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Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety

Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.  - Swedish Proverb

Doesn’t it sometimes seem worry is our new national pastime, anxiety our default mood?  We collectively worry about the expanding national debt, wars overseas and terrorism on our shores, the ever-expanding surveillance state peering into our previously-presumed-to-be-private lives (or maybe that it’s not enough… what are they missing to compromise our safety?), the nefarious motives of the political powers-that-be (or maybe the wicked machinations of those who’d unseat them), and, frankly, the weather. 

Add to the collective disquiet most of us partake of to some extent or another our individual anxieties:  meeting the bills; securing the future; the health, safety, and welfare of yourself and your family; aging parents and vulnerable kids; work and professional concerns (and don’t you have a lion’s share of those if you’re a cop?).  Is it any wonder so many of us seem to exist in a state of more or less permanent unrest?  Is it any surprise the market for pharmaceutical anxiolitycs is a multibillion dollar industry? 

Although anxiety is nothing new – acknowledgement of, and advice to overcome, worry goes back thousands of years and figures prominently in both the Old and New Testaments of the Judeo-Christian Bible, as well as the texts and teachings of all the other major world religions – a lot has been learned about it in recent years (including how to treat it most effectively) and there are indications we, in our modern culture, have managed to take it to new heights.  Perhaps anxiety just seems to be more pervasive and severe because our awareness of it is so much more acute, but maybe it really is due to increased professional and social pressures, cultural expectations, competition for goods and accomplishments, or worries generated by the overwhelming information stew we now must navigate.  Whether this is true and, if so, why is less important than the simple fact crippling anxiety creates so many problems for so many people.  Maybe anxiety is even creating problems for you.

Anxiety and anxiety disorders are a wide-ranging phenomenon of broad etiology, experienced in many forms.  To fully cover all that anxiety is, or the various diagnostic criteria of anxiety disorders would take far more space that we have here, so we’ll go with a rather general definition and the fair assumption you probably have a pretty good idea of it to begin as experiencing general feelings of anxiety from time to time is a universal human experience.  Anxiety is a mood characterized by feelings of fear, worry, and uneasiness.  They are often generalized and unfocused (“free floating”), and often an overreaction to a perceived menace.  It becomes a psychiatric disorder when characterized by excessive, uncontrollable, and often irrational worry about normal, everyday stressors disproportionate to the true severity of the stressor.

No one is immune 

You’re a cop.  Strong, confident, and competent, anxiety can never get a hold on you, right?  The truth is, even strong, confident, and competent cops can fall victim to anxiety and anxiety disorders; we’ve both seen it, each from our own different professional perspectives and also in our work together writing and training, and know it is not at all uncommon.  Having anxiety, either situationally or in the form of a diagnosable anxiety disorder, does not necessarily mean an officer is any less strong or competent, but it can certainly shake the confidence.  And it doesn’t mean the officer cannot perform or be trusted, because anxiety can be managed or overcome.  One of the unfortunate aspects of the job is how it exposes cops to dangers – physical, emotional, and professional – that tend to ramp up anxieties and can lead to social and professional impairments. 

It’s important to understand the anxiety we’re talking about is more than that you’d reasonably expect to feel situationally, such as in a high-risk traffic stop, while responding to a crime in progress, or facing a large and belligerent offender who has just informed you that under no circumstances will he comply with your silly little idea to take him to jail.  That anxiety/fear is just commonsense and is your bodies adaptation to raise your level of vigilance and keep you alive.  Or maybe you just got a call from IAU to drop in because they’d “like to have a word with you.”  That twinge of anxiety is perfectly reasonable (especially if you were - you know - kind of expecting their call).  Reasonable anxiety in any of these situations sometimes morphs into a more debilitating anxiety/disorder when it’s always present; Your fear of assault interferes with your functioning as a cop, or an omnipresent fear of inevitable punishment colors all you do and creates a do-nothing, bunker mentality. 

The good news is, despite how prevalent anxiety disorders are, they are very treatable.  If you suffer from, or are prone to, anxiety, overcoming it is very possible when new skills are learned and applied.  One of the most effective forms of treatment for diminishing or taking control of anxiety is Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) which teaches patients to challenge thought distortions by asking simple, reality-based questions in order to reframe the moment.  Anxieties are often exaggerations of what a person perceives a stressor to be with future or past tense thinking.  A thought that was once base in reality now becomes “I don’t know how I will handle this when” or “I need to be prepared for…” or “I can’t ever go through this again.”  Fear begins to set in for an event that has not yet taken place instead of taking each moment as it comes and having confidence in your skills to resolve the situation when and if it ever happens.

There is no way to be in control or to predict how emotions will hit a person in the future, yet most people try to prepare themselves with the hope of avoiding emotional turmoil. 

Another part of becoming comfortable with anxiety is to learn how to be comfortable with painful and restless emotions.  Most people with anxiety have developed the habit of minimizing or running from emotional pain, or they try to fix it or make sense out of it.  Learning to acknowledge emotions and to stay in the moment with them is a major component of taming anxiety.  The skill of learning to be mindful of the present instead of thinking in the future or the past is a critical one to master.  As our yoga instructor often says:  “Lean into the pain.  The pain will not hurt you.”

Anxiety disorders are becoming common place.  An emotion that was designed to alarm people of danger lurking (to our ancient ancestors: “You are in the path of a Saber-Toothed Tiger about to eat you!”) has become misused.  If anxiety is chronic and ever-present, we suggest you speak with a medical professional.  Talk to your doctor or seek out a competent therapist.  If not treated, research is showing anxiety and depression commonly co-exists.  Both of these medical conditions can be extremely debilitating, yet both are very treatable.  There is hope!