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Body, Mind, & Badge: Strategies for Navigating Trauma & Resilience in Law Enforcement 

The Ripple Effect of Trauma

(The following is excerpted from Body, Mind, and Badge: Strategies for Navigating Trauma and Resilience in Law Enforcement, by Kathryn Hamel, PhD. The book focuses on two imperative components of law enforcement wellness: physical fitness and resiliency. Cultivating both will allow law enforcement personnel to cope with the stress and trauma of critical incidents and come out on the other side of the event a more resilient version of themselves.) 

The Ripple Effect of Trauma 

Think about a rock being thrown into a pond. It creates a number of ripples. Now imagine each ripple as a different group of people connected and impacted by a tragedy. Victims are in the middle, then their family, then witnesses, and then community. But what about the outermost ripples? Who pays attention to and supports those working in and around law enforcement—those people who answer the emergency phone call to 9-1-1; those who respond to the scene to render aid and create safety; those who process the scene and the deceased; and those who work in the aftermath to bring justice to victims of crime? These are our forgotten, and sometimes invisible, law enforcement warriors. 

Who asks a dispatcher, a forensic scientist, a crime scene investigator, or a coroner investigator how they are doing after a gruesome crime has been committed? What about the victim advocate who works with the victim’s family after a tragedy? Who do they talk to? Who gives them permission to be human in the aftermath of tragedy? 

Even the most resilient warriors working in law enforcement have moments when they feel helpless, angry, sad, lonely, and broken. For decades, the culture of law enforcement implied that if you are strong, you do not hurt. If you hurt, you must be weak; and if you are weak, you can’t be a good partner on duty or off. Perceived weakness even prohibited promotion. It is time to challenge that belief system. Out of respect for the men and women who serve and protect our communities, it is time to break down that stigma by creating a paradigm shift—one that says that it is an act of strength to be able to talk about what bothers you. 

Strength comes in different formats. Strength is growth that can occur after trauma. Strength can be vulnerability and tears. Strength is when you keep working toward healing even when it’s emotionally painful. Strength is saying, “I’m sorry and I will learn to do things better for the good of everyone around me.” Strength is choosing not to live a numb life, avoiding pain, and hurting those around you. There is no doubt that this job changes you, but it doesn’t have to define who you are. You can choose not to give up your core self and let the job take your soul. You have a right to choose to take back control and live the happiest life possible. You have the right to resiliency. 

What Is Resiliency? 

There are several concepts of resiliency. A common theme is the process of adapting and bouncing back in the face of danger, adversity, and trauma (Southwick et al. 2015). Others include seeking out and using resources; healthy functioning; increased ability to manage physiological reactions; and moving forward post trauma in a positive manner. Note, however, that resiliency is not a simple concept; people may be resilient in one part or phase of their life, but not in another (Southwick et al. 2015). 

It’s also important to note that not everyone who is, by definition, a first responder will be impacted the same way by an incident. There is significant variation in terms of response to trauma and resiliency. Risk factors for PTSD in law enforcement include a biological or genetic predisposition (Miller 1999). Some people have an innate heightened physiological reaction to traumatic stimuli. Having multiple exposures to traumatic events, along with the occurrence of long-term stressors in life, can accumulate and become a risk for the development of PTSD. Psychological factors such as poor coping and problem solving along with learned helplessness and poor relationships are factors in the risk of developing PTSD (Miller 1999). Lastly, environmental factors like lack of departmental response and support, including social support, can increase risk of maladaptive functioning following a critical incident (Miller 1999). 

Genetic, neurobiological, and psychosocial factors all impact an individual’s resiliency and response to stress. Regarding genetics, “There is evidence that there are genetic differences in reactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, sympathetic nervous system and serotonergic systems that have been connected to post-traumatic pathology and resilience” (Southwick et al. 2015, p. 2). Neurobiological factors focus on the neural circuits and parts of the brain involved in processing “fear, reward, learning, social connection and emotional regulation” (Southwick et al. 2015, p. 2). 

There are a number of psychosocial factors supported by research that have been associated with resiliency. These include optimism; good problem solving, communication, and coping skills; courage; altruism; physical activity; self-mastery or an internal locus of control; ability to have a strategy and anticipate consequences; being sociable; emotional regulation; emotional intelligence; ability to strategize and anticipate consequences; connection to spirituality or religion; access to social support; a close connection/relationship with someone who feels caring; and a sense of commitment to a goal or mission that is meaningful. Studies have shown that believing in, or honoring, a moral code can facilitate resiliency and that altruism helps build resiliency by focusing attention on others instead of self. Even responding to a traumatic event can help first responders reframe their experience and enhance their feelings of self-confidence while accepting the situation and learning to let go of control they do not have. Physical activity helps increase the ability to focus and make decisions while also enhancing and stabilizing emotional reactions (Southwick et al. 2015). It also suppresses cortisol and increases the production of neurotropic factors which promote the healing and growth of neurons. 

Specific to law enforcement, Paton and colleagues (2000) have identified resiliency factors that enable officers to withstand extreme traumatic experiences. These include first-rate training and skill development, an attitude of being a lifelong learner, higher levels of intelligence and problem solving, good verbal and interpersonal communication skills, acceptable emotional control and adaptive coping mechanisms, seeing the positive in situations, and the ability to seek help and support when necessary. 

Resiliency is not just a theoretical topic to be taken lightly. Recognizing the impact of police trauma and its contribution to stress-related disorders, substance abuse, depression, and law enforcement suicide are imperative to helping increase physical and mental health, as well as optimum job functioning in law enforcement personnel (Miller 1999). 

It’s clear that resiliency is a protective factor in mitigating the effects of a critical incident in first responders (Miller 1999; Paton 2006; Paton and Burke 2007; Evans et al. 2013; Andersen et al. 2015). So, how do individuals and law enforcement organizations collectively build resiliency among officers? Organizations themselves have two roles to play: encouraging social support—both formal and informal—and integrating resiliency training. Furthermore, law enforcement personnel can practice individual psychological tactics and coping strategies to bolster their personal resiliency.