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PTSD: National Center for PTSD

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Strategies: Police Self-Care


Police Officer Toolkit


Strategies: Police Self-Care

Strategies for self-care are important, especially for people who are consistently in high-stress situations.

Stress First Aid Model

There may be times when you are dealing with posttraumatic stress symptoms in yourself and your fellow police officers. Rates of PTSD in police officers have varied across studies from 7 to 15% 9,10.

As a first responder, you have many possible ways to deal with these reactions. One model that has been developed is the Stress First Aid Model (SFA), an evidence-informed self-care and peer support model developed for those in high-risk occupations like military, fire and rescue, and law enforcement 11,12. It includes seven actions to take to identify and address early signs of stress reactions in yourself and others in an ongoing way (not just after "critical incidents").

While stress reactions may be relatively common in law enforcement jobs, SFA has been developed to be used when functioning is impaired or there is significant distress involved, such as:
  • No longer feeling like your normal self
  • Loss of control of emotions or behavior
  • Excessive guilt, shame or blame
  • Panic, rage or depression

The Stress Continuum Model

The Stress Continuum Model is a visual tool for assessing your own and others' stress responses. It forms the foundation for SFA, which was first developed for Navy and Marine Corps Service members.
The crux of the Stress Continuum Model is that stress responses lie along a spectrum of severity and type. Every person will react when faced with severe enough or extended enough stress. However, the way in which a person responds will depend on his or her preparation for and interpretation of the stressor events. During the course of this response, a person's state can change relatively rapidly from Green to Yellow to Orange to Red zone, and back again.


Four types of exposures are most likely to move someone into the Orange zone:
Life Threat
Feeling as if self or others are in a life-threatening situation. In law enforcement work, life threat can also include experiencing a "near miss" or "close call."
Grief due to the loss of close comrades, leaders, family members or other cared-for individuals.
Inner Conflict
A sense of inner turmoil due to conflict between one's moral/ethical beliefs and current experiences. Inner conflict can result from acting outside of one's morals or values; from an inability to prevent harm to others; or through contributing to or not preventing harm to a fellow officer. Indications for inner conflict include the words: "could've, should've, if only."
Wear and Tear
The result of fatigue and accumulation of prolonged stress, including from non-operational sources, without sufficient sleep, rest and restoration.

Stigma and Stress Reactions

Police officers may try to conceal stress reactions from supervisors because they fear stigma and because they want to avoid medical or psychological intervention. However, recognizing the signs of Orange zone stress in oneself or a fellow officer and taking steps to lessen the severity is important. Practicing self-care or helping connect a fellow officer with a trusted support may help prevent stress reactions from progressing into the Red zone.

Putting the SFA model into Action:

Stress reactions can be varied, and their resolution may require just one or many different stress first aid actions. Additionally, stress reactions may be delayed, or prolonged based on other life stress, or prompted by "triggers" that happen days, weeks, months, and years after an incident. The SFA model acknowledges that you may need to be ready to use its core actions at any time and in a variety of ways, if Orange zone stress reactions become evident. The goal is to use the tools and resources that work best to foster a sense of wellness.
Primary Aid
Secondary Aid
In Stress First Aid, you are always aware and checking for signs of distress or change in functioning in yourself and your peers, particularly after long periods of wear and tear, or after situations that cause life threat, loss, or inner conflict.
This involves getting help from a colleague or supervisor to ensure that you or your fellow officer moves from the Orange to the Yellow or Green zone again. It may also involve simply alerting others about the situation.
If there is a physical safety risk or the person's own perception of risk is endangering his or her well-being or the safety of others, act to make sure you, the fellow officer, or others are safe or feel more safe
This involves acting to reduce distress and restore emotional equilibrium. Calming reduces the risk for further stress reactions.
This involves facilitating connectedness to supportive social resources. In fact, this may be all that is needed to reduce stress.
This includes helping a person build or regain his or her competence for law enforcement operations, or his or her ability to cope with stress reactions.
You may need to shore up your own or a fellow officer's confidence in self, peers, and leaders, or provide reassurance that the situation will improve.

PTSD Information Voice Mail: (802) 296-6300
Also see: VA Mental Health