The Badge and The Brain

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

Dr. Daniel Amen is a noted psychiatrist who is a fervent promoter of a healthy brain. In a series of books and in the practice of Amen clinics across the country, Dr. Amen preaches basic brain care to help prolong physical and mental health. In reading Amen’s books it becomes clear that police work is hard on the brain. Officers, their loved ones, and police leaders should be actively engaged in promoting brain health. The result will be better officers with better life quality and better job performance.

Traumatic Brain Injury and Concussions

Head injuries of combat veterans have prompted more research on their effects. Controversy about head injury in professional and amateur youth sports has resulted in greater attention to protective gear, and treatment and prevention of concussion. While serious injuries from car crashes or roadside bombs are clear indicators of potentially problematic head injuries, most blows to the head are not considered life-changing. We shake them off and go on with life.

But normal encounters with falls and bumps from activity can result in changes in the brain that may take years to manifest. Amen highly recommends keeping kids out of sports that have a likelihood of brain injuries like soccer, football, and gymnastics. While officers cannot always avoid activities that pose a risk of concussion, the use of helmets should be much more widespread than currently.

Helmets should be worn on fight calls, especially those involving a brawl with several persons, increasing the likelihood of an attack on an officer from behind or from a thrown object. This will require a shift in most officers’ thinking since wearing helmets on what are considered routine fight calls is not currently common.

PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder is not merely an emotional problem, but rather, a neurological condition that results from traumatic events that, in effect, rewire parts of the brain. Amen explains his theory of why an event may have little effect on one person but a tremendous effect on another. Every person has a set of experiences and coping mechanisms that usually operate in a brain with reserve capacity. When a brain has little reserve due to repeated trauma or other biological or emotional challenges, an event can be the proverbial last straw.

Maintaining that reserve is important through healthy maintenance that includes exercise, healthy thinking patterns, nutrition, and avoiding harmful substances. Prompt and positive attention to both cumulative and single event trauma, along with professional attention when needed can keep an officer productively employed.

Healthy sleep

One of the biggest health and performance challenges in law enforcement is getting restful sleep. Quality sleep allows the brain to relax and cope with unresolved issues. It allows restoration of a balanced body chemistry, as well as a time to heal worn muscles and nerves. Sleep that is interrupted by apnea, nightmares, or disturbed by irregular sleep times as a result of shift work fails to be as restorative as the mind and body need.

A study on sleep deprivation reported by the National Institutes of Health found that “After 17–19 hours without sleep, corresponding to 2230 and 0100, performance on some tests was equivalent or worse than that at a BAC of 0.05%. Response speeds were up to 50% slower for some tests and accuracy measures were significantly poorer than at this level of alcohol. After longer periods without sleep, performance reached levels equivalent to the maximum alcohol”. This should create an urgent response from police leaders to provide adequate leave time, manage shifts and overtime demands, as well as limiting off-duty employment.

Chemical exposure

Although more thought is given to firefighters on the subject of exposure to toxic chemicals, police officers can have their share of exposure to toxic materials from fire scenes, crime scenes, and drug enforcement. Voluntary ingestion of nicotine and alcohol, and perhaps increasingly from marijuana, all have potentially harmful effects on brain health.

The biochemistry of the body that is naturally generated during stressful situations is dissipated by physical activity and time. Constant lower levels of stress can also do considerable damage over time. These stressor sources are often ghosts. Vicarious adrenaline bursts come from hearing a pursuit on the radio even if it is miles away. Anticipatory stress increases adrenaline on routine patrol as officers contemplate ambush or encountering a violent crime in progress. Normal stressors of home, finances, and job scrutiny add to the mix.

Police officers must be intentional in managing or avoiding these toxic influences.

Love your brain

Dr. Amen urges everyone to love their brain, do what is good for the brain, and avoid or treat things that are bad for the brain. The risk of anxiety, depression, and anger are high in law enforcement. Loving one’s brain is one way to be the best you can be.

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