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The power of awe


July 25, 2021
By Amy Boudreau

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Awe can be described as an overwhelming feeling of wonder, reverence, admiration or fear produced by something grand, sublime or extremely powerful. It is a positive emotion that allows people to feel connected to something greater than themselves. It provides a sense of purpose, creates prosocial emotions and enhances decision-making by allowing us to slow down to respond rather than react.

In May, as an expert panelist at the global 2021 Resilience Symposium in New York, I presented about the “science of awe” and the ways we can harness awe in frontline professions. During the session, Daniel Silva Luna, a PhD candidate at the University of Otago, presented his research findings on how different cultural spaces promote different types of awe. His research found awe is learned. Rather than being innate, it’s a cultural construct, shaped by the values, beliefs and goals individuals deemed important. It is cultivated as a skill by participating in cultural spaces that promote and elicit a specific emotion.

We can use this research in policing by using emotions to enhance our work environment, interactions, personal relationships and our engagement with the community. Organizational climate often determines what behaviours are appropriate and are likely to be used by police in stressful or emotionally-charged situations. Some research suggests police culture inhibits the expression of emotion.

A research study published in Australian Psychologist titled Being Mindful, Emotionally Aware, & More Resilient: Longitudinal Pilot Study of Police Recruits found that maladaptive coping was socialized among a sample of recruits in training. They found police officers become more emotionally detached and hardened within the first 18 months of service, suggesting that police are at greater risk of becoming unsentimental, emotionally-detached and cynical. While blocking emotions or detachment may be protective during crises to effectively manage the situation, it’s not often beneficial in regular workplace interactions, personal relations or in engaging with the community.

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Avoiding or suppressing emotions has also been linked to worsened mental health. The study also found that introducing mindfulness and emotional awareness interventions were linked to improved mental health, well-being and personal effectiveness.

Mindfulness-based interventions use a deliberate, non-judgmental awareness of sensations and thoughts to increase levels of calmness and emotional regulation. Since awe can ignite a sense of interconnectedness, it would be worth exploring whether awe-inspired interventions could disrupt the role of stigma and bias in preventing social inclusion within the police culture.

Some research suggests police culture inhibits the expression of emotion.

Interestingly, Silva Luna’s research also revealed that misuse of certain awe types can perpetuate cultural mandates that are unfair, unequal, exclusionary and hierarchical propagating beliefs that could potentially create harmful conditions. Working with diverse groups requires us to develop cultural competence, gain skills in navigating allyship and understand the compounding effect of intersectionality. Before we can unlearn biases or make changes, we must first acknowledge the biases. If services and officers don’t think there is an issue or nothing needs to be changed, nothing will. We have to be willing to have complex conversations about race, mental health, privilege and power dynamics within our communities and our police culture.

Different people and different cultures use and experience the types of awe differently. This showcases the importance we must place on our language and how we communicate with others. Having a layer of cultural sensitivity can contribute to officers being able to appeal to a larger diversity of audiences. How we communicate emotions constructs people’s affective, psychic and social reality. As police officers, we need to relate to the diversity of people we work with and serve. Integrating a deliberate and intentional mindfulness practice permits officers to operate in a fair, equitable and accessible manner. Through this lens, we can challenge our beliefs, ask the right questions, listen more carefully to the needs of others and offer compassionate understanding.

We also have an individual responsibility to practice mindfulness and awe in policing while engaging with the community and with fellow coworkers. Mindful meditation and awe-inspiring moments are often overlooked opportunities that have the potential to reduce unintentional harms, build resiliency and create lasting social connections.


Amy Boudreau is a 10-year police officer and executive member of wepolice.ca. She is a peer supporter, mental health ambassador and member of the First Responder Mindfulness Network. She can be contacted at 2749@yrp.ca, on Twitter, IG and FB @TheYogaCop.