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StoriesGina White ’17

Using mindfulness to assist first responders nationwide

Lesley alum Gina White takes care of the people who take care of us through unique program

Gina standing up giving a training to people sitting at long white tables

Many people who enter college do so with a dream to change the world.

Gina Rollo White, a 2017 Lesley graduate of the nation’s first ever mindfulness masters program, is well on her way – already changing the lives of thousands of this country’s most honored and often afflicted workers.

White had already been practicing and teaching mindfulness, a therapeutic technique that focuses one’s awareness on the present moment. But she yearned to know as much as she could about the science behind the practice. It wasn’t until she began taking her master’s classes that she realized why.

“What was of particular interest to me was learning about how stress and trauma affect the brain and many of my papers ended up focusing on law enforcement and first responders. I originally thought this focus was because law enforcement and first responders are so cool. And that stress is so pervasive in that profession,” recalled White. “Then one day my husband reminded me that my parents had both been first responders.”

White’s father was a firefighter and paramedic. Her mother ran an emergency trauma unit at a local hospital.

“I was privy to what happened at the end of the day, behind closed doors. They were two amazing people who had difficulties managing the trauma they dealt with,” explained White. “First responders are often expected to stuff their feelings down deep and not talk about them.”

Gina sitting in front of firetrucks at a fire station

White surveyed first responders as part of her thesis at Lesley to learn more about the trauma they faced. Her study and thesis work became the backbone of a program she developed that has helped thousands of medical professionals, veterans, and firefighters and law enforcement. Through her four-hour long seminar with first responders, she teaches something she has termed “tactical brain training®,” showing them how to regulate their nervous systems when they come in contact with a stressful situation and then again, after the event is over.

“When you are in a highly chaotic situation, you want to be able to be present as much as possible so you can make decisions without being distracted by emotion,” White said. “But when the chaos is over, you want to be able to process it and let it go so you can show up for yourself and your family at the end of the day.”

One part of the training is getting participants to recognize when they are triggered or stressed. Common signs include hands balling up into fists and rising shoulders. Through her training, White teaches first responders to note those physical changes and connect with the tension, then gives them tools on how to mitigate the tension in real time.

“When I started my research, I was seeing tons of training on the use of weapons and CPR and how to put out a fire… but I didn’t see where there was training to help manage and deal with the mental outcome of the stress and trauma created by their jobs,” noted White. “Their jobs say run towards danger, but no one is managing the fall out.”

White offers the trainings through her non-profit Mindful Junkie. She speaks at conferences nationwide, recently launched a Train-The-Trainer program, and has written a book Tactical Brain Training, coming out in Summer of 2024. But she gets the most joy from her onsite trainings, which she has conducted for hundreds of police and fire departments as well as other first responders and military members around the nation. Some departments provide continuing education credit for taking the seminar.

“When I start a session, usually about 90 percent of the participants are reluctant, arms crossed over their chests – they don’t look especially receptive,” she said. “But afterwards, I hear time and time again that people wish they could have had the training early in their careers. They state they already feel the training will help them to better recognize and manage their stress levels. It’s very rewarding.”

White credits her professors at Lesley with both guiding her and pushing her to get out on the streets to ask first responders hard questions as part of her research.

“I credit Lesley with my entire career working with first responders,” she noted. “I’m beyond thankful.”