Stressed Out On The Street

In the time of the cave man stress was nominal and seldom omnipotent. Primitive man was only concerned about a few basic things: food, water, shelter and warmth. These things by themselves were not overly stressful. Sure, not having any food may be stressful but a few days of hunger will not kill you. Now, if primitive man was looking for some food and came across a saber tooth tiger then he had a problem. Instead of hunting for food he was the food, and that created stress. Our modern body still has the same basic reaction to such threats as our prehistoric body did: fight or flight. We have two simple choices - stay and fight to the death or run like hell. Let's say, regardless of your choice, that you survived the ordeal. Naturally you would rest, find some water, sleep and eventually move on. Our body wants to naturally recover from the stressful event by healing through rest and nutrition.

Fast forward to today where stress is constant and non-stop. In our modern hyper-connected world the stress response is always on. Symptoms like headaches, stomach and bowel issues, blood pressure and cardiac problems, irritability and burnout abound. Think about it; in many busy cities call after call with little down time keeps the stress response on all the time. Phones, radio, computer, superiors, family, finances all team up to create a constant background noise called stress. Over time this constant unrelenting noise can have a lethal effect on your body. There is as reason that burnout, obesity, disease and mistakes claim so many of your fellow officers each and every year.

We can no sooner change law enforcement and public safety than we can totally get rid of stress. Remember there is good stress and bad stress. The good stress keeps you alive, mentally preparing us for action both physical and cognitive. The bad stress is where our focus needs to turn. One of my favorite lectures to deliver at conferences and to departments is teaching how to deal with stress on duty. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly officers and field personnel can apply some of the simple techniques taught and immediately feel better. There are 5 major factors that we need to address to combat stress. I'll discuss two here and the remaining three in part two of this article series.

First and foremost is exercise. How can any officer expect to do their job day in and day out and still have a healthy body to retire with if some time is not allotted for exercise? Virtually all public safety professions involve physical effort and dangerous situations that require physical agility. It makes no sense to lower job-specific fitness standards while expecting to field a productive force. Injuries will occur, accidents will happen and costs will rise. A knee injury costs thousands of dollars per officer; estimated in the $15k range not including overtime to cover the shift and incidentals.

If physical standards are relaxed to keep up the head count then stress will continue to rise. I for one did not like having to watch my back, do my job and that of my partner for the simple fact that they were physically unable. Officers that are fit and dedicated to their wellness naturally have an outlet for stress. Exercise, in all its forms washes away the cumulative negative effects of stress. After exercise, stress hormones are virtually gone from the blood stream, breathing patterns are relaxed and normal and the heart rate is steady and even. Good fitness will keep an officer on the street longer, and will drastically reduce burnout and anxiety. It does not make sense to relax standards and reduce time and access to exercise when the benefits are so clear.

Second: one of the unpleasant side effects of stress and of a career in public safety is sleep disturbances. I do not need to tell you that we see some nasty stuff out there; we are human and trust me it all adds up. From shift work, dealing with the personal demons that haunt us after a bad call to metabolic problems from a bad diet - it all effects how we rest. If we are unable to sleep deeply and uninterrupted, 7-9 hours a day our normal body process will not occur as they are supposed to nor will we heal properly. Research clearly shows lack of sleep to directly correlate with obesity, heart disease, diabetes and memory issues. Let's face it, those are the same symptoms as stress!

Again we cannot just will ourselves to sleep better and longer but there are some easy tricks. Napping once a day for 15-30 minutes is a great way to rejuvenate yourself mentally. A nap will not do much for overall fatigue but the deep relaxed breathing and mental off switch will do the trick. With napping, longer is actually not better. If we nap past 60 minutes our body clock begins to get confused and can make it hard to sleep when its bed time. When it is bed time shut some stuff off: phones, pagers, lights and dim the digital clock. Get some black out blinds and use a sound machine. One of the best tricks to turn off your brain and drown out outside noise is a sound machine which basically provides white noise. Sound machines are especially beneficial for officers that sleep during the day. It works and you will wonder how you ever slept without one.

By the way, the more fit and regimented you are with an exercise routine the better your body will sleep. It's primed to want to heal from the workout and the best way to do that is to take advantage of nature's original design for recuperation: sleep.

In part two we'll discuss the next three stress-induced issues and how best to deal with them.