10 TIPS: For “Keeping it Together” After a Bad Call

October 1, 2019

(Originally Featured on PoliceOne)

If your tendency is to clam up after a rough day and to completely avoid work talk, consider changing your ways. The news is never lacking for some seriously horrendous incidents, from chilling incidents of child abuse to people killing their family members before killing themselves, to officers being assaulted and murdered. It goes on and on.

What’s the common denominator in all of these incidents? Cops are there dealing with them.

Although you can bet those officers are staying professional and doing what has to be done in the midst of a nightmare, there’s little doubt these incidents are taking an emotional toll. Here we explore “emotional first aid” tips you can use to help stabilize yourself and your family after you’ve dealt with a really bad call.

  1. Have a plan to involve your significant other when things are bad

Keeping your significant other completely in the dark about what you’ve experienced could be a recipe for domestic disaster. If you tend to clam up after a rough day and to completely avoid work talk, consider changing your ways, particularly if you’ve just dealt with a traumatic call.

Understandably, an officer who’s been subjected to an emotionally jarring incident would be hesitant to talk about it but keeping your spouse or significant other completely in the dark about what you’ve experienced could be a recipe for domestic disaster.

This doesn’t mean you need to tell your spouse every painful detail. That may not be helpful and could be a serious shock to the system for an unprepared spouse. The point is to alert them about the fact that you’re dealing with a painful experience so they have at least some understanding of why your behavior might change a bit.

If your spouse senses that something is really bothering you, he or she may probe to be helpful. If they’re not getting insight into what’s going on in your life, they may become increasingly concerned – and even angry – and their probing will likely continue. This can result in frustration on both sides and could even end up with your spouse emotionally disconnecting from you, which will ultimately make things worse. Lack of communication can be extremely detrimental to a relationship.

Have a plan in place that can help you tip off your spouse without making things emotionally worse for yourself. This is similar to establishing an off-duty family survival plan where you establish a “code statement” that immediately lets your family know that trouble is brewing. Before this, you have all developed an appropriate plan of action and each of you knows what to do to deal with the situation.

An emotional survival plan is similar. You and your spouse develop a statement through which you can clue them in to the fact you’ve been involved in a particularly trying incident and you need their support and understanding. Depending on your personality and your own needs when it comes to dealing with painful emotions, your family can take the action you’ve pre-determined is appropriate and helpful. If that is to give you space and avoid probing, that’s what they know to do. If it’s to sit quietly while you vent, that’s what they’ll do.

Officers should remain aware of their spouse’s needs as well. Your direct involvement in a particularly bad incident makes you the center of concern, but you can’t forget that watching a loved one navigate painful emotions can be extremely difficult. You need to make sure you get the space you need – if that’s what you need – but you’ve also got to realize that allowing yourself to remain isolated emotionally can be bad for your family and ultimately make things worse for you. Remain aware of the fine line between giving yourself time to gather your thoughts and sliding into a hole of isolation and silence.

  1. Acknowledge the incident was horrific

Cops tend to believe they’re supposed to be emotional super-humans, tougher than other people. They buy into the misguided idea that seeing bad things is just part of the job and letting it “get to you” is a sign of weakness that leads to professional doom.

The opposite is true. By virtue of their jobs, cops do see more bad things than most people. However, refusing to acknowledge that witnessing those things can be emotionally painful and believing that experiencing those emotions is a sign of weakness is what can ultimately jeopardize your ability to stay in this line of work for the long haul. Real strength comes in being honest and courageous enough to face painful emotions head-on and navigate through them.

If the incident was bad, say it was bad. Don’t minimize it and write it off as just being “part of the job” to avoid painful emotions.

  1. Accept your lack of control

One of the scenarios most feared by cops is one in which they have no control and no ability to help the helpless, particularly children. Other times, cops are called to the scene after a terrible deed has been done and they have to face the painful fact that they weren’t there to help prevent the incident and that they’re powerless to resolve the aftermath. What’s done is done and they’ve got no control over that. For police officers, who are driven to confront, prevent and protect, that’s a nightmare.”

One of the most helpful steps you can take after an event like that is to accept the facts, without second-guessing or dreaming up unrealistic “what if’s” like, “What if I had driven to the call faster, what if I said something differently, what if I had taken action sooner…”

Sometimes bad things happen and there’s nothing anyone could have done about it. It’s important to accept that. If you had no control, admit it…and believe it. This will help free you from the burden of dealing with unwarranted guilt, which can make difficult times much worse.

  1. Don’t avoid discussions about a bad incident and, if you have to, start them

You may find yourself thinking, “I just want this day to be over so I can act like it never happened,” or “The sooner I forget about this nightmare, the better.” All understandable thoughts, particularly after a bad incident, but following through on them is not advisable.

Humans – particularly officers – have a natural tendency to bury thoughts, emotions, and images deep in their minds if they’re painful or if they make them feel vulnerable.

Some people can compartmentalize their emotions, which means they hide them in a mental “box” and move about their day without any sign of distress. Those emotions may surface later in a different setting, like when they get home, but when they’re on the job it’s as though there’s nothing wrong at all.

Often, a couple of particularly common scenarios play out after a bad event, neither of which prove helpful in the long run. Sometimes cops get together over a few beers, talk about how bad the incident was for a little while, realize that it’s becoming too painful to think about and switch the subject. “OK, that’s enough. Sonofabitch! What’s this f’ing world coming to? Let’s talk about something else. I’m done with this!”

Another scenario that can play through is for the cops involved to simply put their heads down, nod in silent acknowledgment of the nightmare they’ve been thrust into, then move on with some kind of silent pact that the incident won’t be brought up again unless it has to be.

Discussing a bad incident with fellow officers – others you trust – is crucial to keeping yourself mentally on course. It doesn’t have to be a touchy-feely hug session, by the way. If that helps you, that’s great…do it! But for some officers, that’s uncomfortable. The core issue is having the courage to share the truth about your emotional reactions to a bad event not only with others who can benefit from your candor – like fellow officers who witnessed what you did – but also yourself.

  1. Give it time

Officers tend to focus on immediate action and resolution. Sometimes, their lives depend on it. However, it’s essential they realize emotional recovery after a bad call doesn’t always happen quickly. Sometimes traumatic emotions can linger. They can go away and unexpectedly resurface or they can stay forefront in your mind for some time.

The key is to give yourself the time you need to reconcile your response to the event. If it’s taking more time than you expected to move through the feelings, or if they go away and suddenly resurface, don’t let that throw you. As Calibre Press teaches in the Street Survival seminar, these are normal reactions to an abnormal situation.

  1. Work it out…literally

Exercise is amazingly effective at countering stress, clearing your mind, eliminating harmful toxins and helping to prevent emotional difficulties from spiraling into physical illness. People suffering from depressive feelings, anxiety and other post-trauma emotions can tend to become sedentary. They just can’t seem to find the drive and energy to do anything physically taxing. This in itself can deepen the negative emotions. If you can push through that and force yourself to do something physical – biking, running, walking, punching a heavy bag, whatever – you’ll not only regain a sense of self-control, but you’ll also reap the many benefits of tiring yourself out.

When it comes to exercise, it’s also important to remember that you don’t need to – and really shouldn’t – push yourself into over-achieving. In an effort to deal with some of the negative emotions they’re experiencing, some officers may decide that one way to make themselves feel better is to set a new personal record or push themselves to go farther physically than they’ve ever gone before. This isn’t advisable. The key is to work out enough to burn off some of the negative, stress-induced body chemistry, not to push yourself to exhaustion or injury. A “maintenance workout” will do the trick.

  1. Get professional help if you (or your spouse or a close friend) think you need it

Talking about getting emotional help used to be a taboo subject in law enforcement. Thankfully, those days are over. Now, departments offer help in a variety of forms of psychological assistance and many private counselors specialize in working specifically with law enforcement officers, so there are resources available.

Not every officer needs professional psychological intervention after having dealt with a particularly bad call but in many instances, seeking that help is the only way some of the painful – and sometimes harmful – emotions can be effectively dealt with. The rule of thumb is to seek help, even if it’s just one visit with a trained counselor if you have the slightest inkling you might need it.

  1. Allow yourself to “get over it”

An interesting phenomenon worth commenting on involves officers feeling guilty for starting to feel better. This can be the case when an officer had to deal with the aftermath of a horrible event that victimized someone particularly vulnerable, like a child or an elderly person, and they were completely unable to help protect them. It’s as though the officer is trying to psychologically compensate for “not being there for them.” They seem to feel that it’s now their responsibility to carry that victim’s pain.

If the officer’s painful emotions start to subside, they tend to fall into a trap of thinking they’re not caring anymore. It’s as though they’re feeling like they’re letting the victim down – in their mind, for the second time – for not continuing to suffer. If this starts happening to you, take immediate measures to counter it or it can spin into a downward spiral.

One of the most important steps you can take in a situation like this is to share your feelings with someone you trust…a spouse, a counselor, a fellow officer. Your support people can provide you with a much-needed reality check.

  1. Let it out

Feel like yelling? Yell!

Feel like crying? Cry!

Feel like punching something? Find a heavy bag and go to town.

Denying how you feel is a futile and counter-productive attempt to avoid feeling out of control and uncomfortable. How you feel is how you feel. Admit it, deal with it and release it. It will do you a world of good.

  1. Help other officers…you’ll ultimately help yourself

When the smoke clears and you’re back on track emotionally, you can use your experience to help other officers. If you know of another officer who just dealt with a really bad call, be proactive and reach out. Let him know you’ve been there yourself and you’re here for him. Just taking that first proactive step of reaching out can have a major impact on a fellow officer’s life…and your own.

What do you do to help yourself cope after a really bad call?


For more practical tips on living healthy – both physically and mentally – as a cop be sure to check out Calibre Press’ popular book, Mindful Responder, by Crawford Coates.

“I was, to put it mildly, skeptical about mindfulness and meditation – until I read this book,” says Calibre co-owner & Director of Curriculum Jim Glennon. “Coates knows first responders and speaks to the challenges of this work in a language that grabbed me from the get-go. Essential reading that’s going to a lot of first responders a lot of good.”


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