Four Tips for Handling Stress for Female Police Recruits
By Wendy Hummell, contributor, In Public Safety
I recently read an article entitled “What Advice Would You Give a Female Rookie?” in which the author shares some great advice for our younger sisters in blue. It got me thinking about my own law enforcement career and things I wish I’d known when I joined the force. I recently retired at the rank of detective after 20 years with the Wichita Police Department (Kansas). When I look back over the countless cases, calls, and trials, I reflect most on my repeated exposure to other people’s trauma, which sometimes led to my own.
As a female officer, expressing emotion, stress, or trauma can very often be dismissed on account of gender. However, bottling these things up can be hugely detrimental to your mental health. My advice is this: Share your failures, embrace fear and vulnerability, practice resilience, and find your tribe.
Expect and accept failure, then seek feedback. If I could tell my younger, pre-academy self not only to accept that I will fail, but to expect it, that would have been a game changer. Resilience is born from failure; we only grow from adversity and discomfort. Resilient people share their failures, aren’t afraid to admit mistakes, and don’t hide behind a veil of perfection. Imagine how impactful it would be if our leaders and mentors normalized failure and turned our vulnerability into strength.
I remember dealing with the aftermath of a particularly tough case in which a domestic violence victim was killed. I felt extreme shame. I didn’t want to go back to work. I managed to cope and eventually move on by seeking comfort from my husband. Taking steps to find the right person or people to reach out to can be a challenge. However, support and feedback from a family member, trusted beat buddy, or mentor is imperative.
Connection to others during difficult times is a physiological instinct. In Kelly McGonigal’s TedTalk, she discusses the effects of oxytocin. This “social bonding” hormone is emitted during times of stress and is the body’s way of telling us to connect with others. However, many officers fight this instinct because, traditionally, cops have been taught to “suck it up.” So, instead of turning to others, we do the complete opposite and suffer in silence. But things are changing.
I believe we are in a better place today when it comes to awareness and recognition of how both primary and secondary trauma impacts first responders. Many departments are starting to implement wellness initiatives to provide their personnel with the resources and tools they desperately need to cope with stress so they can have long and healthy careers and retirements. The importance of first responder wellness has been recognized at the federal level and is evidenced by Congress passing the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act last year.
Embrace Fear and Vulnerability
Fear isn’t a word typically found in the law enforcement vernacular, but hear me out. Instinctual fear is necessary for self-preservation, especially in policing. When the fight or flight response kicks in during times of imminent physical danger, various biological changes occur that can impair performance by causing tunnel vision or reducing motor skills, for example. Such effects can be minimized with proactive measures such as practicing yoga, meditation, and other tactical training.
Instinctual fear is only one type of fear. The other is fear of the unfamiliar. Instinctual fear keeps you alive but unfamiliar fear keeps you from living. You can combat this second type of fear by proactively practicing courage.
Courage doesn’t mean you won’t experience fear, but the idea is to not be paralyzed by it. Fear can be debilitating, but it can also be a motivating factor. One of my favorite authors, Dr. Brené Brown, says being vulnerable is being brave. Put yourself out there, whatever that means for you. Maybe you want to try out for the SWAT team, ask for a promotion, or just speak up during squad meetings. It is possible to be both humble and brave.
Resilience is not a passive sport; you can train yourself to be more resilient. I like to define resilience as preparing for, coping with, and growing from adversity. While I am an advocate of trusting yourself to be resilient enough to handle the challenges presented to you, we are not all hardwired the same. Our varied experiences and upbringings leave us all at different starting points when we enter the academy.
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In fact, in “Officers’ Childhood Trauma Histories: Understanding the Impact and Opportunities for Resilience,” an article published in Stress Management for Law Enforcement, Ann Perko and Karen Oehme cite studies that report many police officers experience a significant amount of violence or trauma during childhood. They also mention that 25 percent of law enforcement officers serve or have served in the military, which adds another layer of potential trauma.
The good news is that many departments offer opportunities to build resilience through wellness initiatives. Yoga, mindfulness and meditation, employee assistance programs (EAPs), first responder psychologists, family readiness programs, resilience training, and other wellness initiatives that are helping normalize this topic and start conversations about mental health.
If your department has yet to offer wellness programs, it is all the more important to make it a priority to stay physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy, whatever that looks like for you. I know cops who sing, play in a band, write science fiction, do photography, compete in cross fit competitions, and more. Whatever that hobby, activity, or thing is that makes you happy, stick to it.
Find Your Tribe
I could write an entire article on this topic, but I’ll keep it brief. I have had many male partners and friends on the force who I am close with to this day, and they will always be my brothers. I have also been very fortunate to have several female partners and friends, starting from when I entered the academy. This bond with my sisters is unique and different than with the guys—not better or worse, just different. We are mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and partners.
For some reason, there is a negative stereotype floating around that female officers treat each other more unkindly than our male cohorts. While I’ve encountered a few “Queen Bees” buzzing around in my time, I have found this to be absolutely false. I have made lasting friendships with female officers not just in my department, but from other agencies as well. I’m not sure how I would have survived some days without them. We have socialized outside of work over the years at jewelry parties, yoga classes, and dinner clubs. Enjoying the “girl stuff” doesn’t make you any less capable at your job.
There is a unique support, understanding, and solidarity in the friendships formed between female officers. I’m not saying to force friendships because they will happen organically and you will naturally be drawn to women you relate to. My suggestion is to be a forklift. If you notice a female officer struggling with daycare, a call they went on, or a fight with their spouse, reach out and check in. Women have a different experience as police officers, and these differences are what make a better, stronger department.
About the Author: Wendy Hummell is a retired Detective from the Wichita (KS) Police Department. She spent a majority of her career working Persons Crimes Investigations, homicide, gang, and sex-crimes cases. She was also a member of her department’s CISM (Critical incident Stress Management) team. She holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice. She is a 200-hour level registered yoga teacher and a Yoga for First Responders (YFFR) ambassador. She teaches YFFR classes to officers and restorative yoga at a local studio in Wichita. She is also an agency trainer for “Building Resiliency: Surviving Secondary Trauma”. Wendy is currently the Substance Abuse Coordinator for the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office.