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Cardiovascular disease, hypertension, arteriosclerosis, ulcers, depression, insomnia, and cancer, the list of diseases and maladies that are caused by or worsened by chronic stress goes on and on.
Our profession is filled with victims to all of the above. Know an officer under 50 that has had bypass surgery? How about someone that suffers from ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome? Any coworkers suffer from depression? Do you know any LE members or former members that self-medicate via the bottle?
Stress and the cumulative effects of a stressful career can heap its toll on the strongest of us and yet very little training is given to law enforcement about stress and oftentimes agencies succeed in only making things worse.
Recently eminent police psychologist Dr. Alexis Artwohl recommended a book to me by Dr. Robert Sapolsky, PhD, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (Owl Books, 2004). Sapolsky covers the anatomy and physiology of stress, disease and maladies caused by stress, coping mechanisms and much more.
Fight or Flight
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) serves us in preparing the mind and body for fight or flight. This branch of our autonomic nervous system is fired by hormones in the brain to empower us for running away from danger or prepping the body for battle. Learning the effects of SNS on your body and mind is an important part of the training mission. Learning to mitigate its effects and operate optimally is vital.
The body undergoes tremendous changes as the brain perceives danger. The problem is that fight or flight in man can be triggered by real threats, possible threats or imagined threats. Regardless of what initiates the SNS, the stress-response is the same. The SNS response that prepares us for a fight can hurt us as we are repeatedly exposed to it time after time, as can a stressor that is chronic and unrelenting in nature. Chronic stress (think about a financial crisis over a period of time) can induce the same physiological reactions day after day (or night after restless night) as acute stress.
Agency Induced Stress
It has been noted that agencies frequently increase the stress experienced by their officers. Dr. Sapolsky notes, "Endless studies have shown the link between occupational stress and increased risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases is anchored in the killer combination of high demand and low control you have to work hard, a lot is expected of you, and you have minimal control over the process. The control element is more powerful than the demand one low demand and low control is more damaging to one's health than high demand and high control."
Another issue that may magnify stress felt today by LE officers is, as Sapolsky notes, a perception of things worsening. With police use of force and other actions constantly being under the microscope and second-guessed, internal politics getting worse, the deterioration of society's morals and ethics, there definitely seems to be little opportunity to believe that things in police work are getting better.
Ways to Cope
Methods that I've used to reduce or process stress over the years and that are supported by Dr. Sapolsky and others include.
- Exercise Usually at the top of everyone's list of ways to cope is exercise. Going for a run or brisk walk, pushing some iron or hitting the heavy bag has a way of working out a problem. The natural release of the body's "feel good chemicals," the endorphins, reduces depression and increases sense of well being. But a caveat: exercise works only when it is something you want to do.
- Non-Police Hobbies or Activities It doesn't matter what it is from woodworking to coaching a kid's sports team, some activity that has nothing to do with police work can give you a sense of fulfillment and mental break from the rigors of law enforcement.
- Eating Healthy Feeding the body healthy foods and snacks results in less of a sluggish feel and helps replace the energy stores used to battle stress.
- Social Support Whether it is a group debrief after a critical incident or some good friends willing to listen, sharing your stressful incidents with an interested party seems to put things in proper perspective and seems to reduce the overall effects of stress. The key is to talk to someone that actually cares.
- Relaxation Techniques For most of my police career I've used relaxation techniques and meditation to reduce perceived stressful incidents. Whether it is autogenic breathing out in the field prior to a SWAT operation or guided relaxation audiotapes, I've found that these techniques worked and have recommended them to others as well.
From racing to an officer in trouble call with lights and siren, to dealing with unreasonable bosses at your agency, from the stresses of shift work, to the seeming general lack of respect today, the police occupation provides ample opportunity to feel the effects of the fight-or-flight stress response. Our profession has an increased risk of so many negative physical and psychological diseases and maladies that it is almost expected. Such does not have to be the case.
Just like we develop strategies and tactics for dealing with violent crimes in progress, we can develop strategies for understanding and mitigating the effects of the stress response. First we must understand how it works then; we must reduce its impact on us both in the short-term and in the long-term. Only through educating ourselves to the dangers and the coping skills can we prevent the negative impact of stress.