by Dan S. Willis
La Mesa Police Captain (retired)
Based upon his emotional survival guidebook: “Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responders Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart” (New World Library, 2014) firstresponderwellness.com
Consistently being immersed in violence, tragedies, danger, evil, and suffering can often scar the spirit of any first responder. Tragically, each year more officers kill themselves than die in the line of duty, with an estimated 120,000 more suffering from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is essential for first responder agencies and individuals to incorporate proactive emotional survival training and wellness initiatives that nurture, protect, and heal the spirit—to bulletproof officer’s spirits to prevent them from becoming victims of their chosen profession.
The adverse effects of a career as a first responder are poisonous and cumulative. Like a cancer, dedicated yet unsuspecting officers have the potential to slowly succumb to the toxic, debilitating effects of acute stress and trauma with little training on how to effectively process the internal damage. The job has an inherent ability to turn officers into someone their loved ones no longer recognize. First responder agencies nation-wide lose far too many officers due to their inability, primarily from lack of wellness training, to prepare for and process stress and trauma in a constructive way. Losing an officer to suicide, depression, or emotional suffering should never be just part of the job. There are effective wellness practices that can work to insulate the spirit of officers and help them reach a natural retirement with a healthy mind, body, and spirit.
Traditional first responder training has focused almost exclusively on the mind and body, but neglects the most critical aspects of us all that make us human—our emotions and spirit. If an officer’s spirit is suffering, then they will not only tend to become emotionally, mentally, and physically ill; but the quality of service they provide to those who need the police the most, will also suffer. It is no longer sufficient to only train our officers to physically survive each day and then react when an officer is in crisis. The spirit and character of officers—how they learn to process emotional pain and acute stress—all determine their effectiveness in the profession, as well as the quality of their lives and careers and the quality of service to the community.
The Warning Signs
When asked, first responders will universally acknowledge that their job has adversely affected them at least to some degree—their relationships, their perceptions of others, and the quality of their lives. First responders are left with a choice to either do nothing and hope for the best (with often tragic results), or to actively promote wellness programs and emotional survival initiatives that will provide the essential tools needed to assist officers to not only prepare for trauma, but to learn how to more effectively process acute stress.
The first objective is to learn about the several warning signs that a first responder’s spirit has been damaged. These warning signs and associated problems never simply go away on their own. Instead they progressively, insidiously, worsen over time if not corrected. Any one of these warning signs is a serious indication that a first responder is having difficulty processing the stress of the job.
- Isolation: Over time there is a natural tendency for an officer to become increasingly isolated. This involves withdrawing—preferring the company of work colleagues or being alone over associating with other friends, family, and their related activities. Officers develop the tendency to disengage, not wanting to make decisions away from work, and preferring not to be involved with others, even spouses and children. Eventually, an officer can become distant and reclusive.
- Irritability: When affected, an officer will develop a shorter-than-usual fuse, fly off the handle for seemingly insignificant reasons, respond to questions in one-word sentences, usually say they are “fine” just to stop any further conversation, and keep everyone near them walking on eggshells for fear of how they will react. They may seem to be on edge, restless, and agitated.
- Difficulty Sleeping: Having difficulty consistently getting a good night’s sleep—either because of sleep interruptions several times each night or because the officer is only capable of sleeping for a few hours—is a sign that the officer is not effectively processing stress.
- Anger: When seriously affected, the officer begins to develop a pattern of taking out their stress and frustration on others, often those they care about most. They’ll use anger to control others, to keep others at a distance, and to avoid taking a real look at themselves to examine what is actually going on inside.
- Emotional Numbness: Becoming emotionally numb is inevitable, at least initially, and officers need to consistently work to prevent it from overwhelming them. The job will naturally tend to make them want to shut down emotionally as a way to no longer feel the frustration, stress, pressures, and emotional pain of the job. However, this inevitably leads to seriously damaged relationships at home. Before long, the officer becomes disengaged and indifferent to everyone and everything.
- Lack of Communication: As an officer increasingly withdraws, they will tend to make the serious mistake of keeping everything inside. This becomes serious because, as their communication skills diminish, they will refuse to talk about how work is affecting them. Feelings of depression, anxiety, helplessness, anger, fear, and other negative emotions will then tend to intensify.
- Cynicism, Distrust, and Loss of Work Satisfaction: If any of these warning signs are not addressed, the officer will likely become highly dissatisfied at work, extremely cynical, and distrustful of most everyone. This cynicism and negative outlook can send them into a downward spiral that eventually could affect every aspect of their quality of life.
- Depression: Ignoring any of these warning signs eventually can lead to clinical depression. Left untreated, this may worsen and become potentially severe depression, resulting in substance abuse, broken families and lives, and a host of other debilitating problems, up to and including suicide.
- Drinking as a Perceived Need or Habit: Drinking or consuming other substances because of a perceived need or by habit is a major warning sign. Alcohol abuse among police officers is about double that of the general population, with 23 percent of them seriously abusing alcohol. Drinking because of a need or habit tends to only intensify already serious problems and emotional issues, as well as problems at work.
All these warning signs present a sharp contrast to the outlook of the idealistic, positive, and enthusiastic officer who graduated from the police academy with high hopes. Any of these symptoms can become debilitating enough to change a police officer’s over-all health and wellness, as well as their ability to provide the most professional service to those in need, unless they do the work to bulletproof their spirit to survive emotionally.
The first step for an officer to bulletproof their spirit is to learn to become more self aware of not only how the job may be adversely affecting them, but what emotional survival methods may be effective to maintain their wellness. Officers should periodically be asking themselves questions, such as “What can I do to more constructively process stress and feelings of frustration?” “What can I do to be more engaged with my family and loved ones?” “What can I do to better promote my health and wellness?” Below are additional serious questions that officers should be trained to ask themselves:
1. “How do I deal with loss, pain, suffering, and a sense of helplessness? What is most effective? What else could I try?” One of the best ways to mitigate the effects of trauma is to be prepared for it. If nothing is in place and an officer has not developed any coping abilities to deal with these inevitable challenges, then their spirit is unprotected. A police officer’s job is replete with frustrating helplessness. They are often unable to save a life, protect a child, catch a perpetrator before he victimizes another, or turn a life around. If an officer is not able to face helplessness and come to terms with the limits of what they can do, then the job can consume them.
2. “How do I deal with a sense of loss of control?” Since so much of a police officer’s day is taken up by dealing with chaos and people out of control, they tend to try to control everyone and everything—to solve everyone’s problems at home and tell everyone what to do. Officers need to realize that the only things they can control are their own attitudes, their own reactions to things, and their integrity. Discovering how the officer personally deals with losing control of situations and people, without losing themselves, is an important lesson in maintaining wellness.
Additionally, officers should periodically ask their life partner if they have been changing, how the job has affected the officer, and what the officer can do to improve the relationship.
Wellness Practices to Bulletproof the Spirit
Contrary to popular myth, police officers are not invincible. They feel fear and are helpless at times. They suffer heartache, and they bleed just like everybody else. Wellness practices for the spirit, or spiritual wellness, is a concept fairly new to first responders, but learning how to nurture, protect, and sustain one’s spirit is critical for survival.
Following are several emotional-survival and wellness principles that officers should develop as part of a proactive wellness program. All of them can help improve coping ability, mitigate stress, prepare an officer to more effectively process trauma, and enhance their overall wellness.
1. Serve with Compassion: Search for ways to express and demonstrate service with compassion. The virtue of service is fundamental in making an officer feel alive and useful. The most meaningful things in life cannot be seen or touched, but are felt with the heart. A compassionate way of life and serving helps an officer become less self-centered and more useful to others. The more they learn to selflessly give of themselves in kindness, caring, and compassionate service, the more meaning, purpose, and joy they will experience in their lives and work. A police officer with a vibrant spirit is driven by the heart to solve problems, help those in need, and make the world, home, community, and work better places to be. It is important to their spirit to learn to focus on what their spouse, children, community, work colleagues, and others need from them rather than what they want from others.
2. Remain Involved with Outside Interests: Officers need to remain involved in activities they found fun and interesting before becoming a police officer. Most police officers spend significantly more time watching television and using a computer than they did before becoming an officer. Such activities tend to keep them isolated and away from more productive, life-sustaining activities that serve to breathe life into their spirit.
3. Establish a Support System: Develop a trusted support system made up of family and friends. Officers should discuss with them what to expect, how they are likely to behave after a critical incident, and how they can best support and most effectively help the officer. Officers’ physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being, as well as the quality of their life, all depend on their level of preparedness and the development of an effective support system.
4. Get an Annual Emotional-Survival-and-Wellness Checkup: As a form of prevention and wellness maintenance, officers should consult with a psychologist specializing in treating emergency first responders and trauma to determine if they are being adversely affected by past trauma and to gain insight into how to deal with trauma and stress more effectively.
The idea behind an annual checkup like this is not that “something is wrong.” Something may or may not be affecting the officer, but the emphasis is on getting a wellness check and discussing the previous year—both professionally and personally, as a preventative and wellness-maintenance measure. This is similar as going to a physician each year for a physical checkup. The goal is to accomplish several different things:
1. Discuss issues that are currently concerning to the officer.
2. Explore the past year in general and look for areas of concern or in which the officer might wish to make changes.
3. Examine the coping skills and resiliency the officer has exhibited during previous stressful and traumatic events, and discuss what the officer’s coping mechanisms are. Are they healthy? How might the officer improve on them?
4. Set goals for the next year.
5. Become comfortable talking with a therapist who is an expert in dealing with trauma, PTSD, and police officers. That way, the officer will be more comfortable seeking assistance if they ever feel it is needed in the future.
5. Mental Rehearsal: Officers should work at developing a mind-set that recognizes that they will eventually experience a significant traumatic incident, but that they will survive. They should envision how they will handle such an experience both during and after the fact, and what would help them process the trauma and place it in its proper perspective. Mental rehearsal and visualization—seeing yourself experience a traumatic incident and coming through it all right emotionally, physically, and spiritually, is essential.
6. Questions to Discover Meaning in Work and Relationships. Officers should determine the following:
1. What gives meaning and purpose to their professional and personal lives?
2. What provides hope, comfort, and happiness?
3. What are their ethics and character values and how can they be improved?
4. How do they maintain perspective and keep in touch with the most important people in their life?
5. In what ways do they work to improve the quality of their relationships?
6. In what ways do they harm those relationships?
7. In what ways do they show the most meaningful people in their life how much they are valued?
8. In what ways do they nurture their spirit?
9. Who and what are they responsible for at work and at home, and how consistently do they fulfill that obligation? How specifically can be done to improve?
7. Get More Consistent, Good Sleep: A study by the Harvard Medical School found that 40 percent of peace officers have sleeping disorders. In addition, this study showed that, out of five thousand officers, 86 percent slept only four to six hours each night. The absolute minimum hours of sleep needed should be seven to eight. Lack of good sleep will worsen an officer’s mood, decrease their alertness, interfere with their decision-making ability, impair their task performance, cause serious emotional and physical problems, and reduce their ability to concentrate and generally think. Eighteen hours of sustained wakefulness, according to the study, is equivalent to a .08 percent blood alcohol level.
8. Exercise as a Way of Life: First responders tend to significantly reduce their level of exercise as they progress through their careers. Maintaining a consistent exercise activity level, at least thirty minutes a day, four times a week, is essential, because it will significantly reduce an officer’s stress level, reduce their chances of getting injured, and enhance their coping abilities. Consistent exercise will reduce their chances of getting a heart attack or acquiring type 2 diabetes by 58 percent. It will also significantly reduce tension while they’re off duty and enable them to get more consistent sleep.
9. Strengthen Character: The quality of any person’s character is related to their integrity, dependability, trustworthiness, dedication, compassion, hard work, and selflessness. An officer’s character can always be improved upon. Focusing on strengthening their character will help to improve over-all wellness, peace, and coping ability.
10. Practice Humility: Officers should understand that there is infinitely more to learn about our profession than they will ever know. Excellence depends upon constant improvement and growth. Officers should always be striving to learn more about the job, how to be more effective, and how to be more useful to their coworkers, agency, and the community. The practice of being humble gives a person great strength and the power to lead and influence others, and it brings peace to a person’s spirit. People are naturally drawn to those who are humble, who are sincerely interested in others, always looking to improve themselves and learn, and never concerned with who gets credit or recognition. Also, a humble person is much more likely to seek help when needed.
11. Always Have Goals: Officers should learn to develop professional and personal goals that are reasonable and attainable which consist of short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals that they can work toward every day. This will help keep work and life from stagnating.
12. Practice Letting Go: Officers need to learn to be aware of how much they identify with negative thoughts and emotions, while learning to let them go. Every time they become aware of feeling a negative emotion, they should work to replace it with a more positive one. Every negative emotion, including anger, sadness, jealousy, envy, hurt feelings, revenge, and being unforgiving, acts as a heavy weight on their spirit and significantly depletes energy.
An officer learning to let go involves becoming more aware of how often they reinforce negative emotions through their speech and thoughts. These habits can be changed into more positive, constructive patterns of behavior. But rather than ignoring, re-enforcing, or suppressing negative thoughts and emotions, they need to learn to acknowledge them and let them go.
13. Think Positively: Positive, optimistic thinking is a proactive approach to improving and officer’s mind-set and life by practicing a more positive and constructive attitude. Instead of feeling negative, victimized, or helpless, an officer will, with a positive mind-set, gain a higher perspective of the issue and be able to think of constructive ways to manage or mitigate problems rather than feeling defeated. The consistent practice of positive thinking has an innate power to reduce stress, improve effective stress management, improve coping skills after trauma, reduce the intensity and duration of depression, and even improve overall health.
A positive mind anticipates happiness, joy, health, success, improved opportunities, and favorable results. With a positive attitude an officer can experience greater hope and more pleasant feelings, and they can visualize the results they want to achieve. Thoughts continually shape one’s attitudes, feelings, and quality of life, and so they affect how a person deals with stress.
Support from Home is Essential
The most-often overlooked pillar of support for emergency first responders is the most essential—support from home. Without understanding and care from partners and family, emotional survival support at work is ineffectual. Unfortunately, life partners of police officers receive practically no training at all regarding how to care for a spouse who has devoted his or her life to serving others. By learning how to nurture their first responder spouses, they can become hidden partners in achieving overall wellness and emotional survival. Below are specific ways and advice for spouses to provide essential emotional survival support to their law enforcement mate:
Create a stress-free home. Be positive, keep your first responder spouse centered, and enjoy each other. Be understanding. Listen to their needs, without forgetting your own. It’s crucial that spouses learn to read their law-enforcement mate and know when they need to talk and when they just need time to be alone and process what they’re feeling. Sometimes distance is necessary, but this need is not personal.
Giving them the time they need without feeling resentful is difficult but necessary. Spouses should recognize when their partner needs to talk, and make sure they are available when that time comes. Complaining or trying to force the law enforcement mate to talk will tend to ruin a marriage.
Spouses need to remember that spending time with their law enforcement mate is precious; they should value and make the most of it the best they can. Spouses should understand that time apart hurts the law enforcement mate just as much as it does them. Plan for activities ahead of time, prior to days off or the end of a shift. Otherwise, time together may end up being wasted.
Spouses should remember that first responders experience many terrible things in the course of doing their work. They want and need to be able to come home to a safe, peaceful, and loving home. If they know that at the end of their shift they will be greeted with complaints and arguments, they will likely choose to go elsewhere.
A career as a first responder involves sacrifice, a giving of oneself, and a selfless devotion to protect and give life to others. Inherent in this noble profession is a continual assault upon an officer’s spirit. Combating the evil actions of others while trying not to suffer with their victims makes it a daily struggle to emotionally survive.
It is not inevitable that officers will suffer and become a victim of their profession. First responders are not victims—but survivors and warriors of spirit. The consistent practice of emotional and spiritual wellness principles can enable officers not only to emotionally survive but to thrive throughout their career. It is imperative for officers to work to bulletproof their spirit because the protection of their community, the quality of their personal and professional life, the happiness of their family, and the wellness of their spirit all depend upon it.
1. “Tracking Police Suicides, 2008, 2009,” The Badge of Life, undated, http://badgeoflife. com/suicides.php. These numbers also reflect those reported in the ongoing research of John M. Violanti, PhD, author of Police Suicide: Epidemic in Blue (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 2007).
2. Elizabeth A. Willman, “Alcohol Use among Law Enforcement,” Journal of Law Enforcement 2, no. 3 (2012), http://www.jghcs.info/index.php/l/article /view/150/146.
3. Shantha M. W. Rajaratnam et al., “Sleep Disorders, Health, and Safety in Police Officers,” Journal of the American Medical Association 306 no. 23 (December 21, 2011), http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1104746.
Author’s Bio: Captain Dan Willis (ret) has served with the La Mesa Police Department for the past 26 years. He is a former SWAT commander; crimes of violence, child molest, homicide Investigator; and Wellness Coordinator. He is author of the book, Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responder’s Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart (New World Library, 2014). He is a graduate of San Diego State University in Criminal Justice and the FBI National Academy. He currently travels the country providing emotional survival training to first responder agencies. He lives in San Diego with his wife and two step-sons.