Critical Stress Survival Strategies

July 3, 2008
Officers witness the worst, most horrific incidents our society has to offer. Yet we expect them to act professionally, taking whatever is dished out to them.
A neighboring county recently had a tragic line of duty death. What appeared to be a routine stop was followed by an exchange of gunfire. It left a dead officer, and a manhunt that went on through-out the night into the early morning hours. The suspect was finally taken into custody. The Law Enforcement Chaplains notified families that their loved one would never be coming home again. My prayers went out to the family of the deceased officer; and the department.

Later in the day, I heard of another tragic death. A crazed father beat a toddler to death on the side of a country road. Witnesses said he was punching, slapping, kicking, stomping, and shaking the innocent little boy. They also said they saw the man throwing him on the ground as he beat him. When they tried to pull the man away from the toddler, he shrugged them off and continued to beat him.

An officer arrived on scene and was forced to shoot and kill the man to stop him from brutalizing the toddler. The child was taken by helicopter to a nearby hospital but was pronounced dead upon arrival. The coroner's report said the child was between one and two years old.

Critical incidents come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Line of duty deaths and officer involved shootings are two of the worst. But an officer will see many things in a course of a career that will rock them back on their heels. It has been reported that one hundred ninety two officers were killed in the line of duty in 2007. Many more were involved in shootings. More still witnessed the worst, most horrific incidents our society has to offer. Yet, we expect our officers to act professionally, and take whatever is dished out to them.

We all respond to critical incident stress in our own unique way. Reactions to such events are perfectly normal and to be expected. Yet, incidents affect us in different ways. An officer who has never had children may not have a reaction to a child death. This same officer, however, may be impacted by the death of an elderly person who reminds them of a parent. A lot also depends upon how gruesome or horrific the scene. Other factors include the age and sex of the person involved, the innocence factor, and the thoughts one has about the incident. The critical incident may greatly impact an officer or only have a minimal influence depending upon the support system the officer has in place.

Psychologist Victor Frankle was a Nazi concentration camp survivor. He spent five years in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. He wrote a book about his experiences called, "Man's Search for Meaning". He describes the horrors he saw and experienced. Frankle wrote, "An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior."

Many officers, especially those just out of academy, think they are invincible. They have a kind of "John Wayne mentality". However, they often have a wake up call when they experience a critical incident. They suddenly realize they are not invincible.

There are a few survival strategies for critical incident stress. The first is simply to know you will experience a critical incident and you will probably react "abnormally". You may be emotional and even cry. You may have other physical reactions such as throwing up, the shakes, loose bowels, stomach upset, etc. These and many more are all normal reactions to critical incident stress. Symptoms may come immediately, within the first few hours, to even weeks later.

Most first responders will go into an "automatic pilot" mode. During these times officers fall to the level of their training... they have a job to do, and will do that job until finished no matter what. They may not be aware of symptoms until after going off automatic pilot some time later.

The second survival technique is to talk things out with a trustworthy person. A Chaplain or peer support member can be very helpful. It's almost like a bite dog that is called off before it gets a chance to bite someone. The officer, like the bite dog, was all set to "bite". The officer and the dog need to do something to come down. The bite dog needs to bite (preferably a toy) and the officer needs to talk.

First responders are very resilient. Supportive, understanding people add to the resiliency of an officer. Most people will get better even with no intervention, but those who speak with someone trained in critical incident stress management will get back to a feeling of normalcy much sooner.

The next piece of the strategy is taking care of yourself physically. When you experience an incident such as a shooting, or a violent confrontation, your adrenaline level spikes. Thousands of chemicals dump into your body helping you survive. Most incidents are over quickly, leaving you with all of these chemicals pumping through your body. These chemicals need to be burned or purged. Physical activity and drinking plenty of water helps flush many of these away. Avoid self medicating, alcohol, caffeine, or sugar. You add even more chemicals to the mix when you do this, which works against your body's ability to get back to normal.

Having trouble sleeping is a common complaint for people after a critical incident. Vigorous exercise helps sweat out more chemicals, and also helps you sleep. Adopting a routine including regular exercise, going to bed at the same time each day and sleeping in a cool, quiet, dark room helps combat the effects of critical incident stress.

Finally, give yourself time. Just as everyone reacts differently to a critical incident, we also recover differently. We are each unique and need time to mend. Sometimes talking with a Chaplain or peer support is just what is needed to know that you are on the right track and the "new normal" is just around the corner.

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