By Sara Butte, Ph.D.
Employees working in law enforcement are periodically subjected to witnessing or being involved in violent incidents (e.g., murders, assaults, injuries, disasters) and tragic incidents (e.g., death or injury of a partner/co-worker or a young child). These experiences, also called critical incidents, can have a significant impact on your physical, emotional and psychological well-being. In addition, critical incidents can have a cumulative effect. The following are some common reactions to critical incidents.
- Muscle aches
- Sleep disturbances
- Appetite changes
- Decreased libido
- Chest pains
- Tunnel vision/muffled hearing
- Feeling unappreciated
- Replaying the event
- Memory lapses
- Difficulty concentrating
- Wanting to lay blame
- Increased desire for control
- Easily startled
- Avoiding reminders
- Desire to be alone
- Drinking more alcohol
- Unusual clumsiness
- Taking more risks
- Inability to switch to off-duty mode at home
One or more of these reactions may occur immediately following the event, or the reaction(s) might not be felt for weeks or months. In addition, some perceived low-intensity incidents can still trigger the memories and associated distress of prior critical incidents. Incidents involving infants and children often provoke strong and similar responses from people who are parents, such as seeing the face of their own similarly aged child on the face of the child victim.
Responses to critical incidents are considered normal reactions to abnormal events. Most reactions will resolve themselves within a couple of days, and some may be present for upwards of a month. It’s not uncommon for people to have a delayed onset of these reactions, in which the reactions don’t appear for a few weeks or months. Sometimes, people don’t experience a reaction to the current incident until they’ve experienced another critical incident.
Tips for coping with critical incidents:
- Remember that these reactions are normal and should resolve soon.
- If your symptoms, for the most part, aren’t gone within a month, see a psychologist for assistance with further processing the incident.
- Within the first couple of days, engage in vigorous physical activity. Exercise and other physical activities produce endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers and enhance mood.
- Keep your routine and stay busy.
- Talk to safe people about your experience. You may need to talk about the event over and over again, as a way to process the experience.
- If you don’t want to talk about it with someone, try writing about it. This can be a very effective way to meaningfully process the event (which keeps the bowl of your psyche from getting too full). You can do this by describing the event and your thoughts and feelings about each part — including the event itself; the people involved; the responses of your co-workers, supervisors, family and friends; and other past events that it brought to your mind.
- Make sure to stay connected with friends and family (even if you don’t feel like it).
- Avoid alcohol, sugar and caffeine.
- Keep making daily decisions, but avoid making big decisions for a couple of weeks.
- Get enough sleep and eat healthy.
- Expect that reminders of that event, including the place where it happened and the clothes you wore, especially your uniform, may all trigger feelings of anxiety. Try not to avoid these triggers, because avoidance can fuel your anxiety.
If you would like to discuss critical incidents that you’ve experienced, feel free to contact Psychological Services Bureau and speak with a mental health professional. You can call (213) 738-3500 for a consultation or a confidential appointment. Additional information may also be obtained by visiting our intranet site (http://intranet/intranet/ESS/Index.htm).