It’s like a slow drip into a bucket that never gets emptied, until the bucket overflows. Cumulative trauma has also been referred to as cumulative post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). John Marx, founder of Copsalive.com, calls it Blue Trauma Syndrome. It consists of having difficult experiences over a long period of time that simply add up. This is different from how we typically think about PTSD in combat veterans, accident victims or victims of rape. Oftentimes, we acknowledge the impact resulting from one traumatic event when it interferes with functioning normally. Cumulative trauma symptoms, however, are easily overlooked and often go untreated.
In law enforcement, sworn personnel tend to pride themselves on being able to persevere no matter what tragic or horrific events are happening. It is their job to manage the most nightmarish circumstances, which often involve homicide, suicide, violent attacks and severe accidents. Deputies are placed in life-threatening situations on a daily basis and experience terrified victims and bloody crime scenes firsthand. Deputies continue through these tragedies and daily threats to complete their work and maintain high professional standards. But what is the impact of bearing witness to so much trauma over a long period of time?
I vividly remember seeing my first dead body, seeing a person commit suicide by jumping off a railing. I can still hear the sound a head makes hitting concrete like it was yesterday (it was actually 18 years ago). These were difficult experiences, but they didn’t impact my ability to perform my work. What did they do to me? The symptoms of cumulative trauma start slow and can be easily dismissed. Fatigue, feeling emotionally numb, having low or no interest in social activities, withdrawing from friends and family, irritability and denial can be ignored or rationalized as being due to working too much overtime or being “too stressed” (with the assumption they will go away). But they don’t go away, and the symptoms can get worse. Chest pain, difficulty sleeping (or sleeping too much), sweating, bad moods/mood swings, anxiety, angry outbursts or having a “short fuse” can further distance us from our support systems. Ultimately, long amounts of time are spent just feeling emotionally and physically exhausted and disconnected. Many think this is just what comes with a very stressful job and they simply have to deal with it. But the drips keep dripping and the bucket can overflow. For some, this is indeed an issue of career survival, as the symptoms can lead to on-the-job issues, greater susceptibility to injuries and overall poorer functioning. But for others, the chronic symptoms, though managed through their career, can lead to problems after 20 or 30 years on the job.
Just as law enforcement is constantly training and refreshing perishable skills, so too must we regularly reinforce our ability to withstand the stressors of the job chipping away at our ability to live a full and satisfying life. It’s our choice whether to control the flow of water into the bucket. There is no one cure for vague feelings of disconnection, numbness or plain old exhaustion, but there are small things that can be done to help reconnect ourselves to ourselves:
1. Go be social: Plan once a month to have lunch with a friend, attend a family gathering or go on a date! It becomes so easy to stay at home that we forget how revitalized we can feel after just a brief reconnection with someone we cherish (or even someone new).
2. Do something you enjoy: This is a form of personal recreation therapy, and it does heal in ways we often can’t acknowledge. When work and family life are out of balance, the first thing we start to neglect is ourselves. Something you enjoy can be small — go to a swap meet, visit the beach, have a leisurely brunch, anything that relaxes your mind.
3. Plan to connect with those you love: Living with chronic exhaustion disconnects us from ourselves and those we love. Soon we don’t even know our children or significant other. Start a family tradition of game night, a morning or bedtime ritual of “What did you learn today?” (good for kids and adults), or any brief activity that involves talking and connecting so that you can know each other again.
Dedicating your life to public service is a testament to how you already see yourself as an integral part of the growth and safety of our communities. A career in law enforcement does not mean sacrificing personal satisfaction and health. It does mean that all those amazing qualities that made you initially choose law enforcement can also be applied to your personal growth and wellness, to be the best at work, at home and within yourself.
If you want more information, there are many articles online about the cumulative trauma effects in law enforcement and strategies for reinforcing, relearning and re-energizing ourselves. Call Psychological Services Bureau for a consultation or to make a confidential appointment at (213) 738-3500. To obtain additional information, you may visit our intranet site: http://intranet/intranet/ESS/Index.htm.