Managing Traumatic Reactions
By Stephanie Conn
By Stephanie Conn
Police officers are exposed daily to trauma on the job, resulting in a variety of neurological, psychological and behavioural reactions in both the short and long term. While it is harder to control the immediate impact, you can take measures to mediate the long-term effects. I’ll discuss each of these reactions in turn.
When a person is exposed to a traumatic event that involves shock, horror or fear it sets into motion a series of neurological events. The critical, higher-order thinking part of the brain, the cortex, is hijacked by the part of the brain that processes and stores emotions such as fear, the amygdala. It is only after several seconds of deliberate effort to get the cortex back “online” that a person can have a sense of control over thoughts, behaviours and reactions.
In the meantime, the person – despite any training, personality traits or amount of willpower – will be at the mercy of the evolutionary-based reactions directed by the amygdala. These reactions may be surprising, given your police training and personality, as they might involve behaviours such as physical or mental retreat, loss of control over bodily functions and/or feelings of sickness. All of these are normal reactions designed to keep you safe. How you respond influences how you will adjust to the traumatic event in the long term.
If you start a “shoulda” on yourself (I should’ve done this, I should not have done that) you will make your adjustment much harder and lengthier as you are asking the impossible. If, instead, you recognize that your reactions were involuntary in the situation, you can move on with accepting the realities of the traumatic response.
The psychological response to trauma is greatly influenced by how we interpret the event and our sense of control over uncontrollable circumstances. For instance, we may interpret the event as preventable if only we had responded differently (faster/slower; did this, not that, etc.).
Making matters worse, believing we could have done something differently to prevent the event sometimes gets mixed up with the idea that we actually caused the event. A client once told me that because he could not think quickly enough to save his friend it was his fault that the friend died. It was heartbreaking to see him take ownership of what was not his to have. His pain was immense.
Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is oftentimes compounded by police officers’ mistaken belief that it was their job to prevent such an outcome. There are times when police officers are able to think and act quickly in a situation and things turn out well but many things are not in their control. These are the limits of all human beings, regardless of your training and experience.
Behaviourally, police officers might wish to isolate themselves from others until they “have it all together.” Many people have told me they didn’t want to burden someone else with their problems. Instead, they withdrew from their social support – family, fellow officers, and friends. They might even withdraw from situations that would remind them of the event. There are numerous problems with this way of coping.
I’ve said it before but it bears repeating – running from your problems is a race you will not win. In fact, you will likely feel exhausted and be no further away from your difficulty. Social support is vital to getting through traumatic events.
Family and friends oftentimes can sense that something is upsetting and will draw their own conclusions if they’re not told about the officer’s struggles. Withdrawal behaviour might be misinterpreted as a lack of interest in the family. Friends might assume the officer just doesn’t care to hang out anymore. Everyone suffers when the officer withdraws from those who can provide emotional or practical support.
Instead, officers would be advised to talk to trusted others about what is going on for them. They don’t have to relay gory details or the particulars of a case they are not allowed to discuss in order to receive support and relief. In fact, they can just stick to talking about their reaction to the event and how they feel it is weighing on them now. In this way, others won’t be drawing their own conclusions about the officers’ behaviour and responding in a negative manner.
Some may argue against the validity of the traumatic response I have outlined, stating that all one needs to do is train more or toughen up. Some have even idealized the notion of being the “strong silent type.” I’ve sat in the office with some of these people as clients. Their physical and mental health, job and families have suffered needlessly to uphold this image. Unfortunately, this opinion is sometimes voiced in response to another person’s reaction to a traumatic event. This misinformed judgment only compounds the officer’s anguish about the event and is likely based upon the judging person’s hope that he or she will be spared from the same response.
No amount of training or mental toughness will spare an officer from the evolutionarily-based reaction to traumatic events that has continued for centuries. However, you can shift your perspective on these reactions and be more supportive of yourself and others.