After being in the Police Force for about 2 years, I went to see a Doctor due to not being able to sleep. After blood tests and a few different Medical examinations, the Doctor told me that I needed more sleep.
“Thanks for that” I thought sarcastically.
After a few more years of lying in bed for 2-8 hours EVERY night (or day depending on the shifts), before being able to sleep, I realised that this was not normal. Ok, maybe it took me a few years to realise the obvious, but severe lack of sleep can muddle your senses somewhat.
It took me another couple of years to actually try and do something about it. So I went to see the Police Psychologist. She was almost a cliche. She talked in whispers and was full of empathy. It was annoying. I ignored everything that she whispered, mainly because I only heard ever fourth or fifth word.
I then went to see another Doctor. This Doctor, who seemed half competent, told me I was suffering PTSD.
PTSD? What the? I don’t have PTSD! I haven’t been in combat! I’m not weak! PTSD is for weak people or really old soldiers! There’s nothing wrong with me, I just need some sleeping pills!
That was my immediate reaction. I didn’t want my colleagues or subordinates to think I was weak. I thought PTSD was a sign of weakness. That night, whilst lying in my bed unable to sleep, all I could think about was “PTSD”.
So I did some research. What I found was that there wasn’t really much information out there about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, especially as it relates to Policing.
Very recently I found some material that helped explain stress and PTSD as it relates to Policing. The most important thing I learned was that nearly anything can cause stress. Even Police Management can cause stress with their treatment of their subordinates.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is a Psychology Professor who has extensively studied Psychology as it relates to Law Enforcement and the Military. A direct quote from pages 3-4 of On Combat states,
“The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the ‘Bible’ of psychiatry and psychology, specifically states that any time the causal factor of a stressor is human in nature, the degree of trauma is usually more severe and long lasting. Conversely, the DSM says that posttraumatic stress disorder is comparably rare and mild in response to natural disasters and traffic accidents. In other words, when it is another human being who causes our fear, pain and suffering, it shatters, destroys and devastates us.
Unchecked, extreme stress is an emotional and physical carnivore. It chews hungrily on so many of our law enforcement officers with its razor-sharp fangs, and does so quietly, silently in every corner of their lives. It affects their job performance, their relationships and ultimately their health.”
I think it would be safe to say that 99.99 (recurring) % of incidents attended to by Police involve stressors caused by other humans. It has been said many times that when danger occurs, the majority of sane persons run away, but it is the Police who run towards that same danger. That does not mean Police are not sane. Far from it. What it means is that Police are more frequently exposed to stressors that the vast majority of the general public do not have to face. Although Firefighters, Ambulance crews, and even the Media may also run towards the danger, it is the Police, and the Police alone who will have to face the human entity that is the cause of that danger. That alone makes Police more susceptible to stress than most, if not all, other occupations.
But the one positive aspect about facing human aggression “on the street”, is that you are, hopefully, trained, equipped, and prepared to deal with it. This is important.
Now relate that to facing negative criticism and damaging gossip by your colleagues and Managers. There is no training available to Police to face that. There is no tool available to protect yourself from it. It is an insidious “enemy” that our Police are not able to deal with. It is this human-caused stressor that can eat away at our Police.
“I spent over 9 years as a Police Officer in Australia. I still have the physical scars from the battles I fought. I still remember with sadness the children I pulled, dead, from backyard pools and Vehicle Accidents. I still remember the friends killed on-duty. But they do not cause my nightmares.
I now work in a war-zone, where I wake up to the sound of explosions, and have lost count how many times I have had poorly-trained men point rifles and RPG’s at me. I have lost mates here as well. That does not cause my nightmares.
My nightmares, hell, my day-time thoughts are invaded by, the memories of petty and cruel attitudes and actions by my Police Management. Even 3 years later, a day does not go by where my stomach doesn’t cramp up at the thought of the unwarranted stress caused by uncaring and selfish Police bosses.” ” Anonymous, 2008.
I admit that stress, for me, was caused by poor Management. But that is not the only stressor for our Police.
Stress can be short-lived, and occur during incidents of risk. Stress can slowly develop over a period of time, and one tiny incident can be the cause of your world turning inside out. Recognising what stress is; what it can do to you and how you can deal with it, is the focus of this article.
According to Grossman, there is a phobia that affects approximately 98% of the human population. This is based on a number of studies conducted by numerous people over approximately a 200 year time period.
No, it’s not snakes, though that is listed as #2.
Grossman describes the Universal Human Phobia as “interpersonal human aggression”. Note he doesn’t say violence, but simply aggression.
“Just the distant possibility of interpersonal confrontation influences our behaviour more than the statistical certainty of a slow, horrible, death from cancer. Statistically speaking, this is not rational”, (Grossman, p6).
When talking about Police and the Universal Human Phobia, Grossman states, “They are the ones who face down the Universal Human Phobia, the most toxic, corrosive, destructive element that can impact our society.”
So what does this mean for our Police? Firstly, it is normal to be afraid, anxious, concerned or stressed at the prospect of facing aggression from another person. Second, for those Officers working at busy stations, who face human aggression every shift, they must take steps to ensure their physical and mental welfare is protected.
What else is normal? Let’s look at what you may experience during periods of extreme stress.
Another natural human response, which is rarely, if ever, discussed during Police training, is that if your lower intestines are not empty before a highly stressful survival situation, then your body will “let go”. You may wet or “mess” yourself.
And if that happens during a fight for your life? You KEEP fighting. Remember, it’s normal. Your body is focusing all its available energy on survival.
This is not to say that you should expect to wet or “mess” yourself when you get into a serious fight, but rather to point out that your body will do things you don’t necessarily want it to. This probably the least discussed issue though.
Once the danger is over, your body will experience what Grossman describes as a Parasympathetic Backlash. Very basically, this is the result of having all that adrenaline dumped during a critical incident, and not being able to burn that adrenaline off.
To quote Lt Col Grossman again,
“When the average Law Enforcement Officer gets into a gunfight, he often has trouble sleeping that night. He still has adrenaline surging through his body.
Have you ever sat on the edge of your bed at night with your mind spinning, your heart pounding & your body raring to go? That is what residual adrenaline does to you. To burn it off you need to conduct calisthenics, go for a long run or lift weights. Afterwards, take a shower & go to bed. Often that is all you need to fall fast asleep.”
I sincerely wish I had this advice available to me when I went through my years of sleep deprivation. I made the mistake of resorting to alcohol to try to help. The result? Not only would I wake up tired, but I would also be hungover!
And let’s talk about sleep for a moment. You will die faster from lack of sleep than you will from lack of food. Lack of sleep has been linked to the following:
Mental Health problems;
That’s just health issues. In relation to your performance at work, lack of sleep will impair your reaction time, judgement, vision, information processing, short-term memory, performance, motivation, vigilance, and patience. “A person deprived of sleep for 24 hours is virtually the physiological and psychological equivalent of being legally drunk,” (Grossman, pg 25).
So, to counter the effect of adrenalin, you should exercise. To stay healthy, you should also sleep.
But what else can happen during stressful survival incidents?
Most Police are usually taught, or at least aware of, that you can lose fine-motor skills during times of stress. This is associated with adrenaline and an extreme increase in your heart rate. But what is not normally taught is you can also lose your “near vision”. By “near” I mean roughly an arm’s length away.
Why is this important to know? Because that is the distance of the sights on your pistol, (or revolver for you SAPol and VicPol readers).
But there is a solution for both the loss of fine motor-skills and near-vision.
Breathe. Slow deep breaths are good, but the “Tactical Breathing” outlined by Grossman in his book On Combat is even better, (sorry, you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is).
In Deadly force encounters: what cops need to know to mentally and physically prepare for and survive a gunfight, (1997), Dr. Alexis Artwohl & Loren Christensen outline what perceptual distortions can occur during “combat”. Although I know a lot of Australian Police will balk at the thought of being in “combat”, please just accept it as a term used to describe a serious fight on the streets.
Dr. Artwohl & Christensen surveyed 141 Police survivors of deadly force incidents to ascertain what perceptual distortions they experienced. The results were:
Diminished Sounds (auditory exclusion) 85%
Intensified Sounds 16%
Tunnel Vision 80%
Automatic Pilot (“Scared speechless”) 74%
Heightened Visual Clarity 72%
Slow Motion Time 65%
Temporary Paralysis 7%
Memory Loss for Parts of the Event 51%
Memory Loss for Some of Your Actions (“Perseveration”) 47%
Dissociation (detachment) 40%
Intrusive Distracting Thoughts 26%
Memory Distortions (“Perceptual Set?”) 22%
Fast Motion Time 16%
(Into The Kill Zone by Dr. David Klinger is highly recommended for further information regarding perceptual distortions in combat.)
What is of interest here is that this clearly shows that Officers will more than likely experience more than one perceptual distortion. This should be taken into consideration by persons investigating Police Use of Force, and by the Officers themselves.
But that is what occurs during stressful incidents. The stress doesn’t stop there.
Let’s talk about afterwards.
Experiencing “stress” after a critical incident is normal. Recently I was contacted by a friend whom I supported and advised when they applied to join the Police. He told me about a fight he had on-duty recently, after which he was experiencing sleeplessness, dwelling thoughts, and worrying about everything he did during the incident.
The most important advice I gave him was that what he was experiencing was normal. It was fortunate that I had only a few days before read about this very subject, as I could explain to him what he could expect to happen, and how to deal with it.
But what is normal, and what is not?
Grossman quotes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which states that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs when:
1) You feel “fear, helplessness or horror” in a life and death situation, AND
2) You “persistently re-experience” the event, AND
3) You persistently avoid “stimuli associated with the trauma” including, “Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma,” &/or “Efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the trauma,” AND
4) The disturbance lasts for “at least one month,” and it “causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”
Does this sound like you? If so, then please, see a Doctor. It is not weakness to admit you are stressed. If anything, it takes strength to admit it. Don’t just do it for yourself, but for your loved ones. Seek help. I was once told, directly, by a Senior Sergeant that I was “weak” for taking sick leave for being stressed. I now realise that the person who said that to me had no care or concerns for the welfare of his staff, but was only trying to make life easier for himself. There’s a lot more I want to say on that subject, but it involves a lot of swearing, so let’s move on.
I need to make one thing clear here. When recognised early enough, PTSD does not have to be permanent. PTSD can easily be overcome if you take steps to address it. See a Doctor. Take time off work. Get help.
I recall one incident in which I chased an assault suspect along a rocky shoreline one night. (Speaking of perceptual distortion, I still to this day remember it happening in daylight!) Anyway, to cut a very long story short, the suspect ended up evading us by going into the ocean, near some dense mangroves, and we lost him. 24 hours later he washed back into the shore, and we were tasked to attend the “incident”. As soon as I saw the body I started shaking. I don’t smoke, but I had to borrow a cigarette from my partner.
You see, I immediately knew that this incident was going to become an Aboriginal Death in Custody Investigation. A nightmare for any Police Officer. My colleagues came up to speak to me, and I swore at them until they left me alone. I swore at Commissioned Officers and people who were unknown to me, accusing them of trying to pin the death on me. I don’t remember how, but the next thing I know I’m back at my station, with a very experienced Detective sitting beside me. He had closed the door to the interview room, and he said to me, “I know what our Orders say, but I’m not going to interview you. You’re going to go home and try to get some rest. My main concern is make sure that you’re ok.”
I could literally feel a weight lifting off me.
Although “minor” in comparison to what other Officers have gone through, I recall that event specifically due to what the Detective did. He knew I was stressed, and he went out of his way to do the right thing by me. Grossman makes the point that the right thing to say, or express to a “survivor” is not some macho expression, or to just leave them alone. The right thing to say, the right thing to do, is to just let them know that you are glad that they are ok. That does not mean slapping them on the back and loudly saying, “I’m glad you got the bastard.”
It is merely saying, “I’m glad you’re ok.” Even if they made mistakes, do NOT criticise. You can examine the incident later. The initial response should be to let the Officer know that it is their welfare that is important to you.
Now, for those of you in positions of Police Management, take heed of the following section. For those of you on the frontline, copy this and nail it to your boss’s door. This section is important.
Critical Incident Debriefing can significantly reduce the chances of Officers suffering from PTSD. One of the ideas behind debriefing is, “Pain Shared = Pain Divided, Joy Shared = Joy Multiplied.”
In Deadly Force Encounters, Artwohl and Christensen tell us:
A debriefing is any discussion after an event that helps the participant come to terms with it, and learn from it. Hopefully, it helps to gain closure so that even will not continue to cause emotional distress. An informal debriefing can simply be a discussion that arises spontaneously after an event, while a formal debriefing takes the discussion one step further because it’s organized and facilitated to ensure it helps everyone.
Lt Col Grossman makes mention of Dr Greg Belenky, a US Army Colonel and psychiatrist working at the Walter Reed Institute of Research. Dr Belenky is one of the US Army’s leading experts and pioneers in PTSD treatment and critical incident debriefings. Dr Belenky teaches that there are two primary functions of critical incident debriefings, and I will paraphrase Grossman here.
1) A critical incident debriefing is needed to reconstruct the incident from start to finish. This is to realise what was done wrong, what was done right, and to assist in amending SOP’s and / or training.
2) Remember how stressful incidents create perceptual distortions? The debriefing is a method of bringing everyone back together and allaying irrational feelings of guilt, plus any other concerns or emotions that prevent people from dealing with the incident. It helps morale. It can make lives healthier and may even save lives.
But, you need EVERYONE to turn up. Every person involved, whether it be the first Officer on the scene, to the Comms Operator, to the Operations Commander, all need to attend. Even if they do not want to attend. “I’m too busy,” or “I’m fine, I don’t need to go to a hug-fest.”
You can order them to attend, which may make them resentful, or you can explain that by attending, they can help their colleagues who may be suffering. That perceptual distortion may make one Officer feel deep guilt because he thought he didn’t act, whereby another Officer who was at the scene may speak up and say, “Whoa there. You did act. You took the guy down with a baton strike. You saved my life!”
A debriefing isn’t just for you, it’s also for your mates.
The main points you should take away from this article are:
- Exercise, not alcohol, will help you sleep.
- Feeling stressed from human aggression is normal.
- Sleep is important to a healthy life.
- Perceptual distortion will likely occur during critical incidents.
- PTSD is when certain emotions occur for at least a month.
- PTSD is not weakness.
- PTSD does not have to be permanent.
- Let “survivors” know that you are glad they are ok.
- Debriefing is an important tactic to prevent / reduce stress.
- Attend debriefings to help your mates.
If you wish to find out more about Lt Col Dave Grossman’s book On Combat, it is listed at
If you have any questions, concerns, or just want to discuss similar incidents that you have experienced, feel free to contact me. I also have further reading available on this subject if required.
Grossman, Dave. 2007. On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace. PPCT Research Publications, USA.
Artwohl, Alexis & Christensen, Loren. 1997. Deadly force encounters: what cops need to know to mentally and physically prepare for and survive a gunfight. Paladin Press, USA.
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