Police Psychology | Getting Off the Floor
by an Anonymous Reader
Do you remember the first few minutes before you entered the police academy as a recruit? There were a million thoughts running through your mind. You landed the greatest job in the world and now you are going to get some of the best training ever. You probably thought I am going to be trained on everything from a car stop to recovering evidence at a homicide scene. I’m going to be in the best shape ever by running and lifting weights, learn how use defensive tactics, and learn how to shoot a pistol. It just dawned on you that you are going to be “that” person who is requesting you to go a 911 to handle anything. Sounds exciting!
What happens when you have a few years on the job and you come across the “S” word? The “S word I am referring to is Stress. Stress comes in so many different forms for officers. You may find out one day during a physical exam you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol. You may find you can’t sleep at night. You are more irritable and moody than ever before. You are breathing heavily. Your heart rate is through the roof. You are constantly nervous. You worry about everything. You don’t want to make a mistake. Everyone is watching your every move. That’s how I ended up on the floor!
Where is this stress coming from? It’s coming from every single direction. The job is so complex. You want to do a great job but no one wants to get in a jam. You work nights, weekends and overtime. Everyday at work is different. There is no such thing as a routine day. You have bosses you may not see eye to eye with. On top of that, you are probably married or in a serious relationship and the shiftwork puts a burden on family life. You don’t want to miss any of your family functions but you are a zombie when you are there due to lack of sleep. You don’t want to disappoint anyone but the tension builds up at home, work and socially. And the kids. The little bundles of joy aren’t always joyous. They are demanding of the time you just don’t have. Whatever happen to a half hour to deprogram when you come home. You are taking your work life home and your home life to work.
Stress is internalized differently from officer to officer. You have to remember you are a human being underneath that uniform. To deal with stress, officers like to rely on each other. The camaraderie and “brotherhood” allows each of us to talk about the job to relieve stress. This is where our warped sense of humor comes in to deal with the stress as well. Cops tend to trust and rely on other cops especially when dealing with stress. The Thin Blue Line, as it were. Unfortunately, some of us tend to discuss our day at the bar and self medicate. It is easy to do. Hanging out with the guys over a couple of beers or cocktails relieves the stress but only temporarily. The next day the stress is still there and you are faced with a new set of stressors.
My stress came in the form of anxiety attacks. My breathing and heart rate increased dramatically. Not so much at work, but afterwards. I’ve come to learn that after a stressor is when you feel it. My nervousness increased while at work but I had it under control. I used every coping mechanism I could think of. One day, the stress got unbearable. I didn’t know what to do. I had to do something. I took a huge risk. I called another officer who I could trust and just explained to him everything that was going on. Instead of blowing it off, that officer took me very serious. So serious, that he suggested something to me that changed my life forever.
He suggested I should seek some professional help. That officer cared so much about another cop he actually physically drove me to the office because I was just so upset. All I kept thinking was how uptight I was because if this got out, my reputation would be on the line. Other cops would think differently of me. What would the bosses think? Can I lose my job? My family? Is this whole episode a sign of weakness? Can I function anymore? Am I broken? I was so alone.
One of the greatest things that could have happen to me was being introduced to a psychologist. Not just any psychologist but an expert in policing. Someone who specializes about the workings of law enforcement. Someone who really cares and understands me. Someone I now consider a friend. I have spent a session or two in his office doubled over in pain, seriously on the ground because my stomach was churning so bad. I’ve been visiting with him for 9 months and I am so ever grateful for him sharing his knowledge and skills to help me deal with the “s” word. I learned so much from him and this experience. I learn something new every time I visit. Most importantly, I learned I am human.
I have learned that there is a major genetic component to my anxiety. My mom had gotten so bad she had electroshocks to clean her out. My brother has it, and on down the line. I never thought there was a connection.
I learned my anxiety is a physical disorder. It may be treated by working on my psychology, but it is physical in nature and that is where genetics comes in. I have some unseen physical weakness that makes me prone to anxiety and I have to change my life to avoid it. Like diabetes except you can’t measure it by sticking your finger.
I learned stress is cumulative. A bunch of little shots to my anxiety level can cause major disruptions to my life. They build up and after years I was screwed. I learned about how to care and understand me. And most importantly, I learned I’m not alone. The psychologist says panic attacks are common in police officers, but cops don’t admit it until they are on the floor in pain. But most important, I learned, and am still learning, to control my panic by disputing my thoughts, my controlling my breathing, by changing the direction of my obsessing, by putting a psychological spin on things, by reading this blog, and a bunch of other strategies I can use to not return to the floor.
And by the way, no one on the job judged me, in fact it has been an open ticket for other officers to discuss their anxiety. I had a boss or two that was a little rough at first, but they backed off. It really is amazing that we are not alone if we are anxious at times. And the minute cops see your weakness, the easier they will admit their own. We are human after all!
There are cops all over the nation just like me but they never call “911” on themselves when they are hurting. Its like our brain doesn’t allow us to look out for ourselves. And sometimes when we do reach out, its too late. Divorce, loss of family, loss of job, alcoholism, bingeing and loss of health are all symptoms of letting something go. You wouldn’t believe how much more I am appreciating my family life and wife now. I am beyond gratitude for the help I have been given by a police psychologist. As cops, we have to know there are resources out their for us. When you get hurt physically at work, the injuries are there. They are in the form of a cast or bandage or crutches. But what happens when the injury is in a place that you can see with a bandage? That’s the most serious injury of all. Please take care of yourselves regardless of where you are hurting. You’ll be a hero to the people you love and trust the most.
Site Editor: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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