Imagine your neighbor knocking on your front door. He’s irritated. The neighbor says your son, who’s been playing football with his friends in the street, hit his car with the ball. In this case you would likely experience stress.
Now, imagine your neighbor pounding on your door. He’s panicked. The neighbor says your son has been hit by a car and is badly injured. In this case you would likely experience traumatic stress.
It’s the experience of helplessness and horror that define traumatic stress. Exposure to traumatic stress is an occupational inevitability for police officers. Think of a horrifying event. Any event. Now, ask yourself, “would there be cops there?” Probably, right? We’re always at the horror shows, and all too frequently we experience as sense of helplessness about our ability to make it right.
The fact that police officers aren’t allowed a normal human reaction to traumatic stressors makes things worse. Let me tell you about an experiment done by Robert Sapolsky, a stress physiology professor at Stanford University.
He showed two groups of people a gruesome video (a leg amputation) and then measured their stress response after seeing it. He showed the video to the first group and measured them. As expected, their bodies were pretty jacked up. Then he showed it to the second group. However, before they saw it, the researchers instructed the group that they were to have no reaction whatsoever while watching the video. The stress reaction in this second group was significantly higher. Makes sense.
Chronic exposure to traumatic stress, if not actively managed can very bad for us. It resides in the body and will stay there if not worked through in some way. Trauma guru Bessel van der Kolk writes, “the body keeps the score.”
Some of us believe getting good and drunk after “one of those days” will help us deal with traumatic incidents. This is a dangerous and wrong path. I’d recommend participating in a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing or other means of emotional/social support. Talking it out usually doesn’t, as some suggest, make people worse or symptomatic. The vast majority of cops need to talk more, not less, about the emotional piece of this job.
Next week we’ll cover the best known and least desirable outcome of traumatic exposure: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.