Police Psychology has a strong cognitive element. Thoughts are very powerful. They have the ability to shape your reality and create a world that is completely different than anyone else’s. They can provide you with questions and solutions that help you function better in day-to-day life. They can help you dream about, and plan for, the future. Yet, thoughts can also be very intrusive. Have you ever stayed awake late into the night, tossing and turning, trying to get some disturbing or unpleasant thought out of your head? How about trying to forget about something uncomfortable that occurred earlier in the day (or earlier in the week) in order to move on? The truth of the matter is “thoughts” seem to play by their own rules. They’re like your annoying neighbor who constantly stops by uninvited and never seems to leave. You can drop as many hints as you want—“Well, Steve, we should really do this again some time…how about next year…?”—but they never seem to get the hint. Thoughts sometimes act in this same indifferent way: they are always around when you least want them to be there, similar to the voices in your head that are like little gnats that buzz around you no matter what you try to do to avoid them. And it’s never the intrusive thought about lying on the beach with a Bond girl strapped to your side that you can’t get rid of, at least not anymore.

Police Psychology: The Debilitation of Thoughts

Thoughts can even be so debilitating that it becomes difficult to function. In fact, in police psychology, such a phenomenon is actually pretty common. We call it “symptom stress”—when the symptom so stresses you out that it becomes worse than the original stress. Here’s a fairly common example: Sam suffers from anxiety and starts having heart flips when he is doing something (called PVC’s). It sort of normal at first, but he has become so attuned to them that now any time he’s out in public he experiences severe panic attacks because he is going to die of a heart attack. He’s told it’s nothing to worry about, his heart is fine, but that is easier said than done. His next step, is that he is so afraid of the panic attacks that he avoids all contact with people for fear that he will have a panic attack and embarrass himself. Thist is symptom stress, and it can significantly impede a person’s functioning, destroying your focus, bringing any and all personal movement to a near permanent stop. And, it happens a lot.

Here’s another common example of symptom stress: Lucy has an important interview tomorrow and she knows she needs to get a good night’s sleep in order to make her best impression tomorrow. She gets ready for bed but she is really worried that she won’t be able to fall asleep. She lies down in bed, snuggles under the covers, closes her eyes…and can’t sleep. Why? Because she is so worried she won’t be able to sleep, that her worrisome thoughts are actually preventing her from getting that good night’s sleep. Her fear of not being able to sleep is the only thing that’s standing in her way of a good night’s sleep! She creates the reality through fear! And it doesn’t work with thought of winning the lottery. That’s the real problem with this.

Sometimes it can create another problem. For example, often when a police officer has a little cold or infection and gets a touch of diarrhea, he start getting worried that he won’t be able to control himself while he is on patrol. Symptom stress takes over. Long after the infection is gone, he still has the fear and it develops into an Irritable Bowel Syndrome where he always feels like he is going to have to go. That’s debilitating to an officer who can’t always find a bathroom. This is actually the number one physical problem of police officers.

Police Psychology: Symptom Stress is Worse than the Symptom

Symptom stress is different than regular anxiety or stress because you can’t blame neurotransmitters or an overactive sympathetic nervous system. It is entirely psychological: you are so worried about having a panic attack that your thoughts actually trigger the panic attack. In other words, your thoughts have total power over you. In general, we are good about controlling what we think about, and how we think of different things. If we want to have a good day, we just tell ourselves we will have a good day, and our thoughts follow. If we want to get upset at everything, we will search for little things to get upset about. But with symptom stress, your thoughts take over completely—they take your body and your mind hostage. You are like a pinball bouncing off of different fears and voices in your head. The fear of these symptoms consumes you so completely that normal functioning becomes all but impossible. The thought of going outside becomes unbearable. The thought of going into work is too much. Even getting dressed, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, eating lunch, answering your phone all seem like insurmountable tasks.

In police psychology, we need to learn how to prepare for such a situation, and teach our cops how to deal with these thoughts and feelings so they don’t become so debilitating. The good news is there are ways to deal with it, and you can learn how to overcome such debilitation. Start with the concepts below and then get a little help if you need to. Or get a Bond girl (or James Bond himself if you are so inclined) then you’ll deal with real problems.

Three Ways to Deal with Symptom Stress
1. Get Over the Uniqueness Idea — Okay, I know you feel bad, but this happens to most people. You aren’t the only one that has irritable bowel, or panic attacks or whatever. You are not going crazy. You are not weak. Get those ideas out of your head. The problem is not insurmountable, or inconceivable or unique in any way. It is a simple problem with a simple solution. So take a few steps to reduce the number of occurrences and get fixin’ it.
2. Separate the Symptom from the Symptom Stress – Tune into what you are actually feeling. If you smash you hand with a hammer by mistake what do you feel? There is a change of pressure on the hand, there is blood rushing to the hand, there is some sensation or stinging in the hand, etc. You create the idea of pain. In a panic attack, there’s problems breathing, there is tension in your chest, there may be a heart flip or two, etc. Then handle the real symptoms one at a time. Breathing exercise, muscle relaxation, saying the better thoughts out loud or repeatedly, all things that leads to relief. Panic sets in your head, nowhere else.
3. Measure Success – This is the hardest concept to get across. Behavior has different dimensions that can be measured – frequency, intensity and duration. In other words, how often it occurs, how powerful it is and how long it lasts. If you go from panic attack multiple times a day to once every three days, you have been successful and what you are doing is working. If they are as frequent but less intense, you are successful. Get it out of your head that it has to disappear all at once. Life isn’t that way. When I can get people to accept that they need to look at all dimensions to measure success, symptom stress is on a weak footing and people get better.

Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.

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