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Brain health program aims to help police deal better with stressful situations

Ground-breaking programs at police departments in Texas and Oregon are focusing on improving brain health and cognitive performance under pressure.
/ Source: TODAY

A new initiative is helping police officers sharpen and exercise the most powerful weapon at their disposal: their brains.

As part of the brain power series on TODAY, special anchor Maria Shriver took a look at a groundbreaking program in the Dallas Police Department that was implemented to help officers in the wake of the shooting last summer in which a gunman killed five Dallas policemen during a protest.

With police officers often facing extreme stress and trauma on a regular basis, the program created by the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas provides weeks of cognitive training to make officers' minds sharper and more balanced.

"We're really improving the overall function of their brain, and they're better able to be attentive, to block out things that aren't important,'' Dr. Leanne Young of the Center for Brain Health told Shriver on TODAY.

"Both professionally and personally, it's helped me be resilient,'' Dallas Police Major Paul Junger said.

Known as the Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) program, the initiative looks to help police make tactical decisions under stress and better manage their emotions under pressure.

Experts say police are now at a higher risk for sleep disorders, cardiovascular disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicide, which the SMART program aims to combat by focusing on improving cognitive performance and reducing fatigue.

"We train for active shooters, but what we don't train for is mental well-being,'' Junger said. "And until our officers are healthy and mentally balanced, we can't go help anybody else."

Dallas isn't the only police department focusing on brain health, as police in Hillsboro, Oregon, have been regularly undergoing mindfulness training spearheaded by Lieutenant Richard Goerling.

"Mindfulness is about shifting our perspective, it's shifting our mindset to, 'How do I respond to the world around me?' As opposed to, 'How do I react to things that happen to me?''' Goerling told Shriver.

Goerling designed the program alongside mindfulness instructor Brant Rogers of Yoga Hillsboro and Pacific University psychology professor Michael Christopher, according to The Oregonian.

Preliminary research has indicated that meditation and mindfulness training can improve officers' physical and mental health, and their ability to control their emotions in the field.

"You have young police officers who begin their profession who want to do good, but because of what trauma and occupational stress does to us over time, it's not possible to maintain compassion in this profession unless we teach skills in how to do it,'' Goerling said.

Getting a group of police officers to meditate was admittedly a tough sell at first, but it has had positive effects.

"There was definitely a little bit of the macho cop stigma, saying, 'Ah, I don't really need to meditate,''' Hillsboro Officer Jeff Branson told Shriver. "The breathing, especially when you're driving to a stressful call, it allows you to do away with tunnel vision, it allows you to focus more on your surroundings so you're safer."

Follow writer Scott Stump on Twitter.