Photo AP/Bill Haber
A member of a tactical team carries his gun and equipment as he walks through a thick fog where a police officer was shot Dec. 14, 2006, in Perry Hall, Md. Photo AP/Chris Gardner
FEATURED IN TRAINING
Researchers have long debated how to best help officers with job stress and the after effects of life and death experiences sometimes encountered on the job. Some claim police work is no more stressful than other occupations, while others assert it s the most stressful profession of all. Either way, those of us on the job understand that potential life and death scenarios, accentuated by monotonous stretches of boredom, can create real problems. Fast food, administrative hassles, shift work, politics, aggression and the constant threat of civil liability all take their toll. We can receive the very latest tactical gear and training, but many of us never develop the mental preparedness or learn strategies that could make a difference.
Isolation, alcohol abuse, poor diet, lack of exercise, constant anger, relationship problems and anxiety often go undetected until an officer ends up on comp or, worse yet, on a slab. How do some officers manage to make it safely to retirement and live long enough afterwards to enjoy it, while others die young? Why do some officers not lose a night s sleep after a deadly force encounter while others prematurely leave the job following a potentially life-threatening traffic stop that ultimately plays out without incident?
When an actual trauma occurs, the duration, intensity or frequency determines the extent of the trauma s effect on an officer. However, when an officer feels in control of a situation, there s less harmful impact. Although there can be many factors leading to a sense of control in any situation, we now have effective methods to prepare or mentally inoculate cops for dealing with job stress and trauma to bullet-proof their minds, a concept that gained wide attention when Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman brought the issue to the forefront with his book, The Bulletproof Mind.
Getting Mugged vs. Winning the Lottery
Stress inoculation training (SIT), first developed by Dr. Donald Meichenbaum in 1985, uses strategies similar to those incorporated in SWAT team training. Although SIT was not originally developed specifically for law enforcement, we can easily adapt its principles for our work.
For example, imagine being lost somewhere on the streets of an unfamiliar city. As you attempt to gain your bearings, you suddenly realize you ve unwittingly walked into a high crime area, with graffiti scrawled across the walls and streetlights shot out. Unfortunately, you re not armed. Up ahead, you notice a gang of individuals who give you an instant don t go there gut reaction.
Against your better judgment, you decide to dart up a nearby alleyway toward what appears to be a more civilized thoroughfare. Prior to making your way onto the next street, a rough-looking character stops, turns and begins to walk toward you. You immediately stop and turn, only to find yourself facing two big thugs directly behind you, and one pulls out a switchblade.
Your knees are shaking thanks to adrenaline kicking in, and your breathing shifts from low and slow to rapid and shallow. Your hands grow cold and clammy, and your heart rate starts to race. Swallowing becomes difficult, and you notice you have tunnel vision and tunnel hearing, all manifestations of the fight-or-flight response.
Most people would call this experience anxiety or panic. I call it neural excitement nothing more. What ultimately defines the experience is perception and the techniques you use to establish a powerful sense of control.
Let s change the scene completely. Imagine yourself coming off a less-than-stimulating A-line shift. You re exhausted and looking forward to hitting the sack. Out of sheer boredom, you decide to stop by the local bodega to donate to this week s lottery. Quick Pick coughs out your ticket, which you slide in your pocket and proceed home to crash out. Upon awakening, you check this week s winning numbers. As you slowly go through the numbers, you call out each one and reference the ticket. As each number shows on your ticket, you read them again in disbelief you ve won $20 million!
Your knees shake, your breathing is rapid and shallow, your heart rate jumps off the charts, your hands grow cold and clammy, and you have tunnel vision, tunnel hearing and cotton mouth.
The point: There s no physiological difference between getting mugged and winning the lottery. It ultimately comes down to your self-talk, belief or perception that serves as the proving grounds for developing a sense of control that can, with practice, bulletproof the mind. By using powerful SIT strategies, officers can identify and replace dysfunctional beliefs and stressors (distress) with aggression (eustress).
Bullet Proofing the Mind
SIT programs are based on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques that are presented in three sections. First, officers learn about effective mental strategies and the relationship between irrational thinking and their sources of stress. The Yerkes-Dodson principle, for example, clarifies that we all have a golden mean of anxiety, in which our performance increases as anxiety increases. Many cops are adrenaline junkies, but once anxiety begins to exceed the optimal level, performance dramatically declines, and cognitive distortions are likely. Officers can learn how to identify their own levels of optimal stress and recognize when they are exceeding them. Anxiety-related disorders are perhaps the most common problems among officers.
Officers also learn practical bits of information during this stage, such as using a small amount of melatonin an hour before sleeping as a supplement to counteract the effects of the jet lag often resulting from shift work. Did you know, for example, that eating carbohydrates, drinking lots of water and exercising aerobically within the first 24 hours of a traumatic incident can actually reduce any physiological impact by as much as 50 percent?
The second section of SIT fosters coping skills that present the opportunity to tailor relaxation training, guided imagery exercises and cognitive restructuring techniques specifically for law enforcement. This is also the section where peer-support resources are introduced. I recently developed a survey in which 60 volunteers from three municipal departments indicated they would be willing to participate in an SIT program. They also indicated a preference for a take-home audiocassette format, which I developed specifically for them, as opposed to other trainer-led formats.
Despite our reputation for avoiding any type of psychological interventions, it may be surprising how many officers welcome effective, relevant, peer-run programs such as this. In addition, many departments are now utilizing trauma support teams (TST) a peer-oriented and practical response in which fellow officers volunteer to take care of some basic needs of the officer or family members, such as helping around the house, getting some groceries or being supportive after a shooting or fatality occurs. Never underestimate the power of common sense and peer support in these situations.
Officers typically don t like traditional counseling interventions; you know, the kind where the counselor nods their head and asks, How do you feel about that? Police prefer a coaching, peer-oriented, hands-on approach.
The program then expanded to include more officers who were given an occupational stress inventory (OSI-R) before listening to the audio SIT program. The take-home cassette presentations involved a series of 12 brief sessions lasting eight to 20 minutes each. Officers listened to one session each day for 12 days and then completed the OSI-R again. When compared to the control group (those who only completed the OSI-R without receiving SIT training), it was clear officers were in fact bulletproofing their minds. Job-related stress was reduced, and occupational coping skills were significantly enhanced.
In the third and final stage of SIT, officers are exposed (either in real life or through imagery) to situations for applying the techniques called rational emotive imagery (REI). An inert virus is used to inoculate us in order to fortify our immune system. Described below, the REI technique basically does the same type of inoculation using inert situations to build resistance and fortify a sense of mastery and mental control.
Coupled with the other strategies incorporated in SIT, officers can train themselves to bulletproof their minds with repeated exposure and practice.
Get comfortable, and close your eyes. Breathe in slowly through your nose and out slowly from your mouth. Begin to consciously relax the muscles in your body starting at the top of the head and gradually work down through the toes (progressive muscle relaxation). In this relaxed state, it becomes easier to imagine things.
Now, begin to visualize yourself at a traffic stop. It s a slightly overcast early evening with a cool breeze blowing, moderately heavy traffic, and the daylight is just about gone. See the registration, color and make of the car as you call it in. Feel the radio mic in your hand and even smell the inside of the car (using all the senses makes a more realistic image).
As the dispatch copies the transmission, notice that you re feeling uneasy for some reason. You put on your hat, grab your flashlight and exit the cruiser. As you reach over to click on your two-way, you slowly walk toward the driver s side of the stopped vehicle. Cars whiz by, and you feel the breeze on your face. You ask the driver to roll down his window and note movement in the rear seat. Suddenly, your two-way interrupts with dispatch reporting the vehicle as stolen.
Instantly, your heart starts to race, and two passengers exit and begin to run. Your attention is momentarily divided, but you focus on the more immediate threat the driver s door flies open! You realize you re telling yourself, Oh my God, I m in danger! But then, you freeze the scene, take a slow, deep breath, and forcefully tell yourself to cover or conceal. You identify the distress (fear) and vigorously reframe it into eustress (aggression). You draw your weapon and yell a command to the driver you re in control, using the adrenaline rush to adapt and overcome.
Officers can use REI techniques to construct any scenario from traffic stops to potentially fatal encounters, to something as basic as public speaking. This particular technique is similar to that used in street survival-training with the added dimension of identifying irrational, catastrophic or impractical thoughts amidst the scenario and forcefully replacing them with powerful images and self-talk. This leads to an ever-increasing sense of control in virtually any situation.
The officer is coached to first become proficient at attaining a deep state of relaxation and breathing control. Once this state is achieved, all the senses are incorporated with this particular technique to develop a profound sense of realism. With the ability to modify scenes, slow down or speed up time, freeze-frame or reverse the action, the officer virtually has limitless options. This type of intervention can successfully resolve past situations or prepare for future ones. Officers forcefully generate a feeling of strength, confidence and control, ultimately applying the principle What the mind can conceive, the body can achieve!
Tips for Trainers
There s no more important task of a police department than to train its officers in the management of stress exposures; not to do so is the cause of what goes wrong in police work.
Dr. Lawrence N. Blum
1. Utilize audiocassette tapes as part of stress-inoculation training. It s relatively easy to develop your own tapes to give to officers, modifying the scenarios and techniques to meet individual needs.
2. When using imagery techniques, take advantage of the mind s capacity to transcend space and time be creative to be effective.
3. Remember: Officers prefer practical and hands-on peer-oriented approaches.
4. Although group formats can prove somewhat more cost-effective, officers seem to prefer individual-oriented programs that involve more of a coaching style.
Dr. Bob DeYoung was a licensed forensic psychologist for 16 years prior to serving as a patrolman and motor officer with the Town of Warwick (N.Y.) Police Department. In addition to training trauma support teams, he s an instructor at the Orange County New York Police Chief s Association Police Academy.