The Rise of Embitterment and its Impact on Health

September 2, 2018 Have you ever met someone who appeared chronically angry? Someone who is bitter about everything as if they have been screwed over by the entire world. Embitterment grows out of frustration and the build-up of chronic negativity, perceived helplessness, and resentment over lack of support.  They pay a substantial price for being so embittered and are likely to have chronic health-related consequences such as hypertension, chronic pain, sleep disturbance, substance abuse, risk of cerebral vascular attack, and more. Law enforcement officers develop coping skills early in their career and many are now being taught strategies to avoid becoming embittered and chronically angry over what they encounter and witness over years of policing.
     Research on the impact of high stress lifestyles is supportive of what LEO’s experience over the course of their professional career.  People who grow up in war zones demonstrate a malfunction in their system of arousal marred by hyper vigilance due to perpetual release of stress hormones and the health-related effects.  This is the result of chronic exposure to unpredictable chaos and the changing physiology associated with a lack of personal control and chronic, intermittent threat to life and well-being.  Neuroscientists can now pinpoint the impact of stress on hardwired changes in the brains of people growing up in places without lasting peace and this research approximates the experience of LEO’s who may be bored one moment and in a fight for their lives the next.
    Embitterment has large implication on LEO productivity, career satisfaction, job performance, citizen complaints, and officer health. Mentoring in the field and supervisory support reduce officer isolation and sometimes powerful feelings of negativity that can fester over time. The physical consequences are well documented and raise the specter of work-related injury from stress and untreated traumatic exposure. In Massachusetts an officer with acquired cardiac disease has presumptive work-related debility if he or she is shown to have been healthy when first hired.
     Ostensibly, resilience is the opposite of embitterment. Have you ever worked with someone who rolled with the punches – literally and figuratively?  They can have felony cases dismissed and be nonplussed maintaining a positive attitude and a “better luck next time” belief system.  They cope with a range of career inequities by having a rich family life, a healthy self-concept, and a positive sense of humor.  Resiliency requires positivity and using innate resilient coping strategies.  “By using alcohol to cope instead of resilient thinking one often develops other problems and this can lead ultimately to suicide. Alcohol is often related to suicidal behavior.” according to Leo Polizoti, Ph.D at the Direct Decision Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts. To survive these incidents one needs to have resilience also known as the psychological resources to process the experience with all of its ugliness and to know that you did what was needed with the training and experience you bring to the job every day.
     After a stressful event, your body and mind must return to its baseline calm and ready state so that the officer may again activate and serve in whatever capacity is required without the baggage of the calls gone by.  As this “baggage” builds unfettered the likelihood of a decline in officer job performance grows sometimes exponentially.  “Like anxiety, depression or other stress reactions, it can become pathological when it reaches greater intensity and is accompanied by feelings of helplessness, dysphoric mood, intrusive thoughts, aggression towards others and suicidal ideation towards oneself, withdrawal from others, phobic avoidance of places and persons that can remind oneself of the critical event, or multiple somatoform (physical) complaints” (Hauer, Wessel, & Merckelbach, 2006).
“Beyond the rigors of police work, lie the demands of a personal life, specifically a wife or husband and children. Maintaining a healthy and happy family life is on its own a demanding responsibility. Add these powerful life stressors and demands to the burdens of police work and an officer may begin to feel the weight upon his or her shoulders.” Leo Polizoti, 2018.
     Law enforcement officers work in highly stressful situations and their bodies are exposed to external threats that activate the autonomic nervous system. Many are conflicted over the need for overtime versus the need for family time.  “In times of crisis, fight-or-flight (adrenergic) responses may cause elevated heart rate and blood pressure. This can lead to hypervigilance or a feeling of being on overdrive. If the mission is extended in the case of large-scale disasters, there may be problems with sleeping, changes in appetite, irritability, and impatience. Often, there is profound fatigue caused by long shifts with limited down time and limited space for sleep and relaxation” according to Laura Helfman, M.D. in a 2018 paper on coping and trauma. The longer the mission, the greater the risk of shifting from normal to maladaptive responses.” Helfman, 2018.
     Stress has undeniable impact on all human functioning and public health.  Not enough is being done to infuse knowledge and understanding into the emotional maelstrom created by chronic stress (Sefton, 2014).  Healthy coping and productivity breaks down when this occurs over and over. According to Leo Polizoti, Ph.D., the primary author of the Police Chief’s Guide to Mental Illness and Mental Health Emergencies, “learned resilience leads to reduced stress and psychological hardiness rather than psychological weariness. As the demand for police service becomes more complex, officers must adapt their physical and emotional preparation for service or risk premature career burnout.”

Helfman, L. (2018) How do First Responders Experience and Cope with Trauma. Quarterly Technical Assistance Journal on Disaster Behavioral Health. Volume 14,  Issue 1, Page 14
Linden, M. et al. (2009) Post-traumatic Embitterment Disorder Self-Rating Scale. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy Clin. Psychol. Psychother. 16, 139–147.
Polizoti, L. and Sefton, M. (2018) The Police Chief’s Guide to Mental Illness and Mental Health Emergencies. (In press) Decision Press, Worcester, MA
Sefton, M (2014) Stress: The human cost of Technology. Blog post: https://msefton.wordpress.com/health-psychology/stress-the-human-cost-of-technology/. Taken 8-22-2018

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