Feelings and Emotions
We all have issues at work that we have difficulty leaving in the ‘office.’ Businessmen and women in charge of large financial accounts feel the stress of a plunge in the stock market. Lawyers walk around with the weight that they were unable to convince a jury of someone’s wrongdoing, and now that person was free and back in society. A paramedic will go home wondering if they had done anything different or faster, would that patient still be alive? Law enforcement officers are no different. Faced day after day with witnessing the lowest points in people’s lives and in society, they cannot simply clock out and leave their experiences behind.
Ask most officers, and they will say they chose this profession to help and make a difference. Spend one week, one month, five years riding along with them, and you would be amazed anybody sticks with the job for more than a year. Law enforcement is one of those careers that truly is a calling. During the intensive training, officers are taught to maintain composure and keep their feelings at bay. Regulation of emotions is a necessary component to function and perform the duties of the job. But at what cost? How will those suppressed emotions impact their lives? Every human is affected by events they experience, sights they see, smells they encounter, and sounds they hear. Intense situations cause physiological changes in the body and repeated exposure can trigger disease processes like heart disease, hypertension, and depression.
As with many public service jobs, there has long been the expectation that officers should be made of steel. Anything less than complete control carries the stigma of being broken. Feeling weak, overwhelmed, depressed, disheartened, or any other emotion that is not ‘strong’ is not allowed. You do not talk about your feelings; you just kept going. A result is a large group of people walking around feeling they are abnormal or ‘not cut out’ for the job. Don’t get me wrong; you cannot be in the middle of a scene and break down crying. You must control your emotions. You must keep functioning to the best of your ability. However, after the call, instead of just brushing off your response to the experience, you owe it to yourself to address it.
As an officer, you may find yourself standing on the scene of a motor vehicle crash with a fatality. Say it is a teenage kid. You find yourself seeing your teenagers face instead of the victims. On another call, you are in a squalid hell hole of a house. Feces, urine, trash, and toddlers are all on the floor. The parent is unconscious from a drug overdose. All you can do is think of those pictures that say “which of these items do not belong?”. It is yet another surreal image that is now cataloged in your brain alongside your wedding day and the birth of your first child. On another shift, you get the call to a college dorm room. You are met by a female dorm
assistant, who leads you to a dorm room. Sitting on the bed is a young woman. She is hugging herself and won’t make eye contact. She finally tells you she was at a coffee house with a guy from class and then woke up in her bed, no memory of what transpired. This call comes a few days after you visited your baby sister as she started her freshmen year of college. Later that same shift, you are called to a residence for a shooting. You walk up the drive and see an elderly couple sitting on the sidewalk, sobbing. In the spare bedroom you find their grandson, gun still in hand and brain matter and blood across the family pictures lining the wall. At what point in any of these situations do you honestly think you can just clock out, head home, turn on the game and forget the images? The sounds?
Holding all these experiences inside can lead to a variety of negative consequences. At first, you may not notice any changes. Over time, signs and symptoms can start appearing. Simple things like indigestion and minor headaches begin. You may notice you become irritated more easily. Hobbies may not hold your interest like they used to. More severe physiological changes may start like high blood pressure and panic attacks. Sleep may become erratic and disturbed. Officers may increase their alcohol consumption to help with how they are feeling, or visit their doctor to get a prescription to help with sleep or anxiety. Over time, alcohol and medication used as a coping method often lead to new problems. Self-medicating does little to provide healthy long-term relief from the perils of law enforcement.
What to Do
At any point, if you start experiencing any of these things, talk to someone. A spouse, a coworker, or someone outside your daily life, like a counselor. Your loved ones don’t need all the gruesome details, but you need to communicate to them the weight of your daily life. Keeping things to yourself can cause internal turmoil and external dysfunction. Family members may be the most supportive. Your spouse encourages you to tell them about your day. However, as you lean on your kitchen counter, your husband/wife is cooking dinner, and your kid’s artwork graces the refrigerator, how can you let all those horrors invade your safe space? So you find it easier to skim over calls, sticking to the mundane and insignificant. While talking to a spouse or family member may not be the best way to cope, simply because they cannot understand having not walked in your shoes, it is imperative you talk to someone who can relate and/or know how you are feeling.
The biggest thing to remember is that you are not alone in your thoughts and feelings. No decent human being, no matter how strong they may appear, can walk into those situations and remain untouched. Your feelings and emotions help keep you sympathetic and compassionate towards others. It is vital for police officers to recognize your emotional responses are normal reactions to abnormal events. Failure to do so, and to discuss these
feelings with someone we trust, can have insidious consequences. Just like cancer, if left alone, emotions can destroy the very vessel they are in.
If you are struggling in any way, please call the Frontline Peer Support Hotline at 866-854-7400. Your call will be answered by a first responder who understands and can help.
John Becker Jr. has experience as a police officer, clinician, and outreach professional. John also possesses a unique understanding of substance abuse among first responders, having overcome addiction in his own life. He is the Director of First Responder Services, for Sprout Health Group and was instrumental in developing and implementing Frontline Responder Services. John is an active member of the Montgomery County (PA) Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team and is certified by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) for individual and group interventions. As a member of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), John is skilled in working with unions, human resource departments, internal and external EAP’s, department counseling units, and peer support organizations. John is also a member of the Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists (ATSS) and the National Police Suicide Foundation. Additionally, John has provided training to agencies and organizations, throughout the country, on topics such as stress, trauma, suicide, and addiction, as they relate to first responders. He can be reached at 215-833-1572 or firstname.lastname@example.org