks” she learned on YouTube, you know anxiety, Police Psychologystarting with Cat’s Cradle, go to Cat’s Whiskers, Jacob’s Ladder, the Eiffel Tower, the witches broom, etc.  Okay, I have to admit I went “HUH?  What kind of talent is that?”  Not out loud of course, but to myself.  I was scared to death for her and pictured Alicia Keys on stage before her and Yo-Yo Ma after she performed, with her “string tricks” saddled in between   What an embarrassment for her!   I calmed myself down with saying it will be over in 2 minutes, and I am a psychologist, I will put her broken ego back together when it is over.  She will learn something from this.

“My name is Skylar and I am going to do string tricks I learned from videos on YouTube.”  We rehearsed her over and over.  I even filmed it to make her want to practice.  Practice for embarrassment, what a lousy deal.  My wife and I both went to the show with trepidation.  My butterflies were churning worse than when I sang my first professional opera.  Act after act came out and performed admirably, except they were third graders not Alicia Keys, and they stumbled over themselves, sang off-pitch and one kid kept hitting himself in the head with nun-chucks.  I felt better already, but then Skylar was announced.  “My Name is Skylar and I am going to do some string tricks I learned from videos on YouTube.”  She was so loud and clear and the only kid that actually talked.  OMG, she has stage presence!  She had the confidence of a kid that knew she had the best act in the show.  She started with Cat’s Whiskers then put them up to her face and meowed, and the crowd erupted into outrageous applause for each of her tricks.  A star was born, and a dad learned a lot about his own profession that night.   String tricks: police psychology, perhaps I had better explain….

What I was having is called anticipatory anxiety.  It is when you are anticipating a bad outcome and you tend to get anxious about it, thus the name.  Now I am a counter-phobic, meaning when I have a fear I tend to go directly at it and put myself face-to-face with it, but this was not my fear but a fear for my daughter.  I couldn’t go directly at it, so I started to churn.  I mean churning is not the norm for me.  I can go up to the podium and sing a song from a musical au cappella in front of a group of FBI agents when I am giving a speech.   I have sang the Star Spangled Banner before a ball game.  I can tackle a big risk like trying something new in front of a crowd of onlookers where a bunch of people are just waiting to criticize you for stupid little things (like writing this blog).  But again this isn’t my task, but my daughter’s.  How do you handle a fear for someone else?  But without knowing it I did what I could do.

First, you prepare them for the task.  I figured the filming of the string tricks would either get her better so she wouldn’t embarrass herself too much, or it would cause her to not want to do it when she saw it.  I would win either way.  We filmed her through the entire weekend before and made her practice her lines in-between.  She loved it because we kept it very light and fun, and of course said we can make it a YouTube video.  Preparation is the number one precursor to reducing anticipatory anxiety.  The visualization of the task and  the practice make the task more palatable.  I was an assistant coach of a High School football team once when I was younger and made them visualize plays while lying on a wrestling mat for ½ an hour, three times a week and it took them from 1-2 wins a season to playing in the championship game the next year.  Practice and visualizing work.  But it doesn’t make you that much less anxious.

Next is self-talk.  I was saying things like I will put her back together if she does not favor well.  I told her what she was doing was unique and people would recognize what it takes to be unique.  My wife and I kept saying, she will be alright and probably won’t even remember this when she gets older.  We were trying to rationalize that it wasn’t going to be big problem and we could overcome it.  That eases anticipatory anxiety in a healthy way and sort of makes plans for the problem if it did go bad.  Skylar didn’t have any anxiety at all until the night of the performance when she had only a couple bathroom trips.  Her mother’s confidence in her and my feigning confidence made her go on with a lot of confidence.  Didn’t do anything for me.

Finally, we told her we will always love her and we will be proud of her for standing up and doing something unusual.  We told ourselves we should be proud for having a kid thinking out of the box.  See, anticipatory anxiety needs reassurance for the future.  It is a way of psyching a person up and letting them know they will be alright no matter whether something goes good or something goes bad.  When someone much more important will not waiver in support, trying something innovative is not as big of a risk as when you are not sure.

So what does this have to do with policing or police psychology you may ask.  Well, psychology is a whole bunch of risks, called experiments and scientific method.  If you want to have your best cure, you must try multiple approaches some times.  Even medicine doesn’t know the cure so physicians try a lot of different medicines to see which one works.  I tell people up front psychology is an experimental science so we will find something that helps you, but we may go through many different methods to find what works.   I practice, I visualize with a patient, I teach them self-talk, and I try a whole lot of techniques before I find the cure that works.  Fortunately, experience gives you a history to know what techniques will give you the best chance of success with a patient.  The work of the therapist is sometimes going through many trials before you succeed.

Research shows those that those that follow rules are more likely to have anticipatory anxiety, well in policing you get some major rule followers and that can be a problem.  When you are preparing officers for a special mission you may need to practice, visualize, teach them the self-talk, and let them know they are doing something that may have some failure attached, but also they are trying something new and that is what makes the world go around.  I have been a part of preparing SWAT squads, special service operations, even investigative teams on a special assignment, and teaching them the experimental nature of life is always important to emphasize for the rule followers.  “We will win, but maybe not at first,” has to be instilled.  But then, they must know you have your support 1000% if they try your best.  Sometimes that is the hardest part about working with law enforcement personnel especially if you are their boss.  If only I can get people to say “I will love/respect you if you try” to the officers, to their spouses or to their kids, I’d make this world a better place.

Skylar “kicked butt” with her string tricks, but if she hadn’t we were as prepared to help her through.  When it was over, we asked her if she was nervous, she said she was, but she knew we would love her no matter how she did BECAUSE WE TOLD HER THAT.  Knowing that is the most important part of fixing anticipatory anxiety and that is what I learned.  I learned to always say, “no matter how this turns out I will always love, honor and respect your effort.”  I’ve got to figure out how to instill that in people.  Sometimes we teach our kids, sometimes they teach us.


Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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