Being a law enforcement officer is admirable. Police officers put their own lives in risk to defend the lives of their community members. Unfortunately, part of the job involves seeing distressing incidents. Whether they are involved personally or a witness, these events can take a toll – it’s only human and doesn’t imply weakness.
Because it’s known that a law enforcement career is stressful and every day presents a possibility of a critical incident, discussing how to work through or even prevent line of duty trauma is necessary. Seeking help must be a part of every agency’s culture, reducing the number of officers who feel “weak” for requiring assistance.
What is Trauma and How Does it Affect Us?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is a response to a negative event such as an accident, death, rape, or natural disaster. Even if a person is not directly involved in the incident, they could experience trauma simply from viewing it. It is possible to be traumatized after even hearing a story of what happened to someone. Anyone can be traumatized – even those who are not first responders.
After a traumatic event, officers may experience little to no symptoms at all. Everyone reacts to a traumatic situation differently, and there is no right or wrong response. If you see or are involved in a terrible situation, you may experience no signs of trauma – and that does not mean something is wrong with you.
Officers who have a negative impact may experience flashbacks and emotional changes. The APA also mentions the possibility of physical symptoms as well. How long the effects last can vary based on the individual, but symptoms of trauma can affect a person’s ability to manage relationships. They may have difficulty returning to work, especially if the traumatic experience was witnessed on the job.
Coping with Trauma
It’s not always as easy as jumping back into your usual routine after experiencing a traumatic event. Needing help or even someone to vent to does not make a person weak, but it helps them move forward and cope in a healthy way.
With law enforcement, it can be harder to come forward about needing help. The officer may want to continue fulfilling his or her duty to their community rather than taking time away. In some unfortunate cases, their agency may not foster a great environment for mental health.
Supervisors should make an effort to recognize signs that someone is having difficulty coping with trauma. Listen to their concerns without making them feel weak or that their concerns are invalid or senseless.
Like taking your car to the shop for service or going for a health checkup at the doctor’s office, your brain benefits from preventative care. Dr. Robbie Adler-Tapia, psychologist and author of “One Badge One Brain One Life” details the type of “maintenance” that can be done to keep your mind healthy.
Physical things such as getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and taking care of your health are vital. They are simple things that everyone talks about, but they play a big role in your overall wellness – even mental wellness. Other tips include breathing exercises to help you unwind and stay in the moment.
When work is stressful, take time to not only breathe, but wiggle your toes, massage your hands, and stand up to stretch. Be sure to take advantage of breaks! It may seem impressive to be able to work through all of them, but sometimes unwinding even for a few minutes can sharpen your mind and improve performance.
Before you go home, make it a practice to “empty your container.” Anything you do not need to hold onto after your shift should be let go so you don’t go to bed with additional stress. Your family will appreciate it too, as stress at work can sometimes be brought home and affect personal relationships.
VirTra is here to help too! Utilizing V-VICTA® certified curriculum, we hope to make training easier and incorporate wellness techniques in some of our courses. If you’d like more information on our coursework, contact a specialist.
American Psychological Association – https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma
One Badge One Brain One Life – https://www.drrobbie.org/product-page/one-badge-one-brain-one-life