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How rookie officers can build resilience

You will face traumatic incidents, so learn to build your resilience from day one, and accept help when you experience something above your ability to process


One of the central elements of resilience is your perception of your situation: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow?

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By Sergeant Eric Thorton and Sergeant Steve Breakall

Excited about your new career in law enforcement? Ready to hit the streets and start helping people on their worst days? Great! You should be! This is one of the most rewarding careers in the world, and you are about to have endless opportunities to help people that need it the most!

However, understand that with helping people comes the burden of taking on their trauma and stress. What you will witness will change you. If left unchecked it can lead to PTSD and other mental health issues. Fortunately, with a good understanding of what you will experience and how to process these incidents, not only can you withstand the exposure to trauma and stress but it can make you stronger and a better person, strengthen your personal relationships, and make you more devoted to your passions. We call this resilience and it can be learned.

What is resilience?

The American Psychological Association describes resilience as “adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.” Resilience has only been significantly studied for the past couple of decades. Prior to that, many people believed that resilience was something you were either born with or you weren’t. However, recent research and studies have shown that resilience can also be learned. The argument of nature vs. nurture often comes up, with many attributing resilience solely to our upbringing and our experiences throughout life. However, we now know that even without a resilience-building childhood we can grow our resilience later in life.

One of the central elements of resilience is your perception of your situation: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? Internally visualizing potentially traumatic events as opportunities can be difficult to do. Often we feel guilty. Even if we did everything right, we feel we could have done more. If we did something wrong, we will feel that one small mistake was the reason for the outcome, even if no decision or action could have changed the outcome. These are absolutely normal feelings to experience.

Hardiness: One of the pathways to learning resilience

Are you personally invested in helping people and improving your community, knowing you will be exposed to many potentially traumatic events? Do you understand that there are factors in every situation that we control, but also factors that we have absolutely no control over? Do you seek to improve after every situation, whether you succeeded or failed? These are the three core concepts of hardiness, one of the pathways to learning resilience.

Hardiness is described as the ability to endure difficult conditions. The three primary facets of hardiness are commitment, control and challenge.

Commitment: As police officers, we are committed to doing the right thing, helping people, saving lives, and protecting our communities from evil and danger. When faced with a potentially traumatic event, reminding ourselves of our commitment to the good work we signed up to do increases our resilience.

Control: As police officers, we are used to being in control. We show up at scenes and take control of everyone there. We often detain everyone until we know what happened and everyone (including us) is safe. One of the reasons that potentially traumatic events lead to injury is that we feel like we have no control. We watch a situation unfold not knowing what to do, either because we do not have a full understanding of what is unfolding, we do not have the time/resources to stop it, or because we do not have the training to handle the situation yet. That feeling exacerbates our stress in the situation and increases the likelihood of an injury after the situation as we second-guess ourselves and do not know how to process the thoughts and feelings we experience. By learning to control the things we can control and accept the things we cannot control, we increase our resilience.

Challenge: We must constantly challenge ourselves to improve. When a potentially traumatic event occurs and things inside our control do not go as well as they could have, we must challenge ourselves to be better. Our view should be that a potentially traumatic event is a challenge to increase our training and knowledge. During the event, we are getting firsthand on-the-job training on that specific type of incident but also training in our critical thinking, ability to handle stress and decision-making skills. After the event we learn through honest team debriefs, seeking out critique from senior partners and supervisors, and going to formal training.

Embrace laughter, positive emotions

Another pathway to resilience is laughter and positive emotions.

After experiencing a potentially traumatic incident it can be very difficult to allow yourself to have positive emotions. You may feel guilty, disgusted by what you saw, angry at the perpetrator, and a whole myriad of other negative feelings. Harboring those negative feelings will not change the outcome, but they will make you cynical, and bitter, and maybe even fill you with hatred. During a long career, these feelings will not make you a better peace officer, in fact, they will likely make you less effective at your job.

Similarly, with laughter, some find it very hard to laugh after having experienced a potentially traumatic incident. When we were rookies, we remember the old veterans being able to make jokes after any crime scene, or finding some weird aspect of a situation to make a joke about. We did not know it at the time, and they probably did not either, but they were effectively and positively processing their negative emotions and giving themselves an emotional release after a potentially traumatic experience. Be careful not to laugh and joke at the crime scene, which will be viewed as uncaring and disrespectful of the situation, but allow yourself to feel positive emotions and make jokes when you are in the privacy of your station or after work with your friends or significant others.

Seeking help is a sign of strength

Lastly, allow yourself to seek treatment when needed.

There is no level of resilience that will prepare you for everything you see in this profession. One day you will experience something that is beyond your emotional maturity and capability to psychologically process. Do not do what we and so many of our coworkers did and internalize those negative feelings and bottle them up for decades.

The one thing we have learned about mental health is that seeking help is a sign of strength. It shows that you know what you can handle and that you want to stay healthy for a long time. If we were to feel a small pain in our ankle we would probably be fine going to work and seeing how we feel. We tighten our boot a little tighter, and after work we would realize that the ankle is hurting more than we realize. We might even finish our work week and see how we are feeling with some rest. But if our ankle was not feeling any better within a few days we would go get some medical help. Treat your feelings and emotions the same way. If you are still thinking about the same incident a few days later, or it pops up into your brain for no reason a week later, or a few months later a song comes on and you’re reliving the scenario, that’s not weakness; that’s your body reminding you that you have a minor injury you should get some help for.

There are many resources out there. Ask your supervisor or a supervisor you trust. If your department has a wellness unit, ask for recommendations. If you do not have a wellness unit, call the biggest agency in the area and ask if they do. Reach out to your department’s employee assistance program. Find out what resources your health insurance plan has. Many states have state-level programs available. There are many non-profit organizations that offer police-specific mental health resources that can be found through a simple Google search.

Being a peace officer is one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. Because you know that you will face potentially traumatic incidents, learn to build your resilience from day one, and accept help when you experience something above your ability to process. You will live a much happier and healthier life, and find your career even more fulfilling.

Resilience in action

I remember the first time I responded to an infant in distress when I had less than one year on patrol. My team performed CPR on his blueish body for over 10 minutes until paramedics arrived. A heartbeat was restored and vitals were maintained. However, at the hospital, we learned that the baby was already braindead when we arrived on scene and there was nothing we did or could have done to change that.

Is it traumatic to experience the death of a helpless infant, especially when directly involved in the attempt to revive and stabilize the patient? Absolutely, but our decisions on how we view those incidents can help build our resilience and decrease the chance of an injury.

Despite how hard it was to continue working, I finished my shift and went to work the next day because I was committed to my community and the belief that I failed that infant made my commitment stronger. I also eventually learned to accept the fact that the infant’s death was completely out of my control. The outcome had been decided before I arrived on scene.

I also challenged myself to become better at CPR and first aid. I attended several tactical combat casualty courses that directly led to saving three lives over the next several years. I’ll never forget the memory of the infant who died in my presence, but by staying committed, focusing on the control I actually had, and challenging myself I unknowingly increased my resilience from that potentially traumatic incident. — Steve Breakall

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About the authors

Eric Thornton is a sergeant with the El Cajon (California) Police Department where he has worked as a patrol officer and sergeant, school resource officer, range safety officer, background coordinator, FTO, mobile field force officer and sergeant, and traffic sergeant. He is also a youth soccer coach, referee and club director. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminology and a Master of Science degree in Organizational Leadership.

Steve Breakall is a sergeant with the El Cajon (California) Police Department where he has worked as a patrol officer, gang officer, homicide detective, patrol sergeant and gang sergeant. He is also a US Navy Reserves Officer, currently deployed to the Middle East. He has a Bachelor of Science in Management and a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership.