Anxiety and the PhD.

So, here I am, I have won a scholarship to study for a PhD. in my chosen area of emotions and mental health in the police.  My thesis title is:

Emotional In-authenticity: the psychological impact of emotional labour on police officers.

Yep, that’s right, I am widening my study from my MSc. dissertation.  As it happens, I did really well and got a distinction for my dissertation and for my MSc.

Okay, you’re right, this blog isn’t about how well I did in my studies…

..but I do need to give you some context so you can understand how high functioning anxiety plays out; and how it can be deceptive to the casual observer.

I think I can call this ‘high functioning anxiety’.. it’s pretty sneaky.  You shouldn’t really know how I am feeling.  You see, the little anxiety monster that runs around my head shouting, drowning out my own voice, tells me that if I show any sign of anxiety… I’m a failure.   In fact, anything less than perfecto! is failure.

So I am really practiced at putting on this convincing act of everything being just okay.. (you can guess why I study emotional labour – class act!).

But anxiety it is also a lot more clever than that (anxiety is, by self purport, smarter than it’s host) because it tells me that anything I did do right, was a fluke – and I will struggle to ever meet the same standard again, because really, I am just not that good.

So despite all my hard work and my results, every new dawn brings a new sense of self-doubt.

I try my best to rationalise my way round my anxiety, I mean, I am meant to have some intelligence; but you see, this is where I am disadvantaged by my creative soft spot – my happy day dream head turns into frenzied fantasy as I imagine every possible worst case scenario that could result of my last action/sentence/blog/tweet/breath…

A quick scenario for you… I have just submitted my first assignment for my PhD. taught element.  I have worked so hard at this, and I actually kinda like it.  I love the topic; I am so passionate about how police officers are allowed to deal with their emotions, and how this impedes their psychological wellbeing.  I care so much about this, it is a pleasure to read and to write about.  I also love the act of writing – the creation and completion of a piece of work.  I like how sentences sound, and how they communicate with other people in the world, it makes me feel connected and tangible.  I feel I have created something I like.

So I press the submit button.  And feel sick.  It is almost instantaneous.  My stomach is in knots.. my heart beat is raised through the roof, and I can feel my skin turn cold and clammy.. I feel the faint, pricking of adrenaline in my arms, and everything has just gained an impressive visual definition.





Kinda like the last time someone pulled a knife on me..

I reach about in my head searching for the thing that has set this off, wanting to emotionally touch the bad element of my assignment that will mean that I WILL FAIL.  I want to look at it and reassure myself that I have made it up, or it isn’t that bad, and I have over emphasised a negative point.

But I can’t, because I can’t find it, as it doesn’t exist.

But hey, let’s not stop there (because this is high functioning anxiety, and if I am going to be good at anything, it’s anxiety!).   This is not just a failure.  No, this is so bad that I will be considered unfit for carrying on with my PhD.  I will be summonsed to my supervisor’s office (my legs are actually beginning to ache with the flood of adrenaline, as I visualise my route to their office and standing in front of them; impeccably lit by the ceiling to floor window) and they will state their disappointment.  They will be devastated.  And I will be devastated for them.  This is after all MY FAULT, I have let them down. *whimper* I am sad.  Then, I am ceremoniously marched off campus and into my dull future.  No PhD. No Scholarship. No employment.  All I have to do is tell my husband…

Okay… so this is classic catastrophizing.  But I am so well versed in visualising my agonising demise that I have managed this scenario (in HD) in around thirty seconds..

So, I try it on again; just for size.. and, as I like to make sure that it is the perfect scenario for my sad little ending, I polish it a bit.  Add a couple of scenes (running into fellow PhD cohort, having to explain to my students why I can’t teach them – a thunderstorm for atmosphere – rain running down that very long window…) and repeat.

I know this is a really stupid thing to do, but I can’t explain to you that when you are in the grip of this fear, that it is very hard to shake.  Give me all the breathing and CBT in the world – fear feels like fear, no matter the cause.  And humans are programmed to react.

Okay I really am gonna breath now *sigh*..

As it was, I passed: 67 – and do you know what I thought?  Where did the 3 marks go that meant I missed a distinction!

Whatever.  This is exhausting; I wish I would give myself a break.

However, this is anxiety, and any moments I get for potential down time result in fear filled, gut wrenching agony that I am no longer relevant, and have no value in this world.  So, I work.  I work to seek reassurance that I am worth the space that I take up on this earth.

And so it goes on.. don’t get me wrong.  Life is a lot better now.  If you look at the above scenario, then apply that to my last death investigation, or shooting – you can see just how bad my little fantasy head can get.  It wasn’t just my PhD I could fail, I could fail at preventing a loss of life; and it wouldn’t have been campus I would have been marched off, but marched into my own trial and had my human failures highlighted to all who come to watch the spectacle (yes, I have convicted myself in my head many times for not being good enough – queue near break down, see blog post 1&2).

I now consider myself one of the luckiest people alive.  I can’t begin to tell you what a privilege it is to be able to study my chosen subject to such depth, and hopefully have a part in some change for good.


But to all those peeps out there with their own anxiety monster creating anarchy in their head; and to those that are seeking to understand those that do; trust me, it doesn’t matter what your triggers are or the context of your circumstances that lead you to curl up in a ball on the floor.. fear is fear, and when it triggers your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system it is very difficult to talk yourself down.  These are our warning signs – our security system; and we are programmed to react.  And it takes a lot to carry on like we are doing just fine – but I know we do, because anything else would be… well, you know what the monster says… but knowing this is my monster and this is how it works me, well it does help.  And it does help knowing I’m not the only one hosting in my head.. maybe I should start a support group: ‘monsternet’… any tips on social anxiety at networking events..?

So if you do suffer with high functioning anxiety, know you are not alone, and please give yourself permission to take some time out.  Even for a second, just take a moment to exist, rather than to pursue the next goal.  You will get there.

As for me… well, there’s the next assignment and a few presentations to think of.  But I did give myself time to write this blog, which for me is progress..


#5 Exploring Emotions At Work: Next Steps for the Reflective Detective.


It’s been a little while since I last checked in.  I hate to say that I have been busy, particularly when I speak to my colleagues still in the job, but I have been occupying my time and my mind, trying to understand what it is about the culture of policing that make it so difficult for us to talk about how we feel.

So where am I now? 

Well my exams have been sat, my assignments written and I haven’t done so bad, and now I am working on my dissertation – hoping for a distinction in my Masters.

So what is my dissertation?

My dissertation examines emotional labour in the police and how this is linked to burnout.

Title: A study into the relationship between emotional labour and burnout of police officers within Greater Manchester Police.

Okay.  Super.. but how does this relate to the experience of the Reflective Detective and the wellbeing of police officers at large?

Well..  emotional labour is the work we do to disguise how we are really feeling – but for a commercial (or in this case, a policing) reason.  Arlie Hochschild wrote a book called ‘The Managed Heart’ in 1983 and she explored emotional labour and its impact on the individual.

The Managed Heart

Emotional labour is divided into surface acting and deep acting: where surface acting sees us act out the required emotion without changing our internal feelings, deep acting is when we try and engage our internal feeling and align them with the required emotion.

What feelings the organisation requires us to experience or display depend upon the ‘feeling rules’ and ‘display rules’ of that culture.



…they are the times we want to scream and shout, or to dissolve into giggles when it just wouldn’t be right.  When we take a deep breath when someone else doesn’t manage their emotions towards us, and it smarts – but we don’t complain because that wouldn’t be right/corporate/professional or just polite (we are after all British).

For police officers it is what you would expect – not crying when you deliver a death message to parents, not running away in fear when someone more scared than you thrusts a gun/knife/broken bottle at your head.  Not being rude to the child sex offender you just convicted, but treating everyone with respect, even when they do spit on you..  It really is about keeping your head when the evidence around you suggests you should just run: essentially, not letting the people who depend on you see your fear.

But it is also the place where you stand alone in a crowded and busy locker room at the end of a shift, and everyone in your team (including you) is laughing and joking about the pub fight you just dealt with, where the main protagonists wielded knives and machetes, and really you were scared all along, and suspect they were too.  It’s the hours in the night, long after you should have finished your shift, and you are on your own in a deserted police station, pulling together a handover file for the prisoner you just arrested, who had stated that they wanted to kill you – and did their best to prove it – but now it is the accuracy of paperwork that seems the most pressing matter.. It’s when you walk into the station shaking, bruised and spattered with someone else’s blood.. and being asked to respond to a reported shoplifter.. it’s sitting down to dinner with your loved ones and discussing the latest episode of GoT, when really all you can think about is the kid you just stopped from jumping off the bridge.

This discrepancy between felt and displayed emotion is known as emotional dissonance, and it is directly linked to burnout..

Police Stress

There is no question that police officers have to manage their emotions in difficult circumstances: that is what the job is and that is what is needed to get it done.  Undisputed.  Sometimes police officers manage their emotions to influence the emotions of others (think angry man, scared child, the frantic parent) but there comes a point where they need to deal with all these emotions and all that they encounter in the routine of their work.

My argument is that there should be room, back at the station, back within the work place with other people who share the same experiences, for bobbies to be able to talk openly about how the work they do affects them.

…and then there is the ‘deep acting’, where officers time and time again empathise with the victims they support.. until emotionally, they are exhausted. Burnout.

At the moment we don’t just carry out emotion work when we most need to – out on the street holding the thin blue line, but it continues into our culture, back in to what should be the safety of canteens, offices, gyms, locker rooms..

Research demonstrates that just the perception that you are able to talk about your emotions post traumatic event is enough to start mitigating the emotional impact of that trauma – that’s all it takes, not even the talking but just a supportive atmosphere that indicates that it is okay to feel.

And I think that is the crux of my point.  It is okay to feel. 

It’s not weak.  It doesn’t mean ‘you’re not up to the job’.  It means you are human – probably a good skill to have as a cop..

And yes, we can’t always express our authentic emotions – there are times in all walks of life/organisation/society/lunch with the in-laws when we have to convey an emotion that isn’t authentic to our inner and truest feelings, but when these emotions are negative, impactive, distressing or just straight overwhelming, we need to acknowledge them, deal with them and let them go on their way, long before they hurt us permanently.

It is my belief that organisations who ask their employees to expose themselves to the most distressing, horrifying or terrifying aspects of life on a routine basis have a responsibility to support them with their personal outcomes, to support them with their mental health, their coping, their positive wellbeing.

So can I make a difference?

How can I hope to influence what is a large and complex organisation with a culture that stretches back almost 200 years..?

Peeler attitude

Well, it is my intention to try.

I am starting by giving my colleagues their voice – an authentic voice that gives them the opportunity to say how it is for them – but with the security of confidentiality.

But I want to do it in such a way that it can’t be ignored, that is credible and relates to a reality that goes to the heart of what it is to be a police officer.

So my research captures the emotional narrative of police officers living and breathing the job through the recording of diaries.

Each one has a story and I want them to tell that story, exactly as it is – inner emotions and displayed emotions.  Hidden fears, anxieties and frustrations.  And the passion for why they do what they do.

From this I am going to work out just exactly what the rules around feeling and displaying emotion are within our organisation.

Then I am going to take this collective voice and give it a platform, a place from where it can be heard.

And this is my dissertation.

…but also it will be my thesis.

Recently I have been really lucky enough to have been awarded a scholarship at Manchester Metropolitan University to undertake a PhD. programme, and yes my thesis is on emotional labour in the emergency services, authenticity of emotion and the impact this has on burnout.

I am not stopping here.  Not until we can speak, and be heard.


PS when I googled Police and emotional stress I got a picture of someone holding a glass of wine and another holding a pint of beer…



The Reflective Detective #2

(Continued from The Reflective Detective #1)

In my wisdom I fought for a place as a Detective Inspector back covering the South of the city.  I knew that this was the hardest place to work, but now that I was on the accelerated promotion scheme I was really keen to prove my operational credibility.

So one sunny day in early spring I paraded on as DI SJ Lennie – the station was pretty quiet, no one else around, so I found what I presumed was my office and sat down and waited for the computer to flicker into life.  Not long after I had sat down the Detective Sergeant for the intelligence unit came in and talked me through a piece of intelligence which led to a ‘Threat To Life’.  A ‘Threat To Life’ in police context is a high level strand of intelligence where the police believe that someone’s life is under significant and imminent threat.  Needless to say I was late off that night, and the next.. and after that.

Days turned into weeks, turned into months.. turned into exhaustion.

I have a high level of commitment to detail and professionalism, I always seek to identify and minimise risk.  I take responsibility and can’t walk away until the job is done; to the best possible level.  I always look after my staff and support them through the challenges we face – I need to be there for them, I need to be strong for them… and we faced many challenges.  At the beginning I knew that I would have a heightened level of stress, that I would worry about every angle of every day, I expected this to level out as I became more comfortable with my role, but with each new investigation, with every new death, threat, kidnapping, rape, shooting, attempt murder, robbery.. I became more afraid.

I can pin the moments when it was beginning to dawn on me that something wasn’t right.  The first night that I didn’t sleep one second, but was so completely wired that I got out of bed at seven and went for a run and then on to a full day – without blinking.  The moment when I was driving to another death and my husband called me (hands free!) to ask if we could visit family that Sunday, and I realised that I couldn’t because I had an assignment to submit (did I mention that as part of the promotion scheme I was studying for an MSc. with Warwick University) and cried until I reached the scene, then got out of the car and climbed into my white paper suit.  When I was regularly working fourteen/fifteen hour days, and resented my job for not allowing me to see my husband (we had only been married six months) because I was too scared to stop working and go home.  When I worked 24.5 hours none stop and went back into work after six hours, only to work another twelve.  When I couldn’t stop crying when I did get home. When my heart rate was so high I didn’t feel I could get enough air – when I was lying in bed.  When I felt so alone in my office and that I was the only one left to manage all the risk… when I came home and begged my husband to help me make it stop.

I give myself some credit for my self-awareness.  I knew I was suffering and I knew that if I didn’t make changes I was going to suffer a lot worse.  I had heard about the brilliant hard working officers that one day couldn’t get out of bed and spent months ill.  I needed to make changes.  I went and spoke with my DCI, he listened – and gave me lots of reassurance and a little pep talk.  No, I was doing the right thing, yes, the SMT thought I was doing a great job – which is why they were leaving me alone to carry on, and yes, everyone feels the way I did from time to time.

Excellent – I’m a top banana and everyone feels terrified in the police… surely this isn’t right?

I sought some counselling and tried to carry on with my role.  I spoke to people a lot and tried to be rational with my thinking… but in the end…

I clearly remember my last job as a DI.  It was a cold winter’s day, I was stood out in the middle of a field in a pair of wellies and a white SOCO suit, instructing the cadaver dog handler to look for a dead baby.  A couple of hours earlier I had been in my office deciphering letters written by the absent parents (post finger printing) who wanted to be reunited with their child.  Ten years ago I would have been looking for little signs as to how I could find them, who they were, what had happened… on this day it was all I could do to fight back the tears as I became overwhelmed with the sadness of their loss and desperation; I couldn’t see the words, never mind find the clues.  I was completely emotionally compromised…  I knew I couldn’t lead my team like this and I knew that I couldn’t carry on.

I took logical and reasonable steps.  I made my decision, I asked to step down from my role and move onto a project – this would give me breathing space to decide what was next.  For now I was mourning the loss of my career – it was a long time before I could say the words ‘I can’t be a DCI’ without welling up.  I had always dreamt that I would go on to be a Detective Chief Inspector leading murder investigations, and occasionally partaking in a glass of whiskey at the successful conviction of a killer.  It was difficult to admit that I was no longer cut out for the role.  You can tell me that I haven’t failed… but I won’t believe you.  That is how it is with the job.

So what next..?

(to be continued…)

The Reflective Detective #1

Hello there, I’m Sarah-Jane (or SJ..) and I am The Reflective Detective.

Thanks for coming along, I appreciate you taking the time.

I am a police officer on a career break after fourteen years of police service.  I am now studying a MSc. in Human Resource Management at Manchester Metropolitan University.  (bit of a time hop – I am now (06/01/18) in my second year of my PhD. examining emotions and MH in policing).

I want to start off telling you why I decided to write this blog and why I care so much about our wellbeing, in and out of work.

I have had a pretty interesting and varied career until this point – at 19 I ran away from home (well, not strictly true, I went to the Army careers office in Liverpool first..) to join the British Army as a musician – a French Horn player.  I did pretty well here and enjoyed life, I excelled at being a squaddie, picking up awards for Best Shot, Best PT and Best New Recruit, and then went on to be awarded ‘best female musician’.  I saw a bit of the world; Cyprus, Turkey, America.. and learnt to ride a motor bike.  Surprisingly still alive to tell the tale..

From there I went back to full time education and studied for my undergrad – in Shipping Operations!  Well, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do then and I was really interested in sailing and the law so…

… it was this interest in the law that really got me – and the idea of being active and contributing to the world.  Having seen both my parents do it, I joined the police.  At this time I was ‘down south’ in Southampton, so I joined Hampshire Constabulary.  A great decision.  I loved being a police officer, I quickly got my first promotion and awards for leadership, and after working as a Uniform Inspector, with four years service, I decided to become a Detective – and made the transition.  Again, another fantastic move.  I really enjoyed my time working on division and with the Major Crime Department.  At the time Hampshire Constabulary was known for being one of the best forces for homicide investigation, and I was in the thick of it!

Having tried a variety of a roles in Hampshire my head turned to bigger and greater challenge, and my love of the north: I saw an advert for the North West Counter Terrorism Unit..  fantastic!  This was where my next adventure lay.. I always wanted to be James (Sarah-Jane) Bond .  So I applied for Greater Manchester Police, the lead force for North West Counter Terrorism.  I was very quickly accepted and within six months of deciding to apply I started at my new home in Manchester.  I began working in child protection in central Manchester then moved to Longsight, heading up the rape unit as Detective Sergeant.  This was a full on job, covering south of the city, including Moss Side and Gorton.  Long hours and intense investigation ensued – but this is what I loved, the cut and thrust of detective work.  It was then that I spotted the advert – Special Branch were looking for a Detective Sergeant to work within the North West Counter Terrorism Unit.  I bagged the job and spent the next three years having the most amazing time.. until someone pointed out that maybe it was time I got down to the job of progressing my career…

So I left the fun behind me and applied for a role as a staff officer to an Assistant Chief Constable, quite an experience and an eye opener as to how a large metropolitan force like Greater Manchester operates – how we manage the risk and protect our communities.  Whilst here I applied for a place on the national police accelerated promotion scheme – the High Potential Development Scheme.   A national initiative that selects 50 officers from around the country who they identify as particularly talented and destined to make Superintendent and beyond in the next five years.  After months of rigorous selection processes I gained a place on the scheme, and the next stage of my career began.

I had no idea that it was to be the last.

(to be continued…)