Be wary of the coiled rope

For officers who encounter daily threats, their coiled rope can cause inappropriate reactions

This might come as a shock that the Dalai Lama made a statement that is relevant to police officers.

The Dalai Lama said: “Once you’ve been bitten by a snake, you are wary, cautious even, of a coiled rope.”

The quote describes how the threat center of the brain, the amygdala, learns to identify and registers danger.

For officers who encounter daily threats and dangers, the meaning behind the coiled rope quote is significant.
For officers who encounter daily threats and dangers, the meaning behind the coiled rope quote is significant. (Getty Images)

The role of the amygdala is to keep humans safe and alive. In performing that duty, the amygdala keeps a historical record of what has threatened the safety and security of its human in the past.

For officers who encounter daily threats and dangers, the meaning behind the coiled rope quote is significant.

Reacting to that coiled rope is a normal, human, subconscious response that the officer cannot turn off and cannot unlearn.

When a human encounters the snake – a potential lethal threat – the amygdala activates the human’s sympathetic nervous system, putting the brain and body on high alert and initiating an adrenaline and cortisol surge.

The amygdala has learned that a snake is dangerous and will alert every time its human sees or contacts anything resembling a snake.

It doesn’t have to be a lethal threat for the amygdala to register a threat memory. An officer can stop a red Dodge Ram pickup. The driver gives the officer a hard time, calls the officer names, and later files a complaint that the officer was rude.

From that time on, the officer may develop an aversion to red Dodge Ram trucks without understanding why – the truck has become the officer’s coiled rope.

This function of the amygdala plays a role in why a person suffering from post-traumatic stress can be triggered by reminders of the trauma and then find themselves flashing back to the event and feeling the exact same body sensations they felt during the trauma. The amygdala’s history banks get energized by the trigger and cause the person to feel threatened once again.

The amygdala is an officer’s best friend and an officer’s curse

The amygdala helps you respond as you were trained in a life-and-death moment. But that coiled rope can become unraveled subconsciously and cause the officer to react inappropriately.

Many excessive force responses could be attributed to an officer’s coiled rope being stimulated and the amygdala sounding an alarm.

That’s the curse: when the amygdala becomes activated, other portions of the brain are deactivated. That includes the prefrontal cortex, or the executive, rational thinking portion of the brain. This physiological change can make an officer do stupid things.

Constant exposure to threats without purging the resultant hormonal dump can leave the officer excessively fatigued and angry.

What can an officer do?

How do you keep that coiled rope from unraveling when you don’t want it to?

You cannot control a subconscious amygdala response or override the amygdala’s programming. What you can do is be cognizant of how the amygdala and your brain function and be aware of what energizes and triggers your personal coiled rope.

The secret to regulating your amygdala response lies in controlling your sympathetic nervous system and keeping your prefrontal cortex in command of your actions.

Get in the habit of taking a few deep breaths before you exit your patrol car. Make that become a subconscious part of your workday and muscle memory. Research and MRI scans have shown that deep, abdominal breathing can regulate the amygdala response and keep the prefrontal cortex in control of the human brain and actions.

When you practice drawing your firearm, cuffs, or TASER, or practice tactical reloads, take deep breaths to make combat breathing part of your muscle memory.

After your shift, spend 10 minutes discharging your sympathetic nervous system. Sit quietly, clear your mind and breathe. Then run, lift weights, or perform any exercise or chore that stimulates your cardiovascular system. You need to purge fear and adrenaline from your body. Without that purge, your body will absorb the adrenaline and cortisol pumped into your blood from every time your amygdala imprinted a threatening encounter during your workday. Absorbing those hormones can set you up for health issues such as obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and depression.

You have to trick your sympathetic nervous system into believing you have “run” from the threat. This is the flight aspect of the flight, fight, or freeze response. Trick your amygdala into thinking you escaped those threats.

Your physical and emotional health will benefit from the purge and release of cortisol and adrenaline you built up during your shift.

Being aware of your coiled rope will help you understand when your amygdala goes on high alert and activates your flight, fight, or freeze response.

Managing that response can keep you alive on the streets, keep you from being indicted and keep you healthier after you retire.

Copyright©2023 Barbara A. Schwartz  All Rights Reserved.

No part of this article may be reproduced in any manner without the expressed written consent of the author.

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