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NewsFeb 14, 2023

Harnessing the power of mindfulness in times of crisis

Mindful Junkie founder, Lesley alumna Gina Rollo White teaches techniques to help first responders and others learn how to cope and thrive

By John Sullivan

Gina Rollo White ’17 has her work cut out for her, teaching mindfulness techniques to police, firefighters, paramedics and trauma nurses who are often in the crucible of crisis.

But, first, she must sell them — especially macho and skeptical law enforcement professionals — on the merits of her services.

“You go into law enforcement and say, ‘mindfulness.’ They say, ‘hippies,’” quipped Rollo White on Thursday night in the University Hall Amphitheater.

Rollo White, the fourth presenter in the 2022-23 Thought Leadership Series at Lesley University, is founder of the not-for-profit Mindful Junkie. Her organization empowers first responders with mindfulness strategies to be safe, healthy and emotionally regulated.

To reach the police, she rebranded mindfulness as Tactical Mind Training. And instead of offering techniques to cope with suffering, she began employing a mental toolkit to maximize readiness in stressful policing situations.

First responders, Rollo White said, are “badasses.” But behind closed doors, there’s “a lot of sadness. A lot of dysregulation” of thoughts and emotions. 

Customized training

Rollo White soon realized flexibility is crucial to effective intervention.

Certain standard mindfulness techniques might not work for every first responder on any given day. Sometimes, a seemingly reliable stress management technique might be triggering or “activating.”

For instance, a listening exercise can have unintended results among corrections officers, whose jobs and safety rely on hyperattentive listening all the time. Or a breathing technique could actually aggravate a police officer wearing a constrictive bulletproof vest.

Rollo White explained that one familiar mindfulness intervention — the use of chimes — provided in firefighters not a sense of calm and relaxation but a reminder of emergency, as the chimes mimicked fire alarms.

“It’s important to create something personal,” said Rollo White. “Mindfulness is personal.”

She knows that well.

Gina Rollo White with microphone
Gina Rollo White gave an energetic and heartfelt presentation as the fourth speaker in our 2022-23 season of the Thought Leadership Series. At times funny and other times sobering, she spoke about applying mindfulness strategies to help first responders. (Photos and video by Ben Zackin.)

Mindfulness is personal

While she taught mindfulness before she began pursuing her master’s degree in Mindfulness Studies at Lesley, it was at the university that she focused her work on first responders.

“Huge shout out to Lesley University,” Rollo White said. “This is where the seed was really planted for me.”

She didn’t quite grasp it at the time, but her direction was informed by her own personal background as the daughter of two first responders: Her mother was an emergency-room trauma nurse; her father worked in Air Operations for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

“He was the guy who hung out the side of the helicopter and rescued the people, the hang-gliders that went into the side of the mountain,” Rollo White said.

Her father was brave and heroic on the job but could be violent at home. Rollo White described holes he punched in the walls, furniture thrown around. In contrast, her mother “became dissociated” and spent much of her time sequestered in her room.

“My father was hypervigilant. All the time,” she said. “My mom: hypo. Distracted, she would cry. She would disconnect. Shut the door.”

The family lived under a cloud of chronic agitation.

“Everything was an emergency,” Rollo White said, “… being in this emergency state all the time is trying.”

Rollo White described that condition as being outside the “window of tolerance,” a state of mind where one can handle life’s stresses.

“When you’re out of your window of tolerance, you’re on fire,” Rollo White said. “With mindfulness, you’re looking for ways to expand this window.”

She led Thursday night’s audience in a brief exercise, encouraging deep breaths and prompting listening to conjure memories that represented positive and negative emotions and experiences.

But before that sort of self-regulation can begin, people in the midst of a real or imagined crisis need to simply pause and take a breath. She likened the tactic to the “stop, drop and roll” method of extinguishing flames should a person literally catch fire.

“You’re going to hit an edge. We hit edges all the time,” Rollo White said.

Even people proficient in mindfulness practice hit the edge of their window of tolerance.

Gina Rollo White pausing
Gina Rollo White, founder of Tactical Mind Training for first responders, shared personal anecdotes as well as research during the Feb. 9 Thought Leadership Series presentation.

Rollo White shared a recent experience of driving down the street and, out of the corner of her eye, seeing something that didn’t look quite right.

A woman was sitting between two men on the side of the street. Before long, she recognized that the woman might have succumbed to a drug overdose. She stopped her vehicle, a massive Ford F-150 pickup truck (“It’s not a flex,” Rollow White said, “it’s relevant to the story I’ll get to.”), and asked the men if the woman was breathing.

They said no, so Rollo White called 911. Then the trouble began.

The dispatcher told her she needed to get out of the car, make an assessment and begin administering CPR. Rollo White wasn’t so sure.

“That was a freeze response,” Rollo White explained. Instead of getting right to the lifesaving technique she had been trained in, she found herself wondering why she was the only one expected to take action on this crowded street.

She worried that her truck was blocking traffic on the narrow road.

She kept hearing her dog, who was in the truck, barking incessantly.

Yet the woman was lying on the ground, dying or already dead. The dispatcher persisted, yelling at Rollo White to get to work on saving a life.

Rollo White still wasn’t quite ready. She felt herself thinking, “I’m about to freak out.

But, then, another thought: “This is that moment that I have been teaching.”

She put her phone down, the emergency dispatcher still yelling. She felt her feet on the ground.

Then she got on the ground and started performing CPR.

“She popped back on!” Rollo White said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that just happened.’”

The Alexandria, Virginia-based Rollo White is commending her expertise and dynamic storytelling to the pages of a forthcoming book, “Tactical Brain Training,” and is looking to expand her organization to include “train the trainer” curriculum that public safety departments can use themselves.