IN THIS CORNER
LOST AND FOUND:
STAYING ALIVE IN NONLETHAL SITUATIONS
By Lynne Kinnucan
In the first years of active duty, police officers face circumstances that can destroy their initial enthusiasm and motivation for their jobs. An idealistic officer becomes a cynic; a highly motivated officer becomes disengaged or bitter.
The last two decades have seen extensive research on officer quality of life and well-being. What the studies found may surprise you. Call it burnout, career fatigue or just plain exhaustion, it comes down to one thing: unless officers apply some of the skills they use on their jobs to their personal lives, they are asking for trouble.
Kevin Gilmartin – retired hostage negotiator and counterterrorism, and once named as one of the nation’s Top Ten Policemen of the Year – explains why in his outstanding book, “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement.”
Daily, an officer sees things that no one should have to see. With most of his waking hours spent on a demanding and often dangerous job, one where he sees people at their worst, it is easy for his view of people and the world to be poisoned. As Gilmartin put it, “No one ever calls a police officer because things are going well at home.”
Or he can get dragged down by stresses such as a bad boss, difficult rotations, or a revolving-door penal system. In addition to all this, the officer must be on constant high alert, a state Gilmartin calls “hypervigilance”.
In very few professions is constant hypervigilance essential to survival. But necessary though it is, takes a toll on the officer. It drains the body of physical energy and the mind of emotional energy. At the end of the day, an exhausted officer might want only to collapse in the “magic chair” in front of the TV – the one thing, finally, that requires no response from him.
This unforgiving round of toxic experiences and constant hyper-alertness followed by exhaustion and zoning out, leads to terrible consequences so often that many officers refer to it as “inevitable”. But what happens then can be a matter of life and death.
At one end of the spectrum of consequences are exhaustion, depression, high divorce rates, alcoholism and drug addiction. At the other end is death.
Suicides especially are more prevalent among police than any other part of the population. One study found that the suicide rate for police officers was three times the national average. Another found that while street safety training had increased in both quality and quantity during the latter half of the last century, the number of police suicides doubled.
Because emotional well-being is key to an officer’s survival, it is worth understanding what happens both in the breakdown and in the recovery process.
The following points stand out as especially significant:
1. Constant swings of the reticular activating system (RAS), a brain function that is responsible for shifting the body between hypervigiliance and calm, directing the body toward which one it needs at the moment. It brings the officer to a high alert on the job, and calm or exhaustion at the end of it.
a. In ordinary situations, a person may enter into a hypervigilant state when crossing an empty parking lot a night. They go on full alert for the moment and back to normal functioning once they feel safe. But a street office can’t know where safety is; to survive she must be on constant alert; the high bar of risk is always functioning.
For instance, an officer might be making a routine traffic stop. Walking to the car, her senses are hypervigilant: it could be a mother with her children; it could be a felon who will pull a gun. She doesn’t know and cannot know. All she has to get her through is her training and hyper-vigilance.
2. When the body and mind are on full alert for the entire working day, when you leave for work every day not knowing if you will be alive at the end of it, it drains the body and brain of energy. When the officer returns to civilian life, he wants to “zone out”, be in quiet isolation or just sit in a chair in front of the TV and zone out.
a. Gilmartin calls this place “the magic chair.” You walk into the house and your parasympathetic nervous system guides your body into the zoned out state that the brain and body need for recovery.
b. But this way of recovering tears up the officer’s home and social life. His responses go from vague to zero, his children are in his way and he hasn’t got the energy to call his friends. He becomes isolated and family troubles begin. Slowly, his work team begins to be the place where the bonding and energy take place. They become both his refuge and his priority. Gilmartin quotes one officer’s wife as saying, “I know I’m the most important thing in your life; I just want to know that I’m the most important thing in your life today.”
c. The upswing of the hypervigiliance rollercoaster, as Gilmartin describes it, feels brilliant. The officer feels “at the ready”: alive, witty, alert, capable of handling anything. It is a hard state to leave, and is why officers will sometimes say that their job is the best part of their lives. The downside, though, is the zoned-out state, where the officer is unable to take control of his energy, his finances, his social support interactions and his body. Meant by the brain to be necessary to recovery, it can be treacherous to his life.
3. A third element clinches the deal: the officer sees things every day that should not be seen. Soon she sees the whole world is as full of idiots out on the streets and people she can’t trust on the job. Increasingly bitter and cynical, this attitude becomes part of her work and home. An angry victim, she stops caring – perhaps not answering dispatch calls or ignoring small violations – or breaking her own moral code by doing things out of bitterness that she normally would not do.
From here, it is a downhill slide. And the problem becomes how to stop it before it destroys the officer’s life. How to prevent it before it locks into depression, divorce, addiction or death. How to keep the survival mechanism and still stay safe when he is off the streets.
Gilmartin says that the key is to bring that same commitment to training and control into her private life that the officer has on the job.
1. Take control of your body: keeping up your exercise routine while you’re at work may help save your home life. When officers become lax about exercise, they use up all their energy at work and have nothing left when they walk through the door at home. Make sure your body stays in good shape. Another plus for exercise is that it mimics the effects of the hypervigilant state, bringing with it a feeling of being alert, energetic, witty, in charge and capable of handing anything. Not a bad thing to have at home.
2. Change your perspective. If you’re trapped in an unpleasant work situation, feel like you’re being treated unfairly, or like things are falling apart at home, get out of the blaming “I’m a victim” stance, says Gilmartin, and look at the situation in another way, one that will empower you and give you a goal. If you’re on a rotation you hate, figure out what to do until you get rotated out, or things that you can learn on build on while you’re there. Being powerful is more life-giving than being a victim.
3. Take control of your finances. When officers purchase big-ticket items that are not always compatible with their budgets, consumer stress awaits them, adding more tension to their lives. Being in control of finances is a major way of feeling in charge of one’s life.
4. Take control of your support systems. Reach over to the phone and make that one call to a friend. Hug your child. Say hello to your spouse like you mean it. Build these support systems as though they were shelters for your life. Because they are.
Train for your inner life as rigorously as you do for the job. Go to the Internet and research what works for you. And ask your trainers to include a body/mind balance section in the fitness trainings. It could save your life.