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The Road to Wellness

Developing healthy lifestyles is an important component of officer survival.

November 01, 1996  |  by Lawrence Hieskell

Performance and Alertness

Being alert is of great concern and importance for police officers. The major determinants of alertness include the total sleep time the night before, the amount of slow wave sleep (SWS) and the regularity of the sleep and work schedule. It is well-established that performance varies with the time of day. Most performance curves can be brought into line with the well-known 24-hour body temperature curves. Those who like to go to bed late and sleep in have their temperature peak later in the day. There is a definite relationship between speed, accuracy, reaction time and body temperature. People generally do their best when their temperature is highest, usually in the middle of the wakeful period, with poorer performance in the morning and evening.

Supportive Sleep Measures

Research suggests that a steady exercise program deep­ens sleep. However, those one-day exercise binges may not deepen sleep that night. Vigorous aerobic exercise after waking has been shown to decrease the time needed to shift the circadian sleep/wake cycle from eight to 1.5 days. Although there is no direct correlation between caloric intake and sleep, those individuals who wake early might try a bedtime snack. Milk products also seem to improve sleep. Maintaining regular meals during the waking period aids in sleep and in general alertness. Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bedtime. Try to develop and practice a regular sleep ritual, and sleep only as much as you need to be alert. If you find that you cannot fall asleep in 30 minutes, then get out of bed and do an activity conducive to sleep, such as watching television or reading.

Relationship Maintenance

Personal relationships are essential for wellness. As humans, we need closeness with other peo­ple. We also have a need to feel accepted. A healthy life is charac­terized by relationships of endurance and personal signifi­cance. These relationships nurture us, but they also require giving. Devoting the efforts necessary for maintaining relationships is essen­tial for our continued wellness.

There is no correlation between the time a police offi­cer spends at work and marital happiness. Just being at home does not make a happy marriage. Marital problems may include communication gaps, perceptions of prob­lems and differing needs for intimacy. Spending at least 15 minutes each day discussing feelings and emotions with your significant other is an important part of growing relationships. Frequent discussions should take place regarding the demands of family life, work and the impact of rotating shifts.

Critical Incident Stress

Critical incidents are traumatic events that have sufficient emotional power to overcome the usual coping mechanisms of people exposed to them. Typical critical incidents that involve police officers are officer-involved shootings, multiple-casualty automobile acci­dents, injuries, deaths of children and line-of-duty deaths, all of which can have a traumatic emotional impact on police officers. Most law enforcement personnel will experience some degree of acute or delayed stress reaction in their lifetime, manifested by emotion­al, cognitive or behavioral side effects. For the majority of individuals, these side effects will be resolved in time. However, when an incident is extreme­ly powerful or greatly outside the range of human experience, post trau­matic stress disorder may develop.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) refers to a prolonged, some­times permanent, abnormal emotional reaction to a critical incident. The pri­mary characteristics of PTSD include the following: An individual is exposed to a sufficiently disturbing event. He or she continually re-experi­ences the event in dreams, thoughts or daily life. The individual avoids any stimuli associated with the event. He or she typically exhibits emotional, cognitive or behavioral signs that were not present before the event and have lasted more than one month.

Signs and symptoms of PTSD often include the loss of memory of important aspects of the event, loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed and feel­ing detached from others. Other associ­ated symptoms include sleep distur­bances, difficulty concentrating, intense irritability and loss of emotional control.


In the last 20 years, the concept of critical incident stress debriefing (CIS D) has evolved based on the combined experiences of police and emergency medical and disaster per­sonnel. The two main goals of CISD are to lessen the impact of distressing critical incidents on personnel exposed to them and to accelerate recovery from such events before stress reactions occur.

Critical incident stress debriefings are structured group meetings that empha­size venting emotions and discussing other reactions to a critical event. Most police departments and communities have a variety of resources capable of providing CISD. In addition, community hospitals and mental health services have assistance programs that can be used for debriefing purposes. Formal CISD teams also may be available through local fire and EMS agencies.

WeIIness is a complex subject. A career in law enforcement can place stress on a marriage and family. Shift work interferes with evenings, week­ends and holidays. That police offi­cers need to sleep in a quiet place is difficult to explain to young children who have expectations for interaction with their mother or father.

The disruption of circadian rhythms causes mood swings and chronic fatigue. Unpleasant work situations may spillover into interactions at home. Family members may become fearful that the officer will be injured or even killed at work by violence.

However, recognizing the imp0l1ance of proper nutrition, diet, exercise, suffi­cient sleep, communication and healthy relationships will allow officers to achieve personal wellness and a satisfy­ing career in law enforcement. Only by integrating personal and professional wellness can police officers continue to function effectively and maintain longevity in a law enforcement career.

Lawrence Heiskell is a reserve police officer and a SWAT team physician for the Palm Springs (Calif.) Police Department.

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