The Trouble With Trauma

Roadway accidents with multiple fatalities—including young children—is one of the most common causes of post-traumatic stress disorder for cops.
Roadway accidents with multiple fatalities—including young children—are a common cause of post-traumatic stress disorder for cops.

By Barbara A. Schwartz

Traumatic stress is misunderstood and that is one reason why police officers and military veterans suffer alone and in silence.

Experiencing a single traumatic incident, or years of exposure to “little traumas” over the course of a law enforcement career, produces an injury not a mental illness. The stigma of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) causes more harm than good. The time has come to banish the “disorder” word.

A “reaction” to a traumatic event is not a disorder, not a mental illness, not something to hide or be embarrassed about. This type of reaction is normal, human, and expected.

For most officers, the injury only needs a band-aid and time to heal. Or the injury may resemble a sprained ankle and need ice packs and crutches for a week. For other officers, the healing may take more time, extensive rehab, and professional counseling.

If an officer doesn’t pay attention to the injury, it will continue to bleed, get infected, and never scab over and heal.

Trauma evades the body and soul on a cellular level—like a lightning bolt that passes electricity through the body and needs to be discharged.

Our bodies are programmed for that discharge. Unfortunately, as a police officer your call to duty prevents this built-in, natural process from occurring. And for police officers, that is the trouble with trauma.

When encountering a life-threatening event, nature programs us to flee. If we cannot flee, we are programmed to fight or freeze to survive.

As a police officer, you run toward danger. You cannot flee or freeze. You must take control—and at times fight.

In the aftermath, you shake and quiver in an attempt to purge the onslaught of chemicals and hormones from your body and brain cells.

One of the best ways to purge trauma from your cells, and heal the injury, is to “symbolically flee.” Visualize the traumatic incident, then run like hell as if you are trying to escape a life-endangering threat. Going on a run after your shift could save your life and protect your emotional well-being.

If you experience nightmares and flashbacks, that doesn’t mean you are crazy or have a mental disorder. A traumatic injury can alter how your brain makes and stores memories. Nightmares and flashbacks occur because the brain and body are attempting to organize and re-file the memories into the right place.

When a person is under threat, the brain shuts down functions not required to keep the person alive. The link between what is being experienced and where the memories of that experience need to be filed and stored gets disconnected in favor of brain processes needed for survival.

After the event, when the person calms down, the connection reestablishes and the brain searches for the memories. Since the memories aren’t filed in the right location, the brain shifts into overdrive trying to correct the situation—resulting in nightmares and flashbacks.

Neuroscience research has revised its philosophy concerning traumatic stress symptoms and treatments. Nightmares and flashbacks are now considered a normal part of the healing process, not a mental disorder, not symptoms that need to be medicated.

The tide has turned toward a more natural approach to treating traumatic injuries. Writing longhand about the event has been scientifically proven to heal traumatic injuries. You can share what you have written with loved ones or destroy what you’ve written symbolically shredding or burning the pages.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) uses back and forth eye movements, while recalling the traumatic event, to re-file memories into the correct parts of the brain and eliminate the occurrence of debilitating symptoms. An EMDR certified therapist can be found at www.emdr.com/find-a-clinician/.

Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) involves tapping designated areas of the body, such as meridians and acupuncture points, to re-file traumatic memories and eliminate symptoms.
Floating in a tank of water mixed with Epson salts is the newest treatment on the horizon.

If an officer was diagnosed with cancer, he or she would educate themselves about treatment options and medical providers. Officers experiencing a traumatic injury need to take a similar proactive approach.

Recommended reading:

  • “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk.
  • “In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness” by Dr. Peter A. Levine.
  • “EMDR –Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing—The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma” by Dr. Francine Shapiro.
  • “Emotional Freedom Techniques for PTSD” by Gary Craig

Copyright©2016 Barbara A. Schwartz. All Rights Reserved.

Barbara A. Schwartz has dedicated her life to supporting the brave officers of law enforcement. She is certified in first responder peer support by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) and the Law Enforcement Alliance for Peer Support (LEAPS). She can be reached at abakas95030@mypacks.net.

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