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"Tangential trauma" & the Katrina Crisis

5 tips for protecting yourself so you can continue to protect others

A PoliceOne Special Report by Scott Buhrmaster, Managing Editor

As is often the case in mass crisis situations, the reach of traumatization can spread far beyond the ground zero region. The devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is horrific and the reports PoliceOne has received from the field tell of an unimaginable atmosphere of suffering for the victims in the area, including police, fire, EMS and other emergency response personnel.

As promised, we will keep you updated on the current response efforts and detailed news reports in the Hurricane Help & Information Center as well as maintain the flow of communication between those officers on-site and those from outside the area who can offer help in the Hurricane Helpline Forum and through the Hurricane Help List.

As we all watch the trauma in the crisis area continue to unfold and compound, we feel it is important to discuss the issue of tangential trauma, the often unexpected and potentially devastating emotional impact those watching "from the outside" can suffer.

PoliceOne.com spoke with Dr. Nancy Davis, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and job-related trauma in law enforcement officers.

Dr. Davis offered the following 5 tips for protecting yourself so you can continue to protect others:

Watch for "psychological linking"

Dr. Davis cautions officers nationwide to remember that the current images of mass suffering and devastation can resurface their own past trauma.

"Officers who have experienced traumatic events may be harboring memories that the horrors of the hurricane aftermath can 'link' to. This 'linking' phenomenon may reenergize memories that, until now, have remained below the surface. Be prepared for that and don't let it catch you off guard. Awareness and early intervention can be a crucial first step in control."

Watch your sleep patterns

"Some of the detrimental symptoms I encounter in police clients can boil down to simple sleep depravation," says Dr. Davis.

She suggests that you keep close track of your sleep patterns and recognize when you're not getting enough.

"Traumatic images can cause officers - and anyone for that matter - to loose sleep. The problem comes when four or five hours or less of restless sleep a night is allowed to become the norm. Your mind and body don't get the rest they need and they begin losing their ability to function at full capacity."

If you find you're not sleeping, take healthy measures to do so. Methods can include exercise, avoiding caffeine and alcohol, preparing your room for sleep by eliminating all possible noise and light, and following a structured bedtime routine whenever possible.

If none of the "typical" methods for getting sleep are helping, Dr. Davis strongly suggests that you seek assistance, remembering that some of the changes to brain chemistry that trauma can cause may only be only treatable by a trained medical professional.

Control your traumatic intake

In the weeks that follow a mass tragedy like Hurricane Katrina, reports, images and discussion of the horrors abound. Dr. Davis suggests that those who can control their exposure to this input do so.

"Obviously there are those who will be exposed to the traumatic setting day in and day out because they are the emergency responders who need to be there, whether their post was in the crisis area originally or whether they chose to voluntarily go and lend additional support.

"There are scores of others, however, who cannot be there, although they may want to be, because they are needed where they are. These officers have the ability to control their exposure to the trauma, and they should take advantage of that opportunity.

"Just because you're not watching reports of the crisis or thinking about it every minute of the day doesn't mean that you don't care. It means you're actually taking a healthy approach to the situation as you are able."

Talk with others if it helps... don't if it doesn't

"Some people find talking with others about traumatic situations like this to be therapeutic. Others don't. You should know what works for you, what gives you relief, and pursue it. If you find yourself constantly forced to engage in conversations about the crisis and it's stressing you out, avoid those conversations - even if you simply need to walk away."

Recognize your sphere of influence and your limitations

"Police officers in particular have a very hard time feeling helpless. If they see a problem, they want to fix it. If they see trouble, they want to help. If they can't, it can be nearly unbearable.

"Watching a crisis unfold on T.V. and in the newspapers can be exceptionally traumatizing to officers who feel it's their job, regardless of where they are, to rise to the challenge and take control."

Dr. Davis recommends that you remember what you can, and can't, do to help.

"Recognizing and accepting your limitations in crisis situations can be your contribution. If you subject yourself to excessive mental stress, you will become less productive overall and less able to meet your own personal and professional responsibilities. Do not fall prey to feeling guilty for not being able to control what is out of your control. Help when you can, as much as you can, but recognize your limits."

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