- Traumatic stress is contagious. You can catch it from your mate. This has important implications for first responder families.
- Mouse studies suggest that males and females destress differently.
- Female mice destress in the company of an unstressed mouse. Males do not.
- Don't be discouraged. You can protect yourself from your partner's stress.
Compassion is our Achilles' Heel. When someone we love and care for is in pain, so are we. How much pain and what to do about it is the $64,000 question.
Researchers in Canada observed the effects of stress on the brains of male and female mice who were paired together. Let's call them Mr. and Mrs. Mouse. The scientists moderately stressed one mouse in the pair then returned it to its partner. Then they looked at the hippocampus, a sea-horse-shaped part of the brain that plays a critical role in memory and learning. Both the stressed and unstressed mice had identical changes to the brain. The takeaway: Stress, like second-hand smoke, can be transferred. Simply being around someone who has been through a stressful event can change your brain.
That wasn't the most remarkable finding. What was most surprising and most relevant to first responder families was that Mrs. Mouse could reverse her brain changes by hanging out with an unstressed mouse but Mr. Mouse could not. The implications of this for cops and other first responders are enormous.
At the First Responders' Support Network retreat for significant others and spouses (SOS) we meet spouses who are exhausted, angry, and frightened after years of living with and loving a cop, a firefighter, a correctional officer, or a dispatcher. Some of their partners have experienced a significant critical incident, others are bending under the weight of cumulative less-than-critical events, many are suffering from a combination of the two. Our clients (mostly women) come to the retreat hoping to "fix" their wounded mates. They leave understanding that they need to attend to their own wounds first.
Take a hint from Mrs. Mouse.
If you are living with someone who is suffering from post-traumatic stress, do not go it alone. Find a calm, unstressed friend, family member, spiritual advisor, or culturally competent therapist to talk to. Someone you trust, who listens well, and has no agenda of their own. Do not hang out exclusively with first responder friends. Particularly in this day and time when there is so much stress among first responders and their families due to Covid, social and political upheavals, and a surge of anti-police sentiment.
The relief and healing that come from talking are observable at our retreats. Clients are encouraged to let it all out. To attend to their own needs and wounds. Too many have been ignoring themselves in a desperate effort to help their first responder mates. Any police officer will tell you that writing a check on an empty bank account is illegal. Attempting to care for someone else when you are in a depleted state is impossible. Like the airline industry says, in a crisis put your own oxygen mask on first. Chances are your loved one has lots of support at work: friends, training, peer counselors, employee assistance counselors, and a chaplain. He or she may be reluctant to use these services due to stigma, fear, or lack of trust. There are rarely any similar services for the family.
I know a few things for certain after years of counseling first responders and their families. Secrets kill. No one is perfect. The bad times pass and so do the good. You cannot change other people's behavior no matter how hard you try. And from time to time, all of us need help (see references below). Be like Mrs. Mouse, protect yourself from stress. Find a friend.
Wishing all my readers a safe, healthy, happy, and peaceful New Year.
Sterley, TL., Baimoukhametova, D., Füzesi, T. et al. Social transmission and buffering of synaptic changes after stress. Nat Neurosci 21, 393–403 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-017-0044-6
Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320928.
Kirschman, E. (May 2018) Think it's hard being a cop? Try being married to one. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/node/1114319/preview
Kirschman, E. (2018) I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know-third edition. New York, Guilford Press.