What to Expect After a Critical Incident as an Officer or Spouse

Learn more about how your body tires to heal itself after experiencing a critical incident either as a Law Enforcement officer, Law Enforcement Wife, or Law Enforcement Spouse.


Your brain and body reacts during and after a critical incident for days and months. It can be scary and overwhelming if you don’t know or understand what is happening. Learn more about how your body tires to heal itself after experiencing a critical incident either as a Law Enforcement officer, Law Enforcement Wife, or Law Enforcement Spouse.

As a law enforcement couple, there will probably be a time that you will experience some type of critical incident, accident, assault (verbal or physical), or near miss.  Many times, officers need to stay in the mindset of “not me” in order to go to a job where there is a potential that their life will be threatened.

As spouses, we may rationalize and say, “that happens in other cities” or be told to trust the training.  We do this to be able to let our spouses walk out the door and not obsess about all the possible dangers they might face that day.

Then there is the day when that fragile reality is shattered.  A call is made.

“Ms. Doyle?  I don’t want you to panic….”

Or, “Honey, if you watch the news, I’m ok.”

Little phrases that make time stop.

Everything slows down.

You experience fear, confusion, bewilderment, panic, and be completely paralyzed.

You get the through the incident.  Maybe there are injuries.  Maybe there is not.   Regardless, there is something different in you.

You feel more fear now.

You dream about the incident, have flash backs to what you saw or experienced, have gaps in memory, or just can’t get your head “back in the game”.

If any of this sounds familiar, you have probably experienced a traumatic event.

What is a Traumatic Event or Critical Incident?

 A traumatic event is an event or incident that has some type of harm including emotional, psychological, or physical harm.  The event also has to cause the individual to feel threatened, anxious, or frightened and many times, an individual may not know how to respond.  As a spouse, your officer can go through an incident and that incident may not be traumatic.  You however, can experience trauma because of their event.  Officers, keep in mind that many times your reaction to fear, anxiety, and a threat is displayed as anger when deciding if an event was traumatic.

In speaking to officers who have been through a critical incident, feelings of shame during the incident are often an indicator that the event was traumatic.  “I had to ask for help.  It was humiliating.  I should have been able to do it myself.”   “Other guys were there with me and they seem fine.  I’m weak for not being able to handle this”.   “I just keep thinking that if that book wasn’t there to have stopped the bullet, I wouldn’t be here.  I should have covered myself better.”  All statements I have heard from officers in my office.

 We all handle events differently.  What impacts one person will not necessarily impact another.  We all have different experiences, upbringing, values, beliefs, and pain which impacts the way our brain interprets and processes the information.  Those same aspects can impact our resiliency and ability to recover.  Someone that struggles with anxiety and then goes through an event may struggle to let the anxious feelings or thoughts go.  Someone that experienced danger or trauma as a child may struggle with feeling safe after an event or incident.  Someone who has never had to experience any adversity or traumatic even will take more time to process through than someone who has.  There is no correct way to handle an event or process through an incident.

What you can expect to experience in your body?

People are surprised at the impact that an incident can have on your body and mind.  One of my police wife friends contacted me after her husband was in an incident.  She called to update me about what happened and then I told her everything that she was probably going to go through and experience.  I checked in with her several times over the next week.  She told me later she was so grateful that I shared what to expect as it eased her anxiety when she felt those symptoms.

Here are 5 ways that your body is going to experience a traumatic event.

1.       Your brain’s fight or flight system takes over.  Your brain will simply take over in some form or fashion when the incident is occurring, which for a spouse can be the minute they find out about the incident.  This could be after the incident is “done” for the officer.  In fact, the officer might not even see it as an incident.  You could have a spouse in fight or flight and an officer saying, “I don’t know what the big deal is.  I’m home and I’m safe.”  The brain goes into Fight, Flight, or Freeze.

The freeze mode can look like confusion or an inability to make a decision.  The first time I received a phone call, I hung up and sat there wondering if I should go to the hospital or if my husband would think it ridiculous if I came.  I was in total “freeze” mode.  During this time, your brain will dump cortisol into your system and be prepared to respond.  You might feel “buzzy” physically or emotional.  Sometimes we might start to “over function” and start coordinating activities, thinking about how to help in the situation, and taking charge.  Other people “under function” and can’t pull themselves together to do whatever needs to be done.


2.       Your brain needs to recover.  After the initial dumps of cortisol in the fight or flight response, the brain will need to recover.  This may be hours later.  This may be days later.  In recovery, the brain wants to shut down.  You body needs to recover and it will take some time.  You may feel “foggy brained” and not be able to think as clearly.  You may forget to do simple tasks or just not be able to focus.

Once again, normal.

3.       Your brain will need to process what has happened.  In the moment of the incident, the brain is responding to the crisis, or what is perceives to be a crisis.  It then must recover.  Only after equalizing again can the brain start to process the information.  Fight or Flight occurs in the limbic region of the brain while processing occurs in other regions of the brain.  You may find yourself distracted with “what if” thoughts.  “What if __________ would have happened.”

You may have disturbing dreams or nightmares.  You may have flashbacks to the moment when you experienced the event or first heard about it from your officer.  When this occurs, the brain is trying to make sense of the situation.  It is normal to have the dreams and night terrors.  These flash backs and nightmares may feel very real as your body may be reliving the moment with all the senses it experienced in those moment.

The brain is doing its job.  It is ok if all these things occur.  This also takes time to move through, sometimes weeks and sometimes months.

4.       Your anxiety will probably go up.  You will become more hyper aware or hypersensitive to negative events and have fear responses.  The incident has caused your brain catalog new threats.  Your brain is there to keep you safe, not happy.  It constantly scans for danger.  When an incident occurs, the brain is going to increase it’s scanning of the threat and cause the fight or flight response to trigger inappropriately.  As I mentioned above, this leads to dumps of cortisol.

When there is nothing to react to, the brain and body will turn on itself which leads to feelings of anxiety or depression.  You might feel paranoid at times and overprotective of your spouse or family.  This is all a part of your brain starting to process the event and find its new normal.

5.       Life will be different, but you will recover.  A traumatic event usually leaves a scar.  Many times, this scar is unseen.  As time goes by, most scars fade.  Every now and then, you may look at it and remember the pain or hit it and it hurts.  The event will be in your brain and when similar incidents occur or you hear about another police spouse struggling with an event, it may bring up the feeling of your own.  It’s ok.

Is it PTSD?

Please keep in mind that not every incident is trauma and not every trauma results in PTSD.  Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has a very specific criteria to meet.  I hear people label themselves with the diagnosis because they don’t understand that it is normal to struggle for a while after an incident, sometimes for months.  I hope that reviewing the information above you understand a little more about the process.

When there is a critical incident, there is the potential of not only PTSD but Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) as a spouse or officer, or Acute Stress Disorder.  If you are struggling, reach out to a mental health professional.  Moving through a traumatic event can be difficult and there is no reason to suffer when there are trained professionals that can help provide some relief.  PTSD is something that can be minimized and even healed.  While its important to address symptoms quickly, there is no wrong time to seek up.  Therapeutic techniques such as Cognitive Processing, EMDR, and ART are all therapies based on research which help to ease and sometimes heal the symptoms of PTSD.

Your body and brain has its own processes in coping and processing a critical incident or traumatic event. Sometimes knowing what is going on takes some of the panic and stress away. Hang in there.


What to Expect After a Critical Incident as an Officer or Spouse

Learn more about how your body tires to heal itself after experiencing a critical incident either as a Law Enforcement officer, Law Enforcement Wife, or Law Enforcement Spouse.