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Home > Uncategorized > Do You Qualify with Your Emotions?–Part 2

Do You Qualify with Your Emotions?–Part 2

June 17th, 2011

This article is Part 2 of the series on managing and regulating one’s emotions. In it I present a real-life example of the type of stressors faced routinely by corrections staff, and suggestions as to how to deal with its emotional impact. This example was shared with me by Greg Morton, a retired State Training Manager for the Oregon DOC. Greg is now a part-time facilitator for an inmate Parenting Class.
 
Let me give you a little background. Greg and I were discussing whether PTSD might be an occupational disease of corrections staff due to their repeated exposure to  violence on the job. We compared the corrections staff’s workplace conditions to coal miners’ Black Lung, and wondered to what degree occupational diseases may be preventable. My opinion was that unless workplace death and violence drop to near zero, at least some degree of psychological traumatization of corrections staff is inevitable, especially for those repeatedly exposed to such incidents.


 
Here’s what Greg shared with me in response. (Reprinted with permission.)

Since the Black Lung analogy is up for discussion, consider this also. When the miner leaves the mine, the air clears and he/she breathes better air (taking the mining pollution into account that all local citizens get). In contrast, when the correctional employee leaves an institution after a tough day, his or her thoughts and feelings come along too, thereby continuing the drama/trauma.
 
The reason I think of this is that it happened to me already this morning.  At a recent family event at the facility, meaning that family members including children were present with the inmate dads, one inmate started to misbehave.  The inmate is a known fighter and proud of it.  The lead officer took him to as private a place as the setting would allow and confronted him. A colleague and I were by the phone, observing the whole thing. I made sure I had the emergency number in mind in case a fight started. Then the inmate backed down, hopefully from having learned some important life skills in the Parenting class, and everything was cool again. The event continued, and everybody left safe and happy when we were done.
 
The immediate point of the story is I’m still thinking about it this morning. How would I have reacted had there been a fight? After I made the emergency call, what would I have done next? Make sure the other inmates don’t get involved, separate the family members and make sure they’re safe (especially the little kids), and then help the officer in his fight with this tough guy inmate.  Thankfully this lead officer recognized the risk too and used his skills and professionalism to do his job while keeping everyone safe.
 
I can breathe cleaner air after I leave the mine, but it takes some real will power to overcome the thoughts and feelings that follow Corrections work. And also keep in mind that some of those thoughts and feelings are necessary for survival, if such a thing were to happen again.
 
In other words, you’re right, probably the cumulative impact is not preventable.
Greg M.
 
P.S.: And it should be said that nothing even happened this time. How frequently does a non-event like that occur in the profession around the country daily, or for that matter on one single shift in one facility? Over and over and over and over and over . . . .
 
Pause and reflect on this. Even though nothing happened that time, the stress response (“fight or flight”) was activated in the staff members present, readying them to tackle danger. Their bodies went into a revved up, adrenaline- and cortisol-driven state, their minds and emotions in battle mode. And the stress response had most likely been experienced numerous times before, and will reoccur numerous times again in the future, the impact accumulating relentlessly over time. “Leaving it at the gate” is not as simple as it sounds.
 
Given the inevitability of at least some impact, how can one address and neutralize the intense emotions and thoughts that are part of the stress response, instead of allowing them to accumulate, fester and become toxic?
 
It is my experience that, the corrections culture of machismo and toughness dictates that corrections staff must act like nothing bothers them. “No worries. I’m good.”  To pull that off, staff often opt to deal with unpleasant emotions by blocking them out, downplaying or denying their reality. Staff abhor the thought of appearing weak.  So, “with a little help from their friends”—distracting activities, including high-risk, adrenaline pursuits, or mind-altering drugs (yes, alcohol is a drug)—staff keeps marching on, trying to use willpower to “stuff” the emotional impact of workplace stress. Later on, escape and avoidance strategies generalize to dealing with distressing experiences on the outside as well. “Grin and bear it,” emotional numbing, dark humor and apparent lack of empathy become the norm.
 
The impact of emotional memories does not evaporate, however.  Instead it packs and “leaks.” The result is general irritability and anger outbursts,  sleep disturbances, social withdrawal and isolation, among other harmful outcomes.
 
The event Greg described above is a great example of a routine, to be expected, type of incident in corrections which nevertheless triggers a powerful stress response, because it involves potential harm to self and others. Even after the event has ended, it continues to affect those present emotionally and physically. The memory of it and the emotions and physical reactions it causes don’t die down, at least not until considerable time has elapsed. Even then they can pop up in the forefront with surprising force when someone is reminded of them.
 
So, if white-knuckling it through sheer willpower won’t work, how else is one to deal with the punch packed by memories of events such as the one described above?
 
That is where emotional processing comes in, which was mentioned in Part 1 of this article in the May 2011 issue (http://desertwaters.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/DWCONL0511.pdf).
 
Processing describes the act of taking something through an established and usually routine set of procedures to convert it from one form to another, such as processing milk into cheese. Processing takes ingenuity, persistence and effort. Emotional processing refers to the way in which an individual assimilates stressful life events. Emotional processing can be defined as “a process whereby emotional disturbances are absorbed and decline to the extent that other experiences and behaviour can proceed without disruption.” (S. Rachman*)
 
So how could one process the event described by Greg?  First of all, start by reviewing and examining what happened. Greg did that by writing an account of that incident. Processing can also be done through talking.
 
Next ask yourself how you assessed and interpreted what took place. Greg did that as well. Here are some more thoughts you could entertain.  Once again I found myself in harm’s way.  I might have had to fight the inmate and risk getting hurt. Children and other relatives would have been horrified by the display of violence. The Parenting graduation would have turned from a time of joy to a disaster. The Parenting program could have ended up being viewed as a security risk. One person would have ruined a good thing for everybody.
 
After that you examine how what happened affected you—physically, emotionally, as well as regarding your beliefs about others, the world and life in general. What am I feeling? Anger. Sadness. Discouragement. Where do I feel these emotions in my body? In my chest, throat and fists. I want to yell. I want to punch something, but I won’t.  My head hurts. I’m still so angry at the guy! And I‘m angry at myself for trying so hard to help convicts like him! What am I trying so hard for? I’m a fool for believing that they would change! They’re just going through the motions to look good to the parole board!
 
After this self-examination, what else could you do to regain your emotional equilibrium?  Talk to yourself: Where do I go from here? I’ll think about how the incident ended. The inmate conformed to the rules (with a little help). He has not “arrived” just because he completed the Parenting class. Progress is the most I can expect from him, not perfection, and he did come around. That was huge for him, as he risked looking like he gave in to the cops. Look also at the overall net benefit. The ceremony did proceed as planned. The rest of the inmates participated without causing problems. Remember the look of pride and love in the children’s eyes as they gazed at their dads. Remember the look of hope on the faces of girlfriends, wives, dads and moms. And we’ve had many other graduation ceremonies where there was no incident whatsoever. Remember also to be prepared next time. Brief staff in advance about what may be expected so they’ll be ready to manage similar situations.
 
This is an example of emotional processing.  It helps take a thorny, aggravating, even frightening event, and turn it into a life experience that informs future attitudes and behavior positively.
 
In some cases the intensity of a distressing event is so high that we may need to work with a mental health professional or spiritual advisor in order to process through extremely stressful incidents.
 
Yes, emotional processing is more work upfront than trying to will oneself not to think about the situation. However, it pays off much, much better in the long run, as it helps us unload the emotional burden of distressing events and even grow because of them. 
 
So, next time you get stressed, don’t try to block it out. Think and feel your way through the incident instead.

*Rachman, S. (2001). Emotional processing, with special reference to post-traumatic stress disorders. International Review of Psychiatry,13,164-171.

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