Jumping out of a moving airplane and parachuting down to a specific target is terrifying. In fact, I am not alone in this perception. Military paratroopers are among the most elite military positions. Do you think a newly admitted paratrooper-trainee is prepared to meet the psychological demands of jumping out of a moving airplane? I imagine not; in fact, it is normal for a paratrooper soldier to experience an exaggerated stress response during their first jump, and second, and third, etc. The stress experience BEFORE the jump is also considerable as the soldier has little idea what to expect, this is the first experience. The training of a paratrooper then must incorporate insight into the natural stress reactions before, during, and after a jump from a moving airplane. Too much stress can impact cognitive functioning and actually lead to performance risks.
During the first jump there is a considerable stress response, as we have noted. However after each successful subsequent jump what we notice is a tendency for the stress response to become less intense and also less in duration, both during the jump as well as before. Why? Well, one of the major factors for this is that after each jump the soldier learns what to expect. Having a degree of predictability can impact the intensity of a stressor. At the same time the soldier also has learned how to manage the task at hand. So there is not just the predictability of what to expect, but also the perception of being able to handle it. Through repeated exposures to the event the emotional responses of a stressful situation (i.e. jumping out of an airplane) become more manageable. Without that predictability AND internal sense of capacity/ability to manage the situation performance can remain poor and even risky. This is the basis of learning.
I like to apply this very same example to law enforcement officers (LEO). It is highly important for departments to pre-evaluate appropriate candidates who want to become LEOs; this maximizes the candidate pool of individuals who are appropriately adjusted to meet the tasks at hand. Next you don’t send police officers that are newly hired out on the streets. You send them to a training academy that is based on developing not only knowledge but skills and abilities in meeting the demands and rigors of the job. There is the Field Training Officer (FTO) period where the skills are applied and evaluated. This whole process is aimed at developing the internal perception of ability where officers are equipped to handle diverse sets of tasks as well as inoculating exaggerated stress responses. The training has a direct impact on the emotional reactions when exposed to stressful situations. If not, responding to a crisis can lead to excessive stress responses and impact effective performance.
What is different from law enforcement and paratroopers is that the soldier jumps out of the plane and a few minutes later is on the ground having navigated a successful landing. A Police Officer is on a shift for extended periods of time and over time this can influence a LEO to switch from perception of personal ability to perception to emotional control and suppression. The former is a positive where, like the paratrooper, there is an internal sense of mastery and ability. The latter is a maladaptive way to cope in suppressing the often natural emotional consequences of stressful situations (i.e. police work) and applying them to multiple life circumstances.
The police must learn to trust themselves and also to acknowledge their stress responses and emotions. Losing grip on this delicate balance can result in a downward spiral of further loss of control and exaggerated stress responses. The thought is not only to foster a degree of resilience during times of action, but also an appreciation of the requisite steps to foster wellness. This is where continued contact through consultation and wellness training can have a positive impact. Acquiring and consulting with experienced and qualified mental health professionals can assist in the overall insight within a department to improve performance via resilience and minimize emotional distress through education and processing. Obviously, this is a simplified way of looking at this material, yet when applied it can legitimately change lives and institutions for the better. Please contact me to discuss further at 800-962-5763. Visit www.AtlanticOccuPsych.com for more information about our services.