5 steps officers can take to process emotions after a traumatic event

It is imperative that officers process their emotions after exposure to these events to avoid long-term mental health issues


Police officers are often exposed to traumatic events that include violent crimes, accidents and natural disasters. In fact, police officers experience well over 210 traumatic events in a career when a typical person may experience 1.5 traumatic events in a lifetime.

These incidents can have a significant emotional impact on officers, leaving them with feelings and thoughts that run the spectrum to include shock, denial, anger, rage, sadness and confusion, at the very least. Responses to trauma can be immediate or delayed, brief or prolonged. It is imperative officers process their emotions after exposure to these events to avoid long-term mental health issues.

It is crucial for officers to understand that it is normal and natural to feel emotions after exposure to traumatic events. Emotions are a natural response to a traumatic event. Here are some strategies to help officers process emotions:

  1. Take a break: Officers can take a few moments to remove themselves from the situation and collect their thoughts. This allows them to process their emotions and reactions before continuing their duties.
  2. Talk to colleagues/debriefing: Talking to colleagues who have been through similar situations can provide officers with emotional and peer support, and help to normalize their experiences and share coping strategies. Research on the effectiveness of applied critical incident debriefing techniques in the workplace has demonstrated that individuals who are provided this within a 24–72-hour period after the initial critical incident experience less short-term and long-term crisis reactions or psychological trauma. 
  3. Engage in deep breathing exercises: Deep breathing exercises can help officers calm down, reduce anxiety and manage their emotions. This technique can be done anywhere, anytime, and it only takes a few minutes. Try breathing in for four seconds, hold it for four and release for four.  Do this technique four consecutive times and you will see how your body will become naturally calm.
  4. Try to maintain normal routines: Stick to established routines for meals, exercise and sleep. Incorporate exercise to help release pent-up emotions and reduce stress.
  5. Seek professional help: It is essential officers seek professional help if they are struggling with their emotions. A culturally competent mental health professional can provide support, counseling and resources for coping with traumatic stress.

By using the strategies outlined above, officers can process their emotions in a healthy way, preventing long-term mental health issues. Police departments should encourage their officers to seek support when needed, to ensure they can continue to serve them.

There is no shame in asking for help: The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, across the United States. Call or text 988 to connect with a trained crisis counselor. Support is also available via live chat at 988lifeline.org.

References

American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association.

Bohnert M, Ross SE, Ahmedani BK. (2021). Police officer wellness and resilience: A systematic review. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 1-17.

Bureau of Justice Assistance. (2019). Officer wellness and safety. U.S. Department of Justice.

Kang L, Teng Y. (2021). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for police officers: A randomized controlled study. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 26(3), 280–291.

NEXT: How to build and sustain an effective officer wellness program

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