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  • Writer's pictureDr. Carrie Steiner

Article on Emotional Survival

Officers are taught how to use the tactical tools on their gun belt and what use of force is appropriate for the situation. However, it is not often that officers are taught “emotional tools” for different situations. For example, how should an officer act/ feel/think when they see a police suicide, homicide, get into a shooting, see an abused child, strike a child with their patrol vehicle, etc. This article will explain how to start building your own emotional tool belt for police emotional survival and long lasting well-being. It has been proven that officers who have many resources before they are in a critical incident are less likely to have difficulties later.

Emotional Tools:

• Social Support – It is important to have police 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 for you to have friends outside the department who do not completely understand the Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) lifestyle. They act as reminders that what you are going through is not the normal experience. They will likely have an outlook on life that is not quite as jaded, unsafe, and untrustworthy as your own. It is important to look through their “rose-colored glasses” as a reminder that people can be good and safe. Remember more people helped others during 9/11 and the Boston bombing than hurt others. In fact, many people continue to contribute to those affected by those events. Most people are goodhearted. Unfortunately, officers deal with people that are manipulators, anti-social, and are having their worst experience. Given these circumstances, it is not a surprise that officers start to feel that everyone “is a jerk.”

• Have fun – Participate in healthy and safe activities regularly. Enjoy time with significant others or friends and choose places and people where it is unlikely you will have to “be the police.” Try 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 nature and outdoor activities as these can be more soothing and feel natural to the body. Go camping, hiking, or boating. Do these things at least once a week.

• Exercise – It is important to regularly activate the natural endorphins in the body to help regulate its response to the constant fight or flight stress of the job. Exercising a minimum of three times a week for 30’ is core to this effort. If you have not participated in an exercise program for a while start easy with moderate exercise like walking. Work into more challenging exercises. Remember you do not have to belong to a gym to work out effectively. Calisthenics and other exercises using your own body weight are very effective (jumping jacks, jump rope, burpees, pushups, crunches/sit-ups, lunges, etc.). When working out, ensure you are listening to your medical doctors about your physical limitations and never continue an exercise if it is causing pain.

• Eat Healthy – Choose natural things that grow in the world, like bananas and nuts, rather than processed foods. Eat complex carbohydrates (beans, legumes, whole grains), fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.

• Have good sleep hygiene – Ensure that your sleeping area is dark, the sheets are clean, and control outside noise by having a noise machine/relaxing music or use earplugs. If possible, do not eat at least 1-2 hours before going to bed and do not use caffeine at least 4 hours before bedtime. Try not to watch TV or use your computer for one hour prior to sleeping, as 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.

• Learn deep breathing techniques – When a LEO responds to calls, the body naturally will activate our “fight or flight” system. After the incident or later at home, you should try to bring your body back to balance (homeostasis) and activate your sympathetic nervous system. Taking deep breaths activates this system and will help you settle down, make better decisions, and recover more quickly. LEO’s will also be more relaxed at home and present for their family when they are “in balance” as opposed to excessive hypervigilance resulting from living in constant “fight or flight” mode.

• Use the open-hand techniques – When in a safe environment, instead of being in a “ready” fight stance or with hands down or in a fist, try turning your palms up and allow yourself to feel open to receive... a hug, advice, an embrace, etc. This action naturally allows the body’s defenses to relax. It may sound too simple, but just try it and see what happens and notice how you feel.

• Understand what normal trauma and stress responses are and what they are not. This will help you to identify what is normal and when it is time to get additional help. Most problems, including psychological and biological, can be solved more easily when dealt with from the beginning. In times of stress, people will have physiological reactions: rapid heart rate, short breaths, sweating, shaking, etc. These occur so the body can shut down some non-essential body systems to have more energy for the “fight or flight” system. However, if you continue to have physiological reactions when you are no longer in an actual stressful situation, this is a sign that you may need more support. It is also common to have intrusive thoughts right after a traumatic incident but they should lessen and not interfere with your daily routine; if this is occurring, you may need additional support. Although none of us want to keep thinking of a tragic incident that has occurred, if you are going to great lengths to avoid the street, people, or other signs that have to do with the incident, you may need additional support.

• Support the “blue line” and let others know it is okay and normal to seek assistance. It is a sign of strength that you can ask for help, not a weakness. LEO’s have one of the highest stress jobs and highest rates of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide compared to other jobs. Do not wait until things get bad or an officer takes his life – get help before you or your brother’s life becomes out of control. Get help to develop an emotional tool belt if you have not been taught these tools. By being preventative, you will lessen the likelihood of emotional difficulties in the future and be more able to handle future adverse events.

•When looking for a treatment provider, ensure they have experience working with first responders and trauma. The best evidence-based treatment for trauma is cognitive-behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and EMDR therapy. So when calling a treatment provider, ask the clinician if they specialize in these areas and you more likely will have a better fit with a therapist.

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