Psychological self-defence: A guide to protecting your inner world

NOTE: The following article was written specifically for the Irish Police Force (An Garda Síochána) magazine and was aimed at helping members prioritize and protect their mental health whilst performing a highly stressful job. Despite the intended audience, the tips here are valid for everyone.


We live in a society loaded with so many toxic influences it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a healthy state of mind. The never ending flow of bad news in the media, a diet of junk food and chronic addiction are just some of the factors having a negative impact on our culture.

Couple that with the challenging and often uphill struggle of maintaining peace and order against an increasingly agitated society and you have a cocktail of stress and worry which takes it toil not just on your own well being but those in your inner circle.

To tackle this problem, its important to implement steps to strengthen and maintain your mental health:

Limit media exposure

As a public servant charged with protecting the peace, you are expected to have an awareness of stories circulating in your area regarding anti-social behaviour and violence. While you need to be familiar with all situations, problem areas, and key players that doesn’t mean you have to let it dominate your private time. Scan the relevant media, take notes then put it away and do whatever it is you do to help yourself relax. Fill your private life with things you are passionate about (sport, art, music, travel, etc.) and find out how you can bring these things into your life more.

Set strong boundaries

Boundaries represent the separation between you and other people; they constitute independence; a strong sense of self with the freedom to do and say as you please without fear of repercussion or of what people might think.

Cognitive boundaries

A mental boundary is the ability to block out specific thoughts. This could be as simple as focusing on something different; changing the stream of thoughts away from a bad memory or choosing to not reflect on a negative experience.

To effectively manage other people, it’s important to strip out fearful thoughts and train your brain to be objective and solution focused. Start by saying no to certain thought patterns, such as worrying about case or court appearance; or ruminating over a situation and the potential consequences.

I often use a mental cues, such as the words “who knows” when a worry enters my mind. The mind will want to keep worrying so you have to be patient, and keep repeating the mantra. With practice, your mind will let go of the thought and keep it on track.

Setting aside 30 minutes of worry time is also useful in compartmentalising problems into manageable blocks. I like to use the ABC model, used in Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy to limit the impact of fears and learn from each experience:

A (Activating Event):

This is the source of the distress, i.e. anything which is playing on your mind. It could be an external event, such as a threat from a suspect, or just the minds primal instinct to focus on problems.

B (Irrational Belief):

What are your fears telling you might happen? Write down all the crazy ideas your mind is telling MIGHT happen as a result of A.

C (Consequences):

As a result of A and the subsequent B, what are doing about it? Are you choosing to pull back and avoiding a situation? Do you doubt your ability to perform? Are you withdrawing from friends?

D (Dispute Belief):

Challenge each fear. What’s the likelihood of it occurring? Does the fear come from a past experience projected onto the present situation? If it’s a real fear, are you alone in dealing with it? What did others do in a similar predicament? Be objective and ONLY focus on solutions.

E (Effect change):

Take action. With the knowledge acquired what would you do next? Would you choose to sit back and wait for more information? Would you just let go of the disturbance and get on with your life? Would you share with a specific person?

Emotional boundaries

An emotional boundary is when we protect our emotive state. This could involve withdrawing from someone who is verbally abusive as it evokes feelings of anger or fear within you. However pulling back is not always an option when it’s your job to close the situation down.

Just because you feel fear doesn’t mean you need to be afraid. Not feeding into the emotion is key. Ground yourself by staying out of the drama, remaining objective and assessing the situation as calmly as possible. If you find the emotion takes over, find an anchor that you can keep with you all the time, like a piece of jewellery or even an elastic band on your wrist to remind you to stay cool.

If a situation leaves an emotional residue, use the energy. Anger needs to be expressed in a healthy way. Try shouting in the car, lifting weights or hitting a punch bag.

Reduce stress

Most people are aware of the dangers of high levels of stress but few reflect on what they can do to reduce it.


Eliminating toxins from your diet will vastly reduce health stress levels. Sugar, alcohol, coffee, etc. (yes all the good stuff) put a huge strain on your digestive system and do not contain the essential minerals your body needs to function correctly.

Magnesium in particular is a mineral associated with relaxation and improved sleep, but high levels of stress can eat away at this. A diet rich with spinach, kelp, almonds, walnuts, garlic, brown rice, avocado, etc., will help boost your magnesium levels and increase your ability to stay cal. An Epsom salt bath is also a great way of drawing in more magnesium.


Most highly stressed people do not breath fully, called chest breathing. This creates an oxygen/carbon dioxide imbalance, which impacts the body’s natural functions such as blood pressure, immune system and digestion.

Prioritising 10 minutes each day to sit up-right on the edge of a chair and breathe in slowly can fix this. Focus on your belly slowly rising out as you fill it full of air, hold for 4 seconds and then slowly notice your belly drawing in as you breathe out. Don’t force it. The goal is quality breathing, not quantity. If you have never paid attention to your breathing patterns, this might be difficult at first, but be patient.

Control your circle

One of the biggest stressors is the negative opinions of other people. We all have people in our lives that see the worst in everything. They themselves have poor boundaries and will not respect yours but in order to take them out of your personal life, you need to know why they are there in the first place. Are these childhood friends? Is it someone you work with or a family member? Are they triggering old negative memories? Be critical and ask do you need them in your life now. As with the end of any relationship there is a process of grieving which everyone has to embrace but focusing on the potential freedom helps it pass quicker.


There is an art to self care and it takes practice to master it. To sustain a long healthy life, it is essential you protect your mental health and prioritize it every day.

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Take Care

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