Police officers are exposed to extreme stress from critical incidents, nagging stress from organizational politics, cumulative stress from the routine calls, and then often go home to suffer relationship, financial or other personal stressors. The ability to handle those multiple sources of stress will determine to a large extent the success and the level of satisfaction of an officer.
From a management perspective, officers lacking in coping skills have a significant negative impact on their police agencies. The more resilient officers are, the more productive they will be. Officers that are ineffective at coping with stress are less productive and cost their organizations more in short-term and long-term sickness. It can get worse. Alcoholism and police suicide are linked to stress.
Unfortunately, officers aren’t always well equipped to handle the stressors. There are behaviors that are common among police officers that harm their ability to deal effectively with stress. By learning to recognize these harmful behaviors and combating the culture that promotes them, the officers and agency can work together to optimize the individual’s health and the health of the organization. Lower the Demands
Much of the stress management literature is about lowering the demands placed on the individual. This doesn’t work for cops. Stress cannot be eliminated in law enforcement, and officers need to be able to handle the high demands placed on them.
The solution is resiliency. A growing body of research exists in the field of resiliency, which is the ability to adapt to significant adversity or trauma. Resilient people are more immune to the negative aspects of stress. Researchers have discovered that there are several social and behavioral factors that make people resilient. The good news is that these factors can be learned. Living the “resiliency factors” can make a person immune to the harmful effects of stress, whether it’s cumulative stress or critical incident stress.
Dr. Bill McDermott spent 30 years as a practicing psychologist contracted to several police agencies. After spending years assisting police who were dealing with both critical incident stress and cumulative stress, he saw patterns of behavior that magnified stress. He observed and identified seven common behavioral problems.
These seven ineffective habits that are common in the policing culture harm officers’ abilities to deal with stress. Each of the seven enemies of sanity is followed by a resiliency factor that can mitigate against that particular stress magnifier.
Enemy Number One: Isolation
When officers are going through serious distress, whether it’s from an on-duty incident or domestic problems, there is a tendency to go through it alone. It’s common for officers to internalize instead of externalize, in other words to suffer in silence. This exacerbates the stress response. Officers have the feeling that nobody understands. Without being able to put words to feelings and get it off their chests, they may ruminate, and make the problem bigger than it really is.
If officers are reluctant to talk with a friend or family member, they are even more reluctant to seek professional help. They worry about credibility and confidentiality, often with good reason. But when they are suffering serious distress, for example domestic or financial or substance abuse problems, by not seeking the proper assistance it allows the distress to continue and grow.
Resiliency Factor: Support System
Isolation magnifies stress. Having a strong support system in the form of a loving spouse, understanding parents, a caring chaplain, or just a good buddy to talk to is vital for effective coping. Everyone needs to have a trusted support system to lean on. Whether you have family members for day-to-day stressors and a formal employee assistance program for professional help, it’s critical to have that support system in place.
This program allows the officer to deal with the distress before it becomes unmanageable, before unhealthy coping habits start and before their career goes down the tube. The support system is not just for the advice an officer may receive, but more important, for the feelings of support, love and understanding. It creates perspective and balance, and it helps officers cope.
Enemy Number Two: Negative World View
Police officers have the unfortunate position of seeing the worst society has to offer on a daily basis. They are not typically witnessing the charity and contributions; they are witnessing the random violence, gruesome scenes, and the most disturbing things the human psyche is capable of. Officers spend the majority of their time with the worst 10% of the community, losing sight of the decent 90% of the population.
This environment leads to officers becoming cynical about life and losing trust in society and even friends and family. This has an adverse effect because it takes away hope, decreases happiness and leads to depression. Productivity is reduced and relationships deteriorate within the department and within the community. Cynicism has also been shown to be a precursor to misconduct.
Resiliency Factor: Sense of Optimism
Being an optimistic person and being hopeful will decrease distress. Research by Dr. Martin Seligman has shown that optimism can be learned. Being optimistic doesn’t mean letting your guard down and thinking everyone loves you or that no one will hurt you. It’s a realistic optimism as opposed to constant negativity and cynicism. It’s about hope for the future, about knowing that there is more good than bad in the community. It’s knowing that the individual can make a difference in the outcomes. It’s knowing that negative events in the officer’s life are temporary and will be overcome.
Enemy Number Three: Overuse of Stimulants and Depressants
The big ones, of course, are caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine is common when officers start their shift and throughout the shift to keep going. Whether it’s coffee with the senior officers or Red Bull with the new generation, caffeine has a bio-chemical effect on the body that increases stress. It is a stimulant that keeps the levels of adrenaline elevated. Thus it maintains high stress levels and causes nervousness and irritability.
Alcohol is common after a shift to calm down and take the edge off, but it’s harmful in the long run. It interferes with regular sleep patterns suppressing REM sleep. It also reduces the levels of vitamin B and C, which are needed for the body to deal with stress. When alcohol is used as a crutch, it can often lead to alcoholism, bringing with it even more serious issues.
Resiliency Factor: Healthy Diet
Eating the right foods rich in vitamins and antioxidants will help the body fight biological damage that stress causes and mitigates the physical stress reaction. Cutting down on caffeine will lower adrenaline and cortisol levels, lower blood pressure, and decrease temper and anger reactions. Decreasing alcohol consumption will strengthen body and brain through proper restorative sleep. A healthy diet in general will help the body deal with stress naturally and helps to prevent stress related sickness over the long term.
Enemy Number Four: Giving up on Exercise
With shift work and family responsibilities, life is busy and it’s hard to maintain an exercise program. Many officers are dedicated to their workout routines, but far too many give up on them. A street cop’s endocrine system releases adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones on a regular basis.
By going home after a shift to flop down on the couch, have a beer, watch a couple hours of TV and vegetate, it doesn’t allow biochemicals a way of getting flushed out of the system. Those chemicals that are needed for short-term survival, for the fight or flight response, have a harmful effect to health over the long term if left at elevated levels. Cortisol has been described as an acid wash on the brain, and it is one of the causes of belly fat.
Resiliency Factor: Fitness
Fitness is considered the number one strategy for dealing with stress. Going for a good run or doing a hard workout when an individual is feeling agitated flushes the harmful biochemicals from the body and releases good chemicals like endorphins that increase the feeling of well-being. Officers that work out on a regular basis use less sick time and are more effective in stressful situations.
Research has determined that exercisers outperform couch potatoes in long-term memory, reasoning, attention and problem solving. These are just a few of the many reasons to get off the couch and get on the treadmill and to encourage officers in your organization to do the same.
Enemy Number Five: Tying Self-Worth to Position or Assignment
Tying one’s self-worth to anything that one has little or no control over is a recipe for disaster. Everyone has seen officers become bitter because they were put “back in uniform,” removed from a specialized unit or transferred.
Being a “cop” is a big part of an officer’s self image, but if self-esteem is based specifically upon being a street crime detective, or part of the gang unit, or element leader on a SWAT team, as soon as one is bumped from that unit, it becomes a crushing blow to that officer’s self image and a blow to his coping abilities.
Resiliency Factor: Finding Meaning
This factor is about finding meaning in life in the things that really matter. If an officer finds ultimate meaning in being a great father to his children, then it’s not such a hard hit to that officer when he receives an unexpected change of assignment. The level of stress that he perceives will be lower than the officer whose self image is tied to his position. This resiliency factor is also about finding meaning in suffering or setbacks.
If a person has faith in the belief that things happen for a reason or he can find positive outcomes in negative experiences, this will enhance his ability to deal with all types of stressful events. Well-known psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl attributes finding meaning in suffering to be the primary reason he was able to survive the horrors of the concentration camp.
Enemy Number Six: Taking Oneself Too Seriously
This profession is serious; officers can face life-and-death situations much more often than the general public and are also exposed daily to tragedy vicariously. There are times for seriousness and sadness. But those times need to be interspersed with appropriate times of playfulness, happiness and humor. Research has shown that people who lack a sense of humor are more prone to stress-induced depression and more intense stress responses.
Resiliency Factor: Sense of Humor
Being open to laughing at situations and at ourselves at times reduces the level of distress, both physically and emotionally. By laughing at difficult situations when appropriate, it helps people reframe those problems in a less threatening way. When a person laughs, “feel-good” biochemicals are released in the reward centers of the brain.
In studies of resilient Vietnam combat veterans, surgical patients and at-risk children, humor has been identified as an important coping mechanism. “Dark humor” is common in all emergency services, and research is now showing that this is a protective factor against critical incident stress.
Enemy Number Seven: Lack of Sleep
With paid duties, overtime, secondary employment on top of family responsibilities, who gets eight hours of sleep anymore? Lack of sleep increases stress reactions. It’s not just a matter of feeling tired, it affects thinking, judgment, executive function, attention and mood.
One study found that when sleep was restricted to six hours or less a night for just five nights, cognitive performance dropped to that of a person suffering from 48 hours of continual sleep deprivation. Research has shown that sleep deprivation causes the body’s stress hormone levels to rise in an increasingly deregulated fashion. Lack of sleep also leads to anxiety and depression.
Resiliency Factor: Sleep and Rest
Healthy people are able to withstand much more stress than the unhealthy. Getting the proper amount of sleep is crucial to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Sleep is necessary for effective problem solving and judgment, which are critical capabilities during stressful incidents.
Taking mini-rest periods throughout the day will keep officers at optimum performance when engaged in an incident, as opposed to staying at “condition orange” for a 12-hour shift, which creates wear and tear on a person’s emotions and physiology. Maintaining healthy sleep habits will build stress resistance.
How does a police agency teach its officers to be more resilient? Not by a lecture to rookies at the academy. Dr. Denis Lapalme, a police psychologist, says that young recruits have no context to assimilate the knowledge and habits. Until they’ve been on the road and experienced the worst the job has to offer, they may not see the importance of the training. Many recruits are feeling overconfident or invincible at the academy, which prevents them from trying to integrate the factors in their life.
Instead, it is suggested that the experienced officers, field training officers and supervisors are the members of the agency that should be trained. They can then model the behavior to all those that they work with on a daily basis. The younger officers will learn more by their example, by modeling them in stressful circumstances, than they will learn from a lecture at basic training.
Departments can also work to change unhealthy cultures where the seven enemies are commonplace by considering resiliency when promoting officers to positions of influence. By conducting 360-degree reviews to determine that those taking on leadership roles are officers that are resilient and have demonstrated effective stress management strategies, will ensure their positive habits are an example to officers they lead and start the shift toward resiliency as the norm.
In the stressful environment of law enforcement, it is up to the agency to promote and support training and programs that will increase officers’ resiliency. By doing so, it will fulfill the duty of care that ethical organizations have toward employees and also create a more productive organization where officers are able to effectively handle the demands placed on them, ultimately improving their quality of life.
Brad Coulbeck is a detachment commander with the Ontario Provincial Police. He is also a certified hypnotherapist and speaks on stress resiliency. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Mark Lancaster