Anything that is human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that impossible talk can help us know that we are not alone.
— Fred Rogers
During my training seminars, I am often asked how I got involved in designing training programs for the law enforcement profession. Although I began facilitating crisis response training in 1999, it was the accidental death of a colleague that helped me decide to specialize in providing law enforcement training. In December 2001, Major Alister McGregor, from the East Providence Police Department, was accidently shot and killed during a SWAT training exercise. Just prior to his death, I had worked closely with him in designing mental health awareness, suicide prevention, and emotional survival seminars for his department. Together, we also provided suicide prevention seminars at Roger Williams University. At the conclusion of our last department training, Major McGregor pulled me aside and asked me to promise him that I would continue to provide this type of training to police officers, which he would often say “saves lives.” A short time thereafter, he was accidently shot and killed by a fellow officer during a SWAT training exercise. I have not stopped providing this specialized training since that tragic day. I truly believe that Major McGregor’s memory lives on in every new training seminar we facilitate and in every officer we help to bounce back from adversity.
Much of my work consists of helping first responders recover from traumatic events. In my first book, To Serve, Prevent, and Survive (Richard Crino and Marc Dubois, Lulu Publishing.com), I go into greater detail on how first responders can prepare for, and recover from, traumatic events. I am including information in this chapter that my team routinely gives out to first responders after they experience traumatic events. Helping first responders understand that much of what they experience during and after a traumatic event is normal enhances the healing process. Knowing what to expect also helps one to better prepare for future events.
The following information is given as a handout to officers during the educational phase of a critical incident stress debriefing:
Post-Incident Handout for Law Enforcement—
Bouncing Back from Work-Related Stress and Trauma
As a law enforcement officer, you are exposed to more trauma in a year than most people experience in a lifetime. While most day-to-day issues—such as domestic disputes, traffic stops, crime investigations, etc.—are viewed as routine, critical incidents are above and beyond what you routinely expect while performing your duties. Keep in mind that it’s normal for critical incident events, such as an officer involved a shooting, to produce unsettling thoughts and reactions.
Being in control of each and every situation is an important lifesaving tenet of law enforcement. Critical incidents, by nature, take away your ability to control the situation. With less control, officers can experience feelings of vulnerability, helplessness, questioning one’s performance, guilt, fear, etc. Since critical incident events are sudden, unexpected, and outside the control of an officer, refocusing on things you can control will enhance healing—and restore the feeling of being back in control. Keeping to your usual routines, making plans with family, and staying active in the weeks following the incident are things that will help restore both control and relaxation.
One example of a reaction involving loss of control is nightmares. Nightmares involving situations over which you have no control, such as your weapon not firing or being trapped in a house fire, are common. These “loss-of-control dreams” are your brain’s way of telling you that more talking about the traumatic event is needed. The more we talk about distressing events, the less power these thoughts have over us.
Nightmares and interrupted sleep are normal occurrences after a critical incident. They should subside within seven to fourteen days. You may also experience physical reactions such as headaches, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, muscle tremors, sweating, grinding of teeth, anxiety, etc. These reactions are also normal and should subside over time. Nightmares are your brain’s way of helping you recover from the experience. They too should subside.
It is important to understand the term detachment. As a law enforcement officer, you are trained to emotionally detach from upsetting situations while performing your duties. The human brain does this by pushing all of your feelings and reactions aside regarding the event until the crisis is over. This survival mechanism is called autopilot. This autopilot mode helps officers stay focused on the crisis at hand, ensuring both safety and survival. During autopilot, your brain is also recording (without your knowledge) all the images, sounds, and smells of the event, along with your possible reactions of fear, disgust, anger, etc. We believe that when on autopilot, your brain places images and emotions into memory storage until the event is over. When you come off autopilot mode (anywhere from one to seventy-two hours later), your brain begins to slowly release recorded reactions and/or memories back into consciousness. Your brain does this to protect you from being overwhelmed with stress reactions, including disturbing thoughts and emotions regarding the event. This can manifest itself in the form of nightmares, intensive images, thoughts, or other sensations regarding the event. Again, by slowly allowing you to re-experience the most disturbing parts of the incident, your brain is helping you cope with the event. It also is giving you a very clear message that you need to talk about what happened. Talking about our experiences helps to rewind the tape, so to speak, and release troublesome memories of the event. Talking about it also helps us regain the feeling of control that was lost during the event. Remember, 85 percent of officers involved in critical incident events will not develop PTSD. The majority will experience stress reactions, which will subside over time.
The dangers of not “talking it out” are well documented in law enforcement statistics nationwide. The high rate of divorce, domestic violence, alcoholism, depression, chronic anger, and irritability can be directly correlated with how well an officer copes with, understands, and processes traumatic events. For some, traumatic experiences are so powerful that they begin to affect everyday life. The images, thoughts, and reactions can continue to persist months after the event. This can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
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