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Stress and the Service-to-Civilian Transition

What law enforcement officers and veterans need to know.

Key points

  • Police veterans may experience high levels of stress during the transition to full-time civilian life.
  • The loss of vocational mission and identity may intensify or prolong an officer's grief process.
  • Understanding a broader range of transition stressors can help to advance a healthy post-service trajectory.

A service-to-civilian transition is an inevitable event for law enforcement officers, yet it remains an esoteric concept. The topic is not standard curricula in the police academy nor widely offered through in-service training. Officers will not typically entertain a serious conversation about the end of a police career anyway, at least not until Father Time catches up with them or an unanticipated event in their personal lives or on the job precipitates an exit.

With financial and logistical considerations typically the focus of retirements and resignations, the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral characteristics associated with this major life shift often go unrecognized. Consequently, an officer may be surprised to discover how other transition stressors influence their long-term adjustment. These broader challenges–and the factors that moderate those experiences–are important considerations for agency-level transition programs and the wellness services they employ. They should also be a point of awareness for officers and families who may experience a lack of effective organizational support and find themselves without ready access to culturally competent resources.

Prolonged grief

With PTSD garnering the lion’s share of clinical and research attention, grief often goes unaccounted for as a unique, enduring, and often challenging aspect of veteran transition (Difede et al., 2007; Mobbs & Bonanno, 2018). In particular, unresolved grief has been identified as a condition separate from PTSD, anxiety, and depression, indicating a need for targeted treatment (Bonanno et al., 2007; Pivar & Field, 2004; Shear et al., 2011).

While grief is a normal, natural, and healthy response to loss, law enforcement officers can become “stuck” in that process due to maladaptive coping mechanisms which have afforded them a sense of physical and emotional self-protection on the job. Police work is characterized by prolonged exposure to an atmosphere of death. For example, a career itself is an existential exercise on one’s own mortality, given that nearly every encounter on duty has a life-threatening potential. Even if officers survive a critical incident or never have to take a life to protect themselves or others, survival training and hypervigilance ensure that death remains salient. A symbolic interaction system indirectly reinforces this saliency even when wearing weapons and bulletproof vests passively, viewing police memorials, and attending funerals.

Most impactful, however, officers are directly and vicariously exposed to death through a daily dose of human accidents, suicide, crime scene responses, investigations, report-writing, and court appearances. They may also confront loss, both professionally and personally, through the death or illness of another officer. All of this can be compounded, too, by any personal loss experienced in their private lives away from the job.

The end of a police career (and the physical distance from a death-saturated environment) does not immediately resolve prolonged grief, nor does it ensure that an officer’s coping skills are well-suited for a life away from the badge. In fact, transition may be the beginning of a long road to healing for a grieving officer. Moreover, a transition out of policing can be a grief-induced event of its own, given the loss of a vocational mission and the camaraderie of the police brotherhood. The aggregate time spent together, forced interdependency, and shared hardships potentially lead to unanticipated and complex levels of affective bonding (Mobbs & Bonanno, 2018; Pivar & Field, 2004). The actual or perceived loss (or weakening) of these bonds during the transitional period and beyond may be associated with increased distress over the life span (Mobbs & Bonnano, 2018).

It is, therefore, important for police veterans and families to be aware of symptomatic grief reactions such as sadness, yearning, avoidance of feelings, places, or activities, and physiological dysregulation due to disengagement from interpersonal contact (Poppazoglou et al., 2020). Research by Gupta and Bonanno (2011) further suggested that those experiencing prolonged grief may be less flexible with modulating their emotions, leading to maladaptive emotional regulation, disrupted social relationships, and decreased well-being.

Loss of police identity

The shift from service to civilian life is a broad, sweeping change in an officer’s social environment. Considering that the “police self” is a social construct (typically formed during a developmental period of early adult life), this event can disrupt an officer’s sense of self and self-worth. With a vocational mission that offers a high degree of significance, meaning, and purpose, losing that mission (even when voluntary) can negatively impact self-image and esteem, especially when an officer perceives a job outside of law enforcement as menial or purposeless. Bereavement literature by Papa and Maitoza (2013) suggests that the intensity of grief responses can be linked to the inability to engage in meaningful pursuits and interactions. A more thorough examination of this phenomenon can be found in my post “Loving and Leaving the Badge.”


The academy, graduation, field training, promotions, and other experiences that occur over a career are all turning points that anchor an officer’s life story between recruitment and exit. With the end of a career marking a change in an officer’s external environment, positive remembrance may become more intense and vivid (Zoli et al., 2015). This may also help to explain why some police veterans desire to return to service or regret leaving. Beyond these autobiographical memories, veterans may also rely on nostalgic memories to control or counteract their civilian transition struggles (Mobbs & Bonnano, 2018). Where the shift in expected roles, routines, habits, and norms are perceived as threatening, the negative effects may “trigger” nostalgia as a mechanism to protect or enhance the police self-concept, thereby mitigating fears, insecurities, and dissatisfactions (Campbell & Sedikides, 1999; Davis, 1979).

Moral Suffering

Moral injury and distress are common characteristics of a law enforcement career. However, its role in traumatization hasn’t been empirically studied. It’s also been argued that diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress fail to fully capture moral suffering as a phenomenon associated with exposure to traumatic incidents (Nash & Litz, 2013). Nonetheless, smaller sample sizes of the police population have suggested that moral suffering can lead to a variety of wellness concerns, all of which carry implications for the transitioning officer.

Moral injury has been defined as “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations” (Litz et al., 2009; Maguen & Litz, 2012). Other definitions refer to situations when an officer fails to pursue the right course of action due to an error in judgment, wrong decision-making, exercising the wrong plan, or when the circumstances or outcomes are beyond their control (Kalvermark et al., 2004). These events occur along the career timeline between other officers, citizens, agencies, and other organizations.

Moral injury and distress appear very similar since they are associated with moral suffering. However, scholars note that moral injury is most often related to violence and death-related incidents, while moral distress refers to a “disequilibrium” created by multiple mundane incidents that accumulate over a career (Papazoglou & Chopko, 2017). Either way, these events can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and frustration which, if unabated, may contribute to compassion fatigue, vulnerability to post-traumatic stress, and a whole host of other symptoms.

Considering that moral suffering isn’t widely targeted for support resources or treatment, transitioning officers may very well carry this baggage into their post-service life, without realizing its impact. The experience of veteran life, too, is often marked by the weakening of police bonds which may increase distress when an officer is immersed in a civilian context with minimal shared experience and understanding (Mobbs & Bonanno, 2018).

Lastly, veterans may experience moral dissonance as a result of no longer having the legal obligation, authority, (and sometimes physical capability) to “spring into action,” especially when observing lawlessness or human tragedy that would compromise their personal safety and role as a civilian should they act on their impulses. The attitude of “It’s not my job anymore” may only be skin-deep for those who wish to keep the police self-concept alive.

Note: The information in this post is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide clinical or legal advice.

Copyright © Brian A. Kinnaird. All rights reserved.

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Bonanno, G. & Mobbs, M. (2018). Beyond war and PTSD: The crucial role of transition stress in the lives of military veterans. Clinical Psychology Review, 59, 137–144.

Bonanno, G., Galea, S., Bucciarelli, A., & Vlahov, D. (2007). What predicts psychological resilience after disaster? The role of demographics, resources, and life stress. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75(5), 671.

Campbell, W., & Sedikides, C. (1999). Self-threat magnifies the self-serving bias: A meta-analytic integration. Review of General Psychology, 3(1), 23–43.

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Difede, J., Malta, L. S., Best, S., Henn-Haase, C., Metzler, T., and Bryant, R. (2007). A randomized controlled clinical treatment trial for World Trade Center attack-related PTSD in disaster workers. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 195, 861–865.

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Maguen, S., & Litz, B. (2012). Moral injury in the context of war. Department of Veterans Affairs.

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Papazoglou, K., Chopko, B. (2017). The role of moral suffering (moral distress and moral injury) in police compassion fatigue and PTSD: An unexplored topic. Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 8.

Pivar, I., & Field, N. (2004). Unresolved grief in combat veterans with PTSD. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 18(6), 745–755.

Shear, M., Simon, N., Wall, M., Zisook, S., Neimeyer, R., Duan, N., Gorscak, B. (2011). Complicated grief and related bereavement issues for DSM-5. Depression and Anxiety, 28(2), 103–117.

Zoli, C., Maury, R., & Fay, D. (2015). Missing perspectives: Servicemembers' transition from service to civilian life. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University, Institute for Veterans and Military Families.

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