Police Mental Health: Officer Fatigue

This is taken from a blog written by Jeff Shannon, a police officer and a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in California.

Early on in my police career I figured there was something going on with this fatigue thing. I'd worked my whole life, knew what it was like to put in a full day and come home tired. I'd also been married seven years by the time I went into the police academy and fatigue in and of itself was never a marital issue. But the fatigue I experienced as a cop felt like a whole different beast. As an officer, being tired wasn't so much a mood as a complete mental, and physical breakdown. In fact, I call it "fatigue" but this word doesn't do it justice. That vegetable-like, completely psychically checked-out state cops fall into after getting home warrants it's own word. Another label for this dulled state of consciousness comes to us by Dr. Kevin Gilmartin in his excellent book, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement. He calls it the "hypervigilance biological roller coaster.” Gilmartin offers a detailed, biologically-based explanation for officer fatigue.

How, you may ask, can officer fatigue become so serious that it creates marital problems? It wasn't until I came across Gilmartin's work that I began to really understand officer fatigue. Gilmartin describes the physiology of officer fatigue as an inevitable product of hypervigilance. Anderson (1998) refers to the constant state of readiness necessary for an officer’s survival as “cop-face,” another descriptive and accurate term. Let's try and understand how officer fatigue is produced, what makes it different and how to minimize it's deleterious impact on marriage.

Officers are trained to use some version of the Cooper Color Code, in which different states of mental awareness are assigned colors. White, for example, is the condition we're in while daydreaming, or taking a relaxing walk in the woods. Officers are trained never to step inside a police station while in code white. In fact, some trainers believe cops should never be totally relaxed. But let's not get into the details of the Cooper Color Code. Suffice it to say, cops are always supposed to be vigilant while at work. To be in any way relaxed while on patrol increases the chance that you will be injured or killed.

Of course, one problem officers face, frequently without being consciously aware of it, is guilt about the fact that they aren't in this vigilant state at all times at work. That's because our bodies register the "vigilant all day" thing as an absurd request and rejects it. Our bodies can't maintain this elevated state of awareness without a rebound affect. The rebound for prolonged vigilance (a.k.a. hypervigilance) is extreme lethargy.

And isn't it a kind of lethargy officers fall into at home? After working and especially on weekends, we simply want to sit and engage in meaningless activities, such as video games (preferably the "first person shooter" type), internet, and sleeping. Gilmartin calls it sitting in the "magic chair." We all have that familiar place in our homes where we gravitate after work. We occupy this place (sometimes a chair) and decompress. What's happening is that our brains are on overload. These so-called meaningless activities actually serve the very important function of releasing steam from our heads. We can, if left to our own devices, do these post-work activities for many, many hours. We feel the tension in our heads begin to dissipate. Then we go to sleep.

On our weekends our bodies are bouncing back from the hypervigilant state they were in all week. The net result is that we are exhausted, both mentally and physically. We don't want to make any decisions, don't want to engage in idle chat or plan activities. We just want to recover. Importantly, this recovering isn't laziness, nor is it meant to convey the message, "I don't care" to our spouses and children. Consider a natural disaster or family emergency which required you not only to be awake for many hours, but necessitated your being extra alert. After the emergency ended your body and mind would need to recover. It's not your attitude, it's your body.

Yet, for the non-police partner this checking out business doesn't really work. Our partners have been without us all day or week. Perhaps, they've been single-parenting all day or week as well. After work and on the weekends they need our attention (not to mention our help), as do our children. That's the problem. This is the classic clash of needs. One partner really craves, and physiologically needs X and the other equally craves Y. There are things you can do to minimize the impact of this phenomenon on your marriage.

By our own awareness that fatigue can be a real issue in police families we reduce the harm associated with it. Law enforcement couples need to talk about officer fatigue. Partners of officers should understand that, while it can be extremely inconvenient, it's not a personal rejection. Moreover, there are specific activities which help our bodies rebound more quickly from fatigue.

"Poor diets, high stress, pollution, and toxic work environments all take their toll, as does our consumption of stimulants such as coffee, tea, and colas. The use of these largely caffeine-based products disrupts eating cycles, creating rebound fatigue effects and contributing to low-blood sugar and adrenal exhaustion. Sometimes a solution to fatigue is as simple as taking a good multivitamin, more protein in the diet, or regular exercise." (Butler)

You already knew that though, didn’t you? The difference between surviving your law enforcement career and thriving in it requires putting our awareness into action.

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