Police Psychology | Night of the Living Binge
by Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
I’ve got to have some chocolate before dinner. Where is it? Wait there’s some cheese. I could eat this cheese instead. Where’s the knife? Hell I don’t need a knife, I could eat the whole chunk of cheese in two bites. Okay, now what else, I’m still hungry. How about those potato chips? There less than a third of the bag. Let me eat those. I’ll keep looking through here. Hello, a slice of old pizza! That is a piece of heaven. Let me just eat you, you poor little neglected pizza right now. I love cold pizza, wait, is that the chicken parm from Tuesday? Hell, if someone doesn’t eat that it is going to be bad tomorrow. I could go for some chicken parm, after all my wife is making salmon cakes tonight and I never liked salmon cakes, and I didn’t have much lunch, and man this is good! Now where was that chocolate? Ahh, I think I see chocolate – nah, just Cocoa Puffs. Well that is chocolate flavored, let me take a handful of that. Wait, there’s the chocolate. Mmm, nothing like the real thing. SLAM. The front door opens.
“Hi honey, I thought we’d go out for dinner tonight. I don’t feel like cooking.”
“Yes dear. I’m ready. Let’s go have some dinner…..” Despite eating enough calories to choke a hippo, you go and have dinner, and boy do you feel it later that night.
The joy of bingeing! Four thousand calories and you still aren’t satiated. “I drank almost a case and could have kept going.” “If my ATM card wouldn’t have maxed out, I would have lost the farm.” “No, I am not an alcoholic.” “I am not a compulsive gambler.” “I am not a pig.” “I just go on a binge once in a while. What’s the problem with that?”
Tell me you haven’t been there with me in one of those areas. Or maybe you get hypersexual, bingeing on sex. Sometimes too much, is just not enough. Now here’s the secret … you law enforcement guys and girls are the worst with this (other than police psychologists) but not for the reason you think.
WHY LEO’S BINGE
Law enforcement officers (LEO’s) work in rotating shifts and on the job have “burst stress” or as Sgt. Friday from Dragnet says: “Police work is hours and hours of boredom surrounded by moments of sheer terror.” Intense, chaotic shifts consisting of high stress encounters mixed with a day of unbearable nothingness can really mess with your dopamine levels. LEO’s are not your typical desk jockeys, playing mind-numbing computer games, browsing Facebook and drudging through a day of predictably dry work. Predictability in an officer’s work day is often impossible from the second you walk out the door to the time you return home. Now, what does this have to do with dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps regulate movement and emotion and is also linked to the body’s systems of reward and pleasure. Dopamine levels play an important role in your daily motivation, focus and learning. The rotating, often irregular schedule of LEO’s throw off the production and uptake of dopamine in the body and contributes to binge behaviors. Dopamine kicks in to power you through the moments of terror (or excitement) after a fairly uneventful day. Stereotypes of cops drinking coffee and eating donuts (or bagels in NY) are directly related to those dopamine levels. Struggles with fluctuating dopamine levels lead to increased caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and even drug consumption.
So what about your wife that says she needs a little retail therapy? Well, there is a some truth to that. Compulsive buying is one way to burn off dopamine. What people don’t realize is you are more likely to be intimate after a day of retail therapy. So stop yelling and enjoy the dopamine increase. Pleasure begets pleasure. How about a little gambling? Same thing, in fact drugs that raise the level of dopamine called dopamine agonist have been tied to compulsive gambling, hypersexuality, compulsive spending/shopping, binge eating, compulsive drinking, compulsive hobbying, compulsive working, and compulsive computer use. Why do I feel I have just unleashed a bunch of sexually unsatisfied officers on doctor’s offices asking for a dopamine drug?
Bingeing happens to everyone. It’s not something to be ashamed of, but it does cause disruption in your daily life that may be affecting your mental health. Consistency is the guiding principle of stability in life. Bingeing on anything rocks the boat in ways you may not even notice. Bingeing on food leads to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight gain and much more. Bingeing on alcohol, unfortunately, is not a solution to the highs and lows of police work and even bingeing on sex may open another can of consequences such as strained marriages and excessive pleasure seeking with other partners. A healthy mind rests on sound habits. Everyone has a certain planned schedule and expectations in their mind where failing to meet those self-inspired obligations causes stress and anxiety. Bingeing makes it increasingly difficult to stand strong to your schedule and more susceptible to never-ending binge cycles.
Three Simple Steps
The first step is to learn your binge triggers. These are the little messages in your head that inspire you to take that leap of faith into any binge. That one slice of cold pizza and the next attack on those delicious Cocoa Puffs, followed by beer and chips until you’re in a food coma. Keeping yourself productive in healthy ways such as regular exercise or maybe even meditation can easily keep you from those bad habits.
Studies show that men and women who exercise regularly are more likely to make other positive changes in their life as compared to people who do not exercise regularly. This is the power of habit, but it also regulates dopamine. Taking the power of habit into your best defense against bingeing and a disrupted week. We are looking for the little accomplishments that change the way your body reacts to fluctuating dopamine. A small shift in your diet can also go a long way. Replace the toxic things such as excessive caffeine and sugar with proper meals, fruits, vegetables and water. It’s all about the mindset.
A third way to control dopamine is to live somewhat in the limits and rules of life. You make the rules though. I will not eat when I am stressed. I will work out daily. I will not overwork, over-shop, get too much sex. (Okay, I had you until the last one.) Set a schedule for yourself and set goals that will keep you on the right track (get your head in the game and out of the fridge!). But, know your limits and remember that balance is key. Lean on people close to you for support. “Hey, if I am stressed out keep me away from food or alcohol or whatever.” If you’re a binger, you have to attack a binge, not be passive.
Site Editor: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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