Working in a Correctional Environment & Understanding the “Culture of Trauma”

Charles Emmrys PhD

Raeanne Leaman


This is what your job is

Correctional workers house and care for this society’s most difficult and hurtful individuals. The courts have deemed that they have hurt others so seriously that they cannot be allowed to stay in society for fear that they will continue to traumatize others. Prisons are organized to contain and control these individuals so carefully that the opportunities for hurting others is as limited as possible. Unfortunately, offenders do not stop hurting those around them be it fellow inmates, members of their families or the correctional officers they encounter. They live in a culture of trauma.


This is how your brain works

To understand the culture of trauma, we need to start with our own nervous system and understand how it is organized. Through millions of years of evolution, humans, like other animals, have developed two separate circuitries for dealing with life. The first is the “fight – flight” system. This is our emergency response system for dealing with life and death situations. It increases our alertness, focuses our mind on analyzing the emergency and shuts off all other thinking. The events that turn on our fight flight circuit are called traumas. Our other circuit is the relaxation circuit. It allows us to live our lives fully by connecting with family and friends, appreciating and learning from our surroundings and generally feeling good. These two circuits are organized in such a way that if one is turned on, the other is turned off.[1]


Each circuit is able to generate a specific set of emotions and abilities. Here is a list of what each circuit allows us to experience.


Fight-Flight Circuit

  • Keeps you alert
  • Makes you edgy
  • Reflexes are exaggerated (jumpy)
  • Stops you from thinking about anything except the problem
  • Makes sleep more difficult
  • Solutions tend to be either fight it or avoid it (fight-flight)
  • Emotions tend to be primarily anger or fear (other emotions are suppressed)
  • Memory is suppressed
  • Social interest is suppressed
  • If it goes on too long, you feel quite unhappy
  • Things that use to be fun are no longer fun to do
  • Sexual appetite suffers

Relaxation Circuit

  • More relaxed
  • Reactions are slower and more thought out
  • Much easier to learn and think things through
  • Easier to get into a good book or film
  • Much easier to make plans and undertake complex tasks
  • Sleep is more comfortable and restful
  • Emotional experiences are more joyful and varied
  • Interest in family and friends is much higher as is enjoyment of social contacts
  • Curiosity and openness to new experiences is strong
  • Sexual appetite is strong

This is why inmates are so hurtful to others

So now we can talk about why inmates can be so hurtful. Inmates were, for the most part, themselves victims of mistreatment. Because abuse is a trauma, their nervous system turned on the “fight flight” system. It allowed them to deal with the alcoholic mom or the physically abusive dad or the really bad neighborhood.


After much study, psychologist discovered that if you turn on a circuit in the brain for too long, it can be hard to turn it off. This is usually the case for inmates. Their whole life is lived in fight-flight mode. This is why for them, the only solutions to problems are either run away or hurt someone (fight-flight). Other solutions are simply unimaginable. Put enough of these individuals interacting together and you have a full fledged culture defined almost completely governed by fight flight characteristics – a culture of trauma.


This is what the risks are for correctional workers working in a culture of trauma

For correctional workers, the primary work related health risk is that their own nervous system will remain too long on the fight flight circuit. The correctional environment is always dangerous and incidents big and small happen all the time. Our nervous system is designed to react to these incidents as traumas and to turn on our fight flight systems to deal with it. If it is on too long, it stays on. The correctional officer then joins, willingly or unwillingly, the rather unhappy world of the culture of trauma.


This is how you know if your nervous system is not working well

Looking at the list of characteristics for each of our two main circuits can allow anyone to know if they are in the unenviable position of not being able to shut off their fight-flight circuit. Interestingly, being “tough” or not being “tough” seems to have no real effect on how well your nervous system works. What seems true is that each person seems to have his own limit of how much trauma they can endure. Tough or not, if you pass your limit, you stop functioning. To help correctional officers figure out how well their nervous system is working we have put together a short five question self test which follows.


Am I Stuck on Fight-Flight ?

A Self Test

Key Life Experiences
  • 0 to 2 Not OK Answers – Your nervous system has found a good balance.
  • 3 to 4 Not OK Answers – Your nervous system is having a hard time finding its balance. Best use relaxation exercises conscientiously and work at staying relaxed.
  • 5 Not OK answers – Your nervous system is not succeeding in balancing out. It is a good idea to seek advice.

This is how bad it can get

Working with individuals exposed to repeated trauma has shown psychologists that if the exposure is intense enough, it may take years to shut off the fight flight circuit. For some, it may never shut off. For these persons, their whole personality changes. They can no longer remember things, they cannot carry out the simplest multi step tasks without taking a really long time to do so, their family relationships become almost impossible to maintain and their quality of life drops dramatically. For some, even going to the corner store is a major challenge. Catching this early guarantees a better recovery and helps avoid a more serious nervous system collapse.


This is what you can do to turn on your relaxation circuit

Years of intensive study over the last 70 years has taught us a lot about how to balance our nervous systems. There are, for example, a wide range of medications that have proven very effective in helping our relaxation circuits comeback to life. Taking vacations, pursuing hobbies, and pursuing sports all helps. We have included in this section four techniques that are particularly effective in promoting relaxation. They are all practices you can start on your own and build into your daily routine. We would encourage all correctional workers to invest in these exercises. They are your essential safety measures for remaining healthy at work. Just as important as hard hats and safety boots are for construction workers.


Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing or tummy breathing is the single most powerful non-chemical relaxation technique that psychology possesses. It is simple to explain but takes a bit of time for it to figure out. It consists of breathing by moving your tummy only. This means that your rib cage is totally quiet and unmoving. A good way to learn tummy breathing is to lie down and place a book on your tummy. Then breath by making the book move up and down with your breath. Five deep tummy breaths will relax you for 20 to 30 minutes. The more you do it, the more powerfully they induce relaxation. Best to do throughout the day as often as you feel you need it.


Meditation

Meditation for psychologist can simply be defined as being awake and not thinking. If you are awake and not thinking, you are meditating. Being awake is pretty simple but not thinking while awake is a bit of a trick. There are various levels of meditation that psychologist will use. They vary from guided visualizations to focusing on body functions to the more difficult mindfulness exercises using no alternative centre for your attention. Let us here describe a middle of the road meditation technique. It is best done in the morning before breakfast.

  1. Begin to loosen your upper body by rolling your shoulders one direction and then in the other direction (three to four rotations in each direction).
  2. Next, you can do head rolls (rolling your head around in a circle) a couple of times in each direction. If you have neck problems, omit this exercise.
  3. Then position yourself comfortably in a chair or couch, keep your back straight, place your hands in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
  4. Next, remain quiet and focus on your breath. Don’t make yourself breath but just be aware of your breathing.
  5. Be – Here – Now By this old Ram Dass instruction, we mean that the meditator tries to stay awake, stay aware of where they are (sitting in a chair for example) and stay in the present (does not let his thoughts drift to the past or future).
  6. If other thoughts come into the mind, simply allow them to drift away.
  7. Try and stay in this aware and non-thinking state for 5 to 15 minutes.

The old saying is that it takes 5 minutes to teach meditation and ten years to master. Continue to work on it. Its relaxation value is not as powerful as tummy breaths but it lasts much longer 12 to 24 hours). This is the technique that has the lowest level of application (people usually give up on it after a few weeks or months). For those that stick with it, it does bring great relaxation benefits.


Nine Muscle Group Tension Release Exercise

The body has lots of old mechanisms to save energy. One of these is particularly useful for inducing relaxation and better quality sleep. Tensing and releasing muscle one group at a time sends messages to the brain that the time fore work is over and that it is time to relax. Like tummy breaths, the more you use this technique, the stronger it gets. The best time to use this technique is bedtime or during relaxation periods in school.


The technique consists in tensing your muscles until they feel tired and then releasing them (letting them flop like a rag). You then proceed to the next muscle group. Usually, you can tense the muscle for a count of 20 to 100 depending on how quickly they tire. After you tense one group, you move to the other. The muscle groups are:

  • Left Leg
  • Right Leg
  • Pelvis (Kegel exercise)
  • Abdomen
  • Rib Cage
  • Right Arm
  • Left Arm
  • Neck
  • Face


Thinking

Individuals who start to study trauma often think of Trauma as something that happens to you from the outside (a car accident, an assault etc.). In reality, trauma is something that happens in your thoughts. For one person a bull charging at you in an open field can be traumatizing if you don’t know anything about bulls. The experience can stay with you for a long time. If you know cattle, a charging bull is just one more event in the day and quite forgettable. All depends on how you interpret the event. In the first instance, you might think you will die. In the second, it is just one more bothersome animal that you have to deal with. The difference is in your thoughts.


In correctional facilities all across the country, employees are constantly talking about how bad the correctional system is, how it does not work, how it is tipped in favor of inmates, how there is poor communication between management and staff or any other negative theme. The term used to refer to these thoughts is “catastrophizing”. These thoughts are in and of themselves adding to the employee’s trauma load.


A practice that has proven itself to be useful in reducing stress is the “fix it or forget it” approach. In this simple thought discipline, the person allows him or herself to think about the topics or themes that they plan to do something about. The things that they do not plan to fix are not thought or talked about as much as possible. To spend your time thinking catastrophizing thoughts about dysfunctional systems that you will not fix is a form of hurting yourself.


The most powerful way to stop thinking these hurtful thoughts is to use the thought stopping technique. In this technique, whenever you start to think an unproductive thought tell yourself STOP and then shift to a positive thought about home. Some people use an elastic on their wrist. When they think of an unproductive thought, they snap the elastic and then shift the thought. The important thing is to use the best approach to distract yourself away from thought line that will make you weaker and towards thoughts that will make you stronger.


This is how you can work with your family to protect your nervous system and keep your family happy

It is one of the unhappy things about trauma and unbalanced nervous systems that the first people to suffer from an imbalance are those we are closest to. It is logical if you think about it. It is with them that you need to be loving, thoughtful, passionate and fun loving. These are exactly the things that one looses when the fight flight circuit gets turned on too much.


Fortunately, it is also true that when you do fun and loving things with your family, even when you don’t feel like it, it actually helps the relaxation circuit turn itself on. In other words, your family is the first to pay for a parent’s unbalanced nervous system but they can also be part of the cure.


A practice that has proven itself useful to many individuals in high stress jobs is the “split drive home” method. It goes as follows.

  1. Decide where the half way point is for your drive or walk home.
  2. When you head home, allow yourself to think about work as much as you want for the first half of the trip. You can complain in your head, catastrophize about how the system will fall apart, you can complain how you are hard done by or you can think about what you did good, how you succeeded in a difficult situation or make plans for tackling work the next day.
  3. As soon as you see the half way point, bring your thinking about work to a full stop.
  4. The second half of the drive home, start to think about what you will do with your family. They are your best therapy as long as you use them well. Think of the first thing you can say that will be positive, decide on an activity you might want to do with your child or children or simply think about how relaxing it will be to be home.
  5. It is important for your spouse to be aware of this technique so that she can participate. In other words, if she has an argument to have with you, she should try and keep it for after you have gotten home and steeled.

We strongly suggest that families be full partners in the overall project of keeping a correctional worker’s nervous system healthy. For that to happen, they should know the information in this pamphlet well so that they can be a full and active part of the cure.


[1] The parts of the nervous system being referred to here are the two parts of the autonomic nervous system. The fight – flight circuit refers to the sympathetic nervous system and the relaxation circuit refers to the parasympathetic nervous system.

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