By Dr. Carrie Steiner, contributor to In Public Safety
Law enforcement officers are trained to use the tactical tools on their gun belt, but they are rarely taught how to use “emotional tools” to combat many of the challenges they’ll face during their career. Officers aren’t taught how they should feel, think, or even process a situation involving a police suicide, a homicide, an officer-involved shooting, or an abused child.
Officers need to learn how to build their own emotional tool belt to survive many of the troubling and traumatic experiences they are likely to encounter during their policing career. Officers who establish strong supportive resources before a critical incident are less likely to have difficulties after the incident.
Build a Social Support Network
It is important for police officers to have other officers as friends. They understand what you go through on a daily basis and it is good to maintain these relationships. However, it is also important to have friends outside the department, who do not completely understand the law enforcement lifestyle. These friends act as reminders that what you go through as an officer is not what most people experience. Such friends offer an outlook on life that is not quite as jaded and untrusting as your own view or those of your fellow officers.
It is healthy and necessary for officers to look through such “rose-colored glasses” to remember that most people are good and do not pose a threat. Remember, more people helped others during 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing than those who hurt others. In fact, many people continue to contribute to those affected by such horrific events. Most people are goodhearted but, unfortunately, officers deal with people who are manipulative, anti-social, and dangerous. Because officers are regularly exposed to such circumstances, it is no surprise that they start feel that everyone “is a jerk.”
Make Time to Have Fun
Officers should regularly participate in healthy, safe, and fun activities. Make time to enjoy being with your significant other, family, or close friends. Choose places where you are unlikely to have to “be the police.” Try going to a park or family-friendly bowling alley rather than a bar or huge festival where things are more likely to get out of hand. Choose to be out in nature and participate in outdoor activities as these are often more soothing and rejuvenating than places with a lot of people. Go camping, hiking, or boating. Aim to do these things at least once a week.
It is important to activate the natural endorphins in the body to help regulate the constant fight or flight stress of being an officer. Aim to exercise at least three times a week for 30 minutes. If you have not participated in an exercise program for a while, start easy with moderate exercise like walking. Over time, work towards more challenging exercises like running, biking, or swimming. Remember, you do not have to belong to a gym to work out effectively. Calisthenics and exercises using your own body weight are very effective, such as jumping jacks, jump rope, burpees, pushups, crunches/sit-ups, lunges, and more. Be sure to consult your medical doctors about your physical limitations and never continue an exercise if it is causing pain.
Choose a range of natural foods like bananas and nuts, rather than processed foods like potato chips. Eat complex carbohydrates (beans, legumes, whole grains), fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. It takes some effort, but aim to cook your own meals using healthy ingredients and make enough so there are leftovers that you can bring with you to eat while on duty.
Have Good Sleep Habits
Ensure that your sleeping area is dark, the sheets are clean, and outside noise is controlled with a noise machine, relaxing music or earplugs. If possible, do not eat at least one-to-two hours before going to bed and avoid caffeine at least four hours before bedtime. Try not to watch TV or use your computer for one hour prior to sleeping, as the blue light emitted from these items are stimulating to the brain. Instead, try to find a relaxing activity such as reading a book, relaxing with your children/loved ones, talking to others, or meditating.
[Related: Sleeping Well Enhances Police Performance]
Learn Deep Breathing Techniques
When an officer responds to a call, the body’s sympathetic nervous system naturally activates its “fight or flight” response. After the incident or later at home, officers should try bringing their body back into balance (homeostasis) by activating their parasympathetic nervous system. Start by taking deep breaths to activate this system. This will help you settle down, make better decisions, and recover more quickly. This practice will also help officers be more relaxed at home and remain present in interactions with their family.
Use Open-Hand Techniques
When in a safe environment, instead of being in a “ready” fight stance or positioning your hands with the palms down or in a fist, try turning your palms upwards and allowing yourself to feel open to receive… a hug, advice, or an embrace. This action naturally allows the body’s defenses to relax. It may sound simple, but just try it and see what happens and notice how you feel.
Recognize Abnormal Responses to Trauma and Stress
Knowing what’s considered a “normal” response to stress can help officers identify when it is time to get additional help. In times of stress, the body will shut down some non-essential body systems to have more energy for the “fight or flight” system. You will also experience physiological reactions: rapid heart rate, short breaths, sweating, shaking, etc. However, if these physiological reactions continue when you are no longer in a stressful situation, this is a sign that you may need more support.
It is also common for officers to have intrusive thoughts right after a traumatic incident, but these thoughts should lessen over time and not interfere with their daily routine. If officers continue experiencing such symptoms, they may need additional support. For example, if officers find themselves going to great lengths to avoid certain locations, people, or other things that have to do with an incident, they likely need additional support. Remember, most problems, including psychological and biological, can be solved more easily when dealt with as early as possible.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
Every officer should support the “blue line” and let others know it is okay and normal to seek assistance. It is a sign of strength to ask for help, not weakness. Officers have one of the most stressful jobs along with high rates of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide compared to people in other occupations. Do not wait until things get really bad or an officer takes his life to motivate you to get help for yourself or someone else.
Find a Specialized Treatment Provider
When looking for a treatment provider, ensure they have experience working with first responders and trauma. The best evidence-based treatments for trauma are cognitive-behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. When considering a treatment provider, ask the clinician if they specialize in these areas. Asking these questions will likely lead to finding a good fit with a therapist.
Incorporating these techniques into your emotional tool belt will help officers address any current problems, prevent future problems from getting out of control, and generally equip officers to be more resilient to future adverse events.
About the Author: Dr. Carrie Steiner is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of the First Responders Wellness Center, a private practice, full-service agency focused on meeting the needs of police and first responders’ emotional wellness. As a psychologist, she conducts police and public safety psychological evaluations and specializes in trauma therapy utilizing EMDR, exposure, biofeedback and cognitive behavioral therapy. Dr. Steiner is a 13-year former Chicago Police Officer, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Leader, peer-support member, and Chicago Police Academy instructor. While working for the Chicago Police Department she spearheaded their veteran CIT training and autism spectrum training for law enforcement. She also has FBI hostage negotiation training, has worked as a psychologist for Cook County and Kane County Jails, as well as collaborated with federal government agencies on high-risk cases. She speaks nationally on mental illness and police response, officer wellness, trauma, CIT, peer support, PTSD, and has several national and local awards. To contact her, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. To receive more articles like this in your inbox, please sign up for In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.