Downtime Required To Maintain Performance

Aug. 16, 2023
Retired Lt. Frank Borelli talks about stress management, the importance of it in law enforcement, and the dangers of ignoring it.

When I was in the police academy, I received about four hours of training on "Stress Management". At the time I was twenty-two years old and thought the idea was laughable. My thought was: What can be so stressful about police work? It was all fun and games to me back then. It was what I'd wanted to do all my life and even the ugly side(s) of the job didn't look stressful to me. They hadn’t been when I was a Military Policeman.

It would be three years before I'd realize that the job could indeed impact your health through stress overload. Further, it took me about five years before I realized that the stress wasn't just affecting me - but also my family. And finally, it was about ten years before I realized that stress is definitely not obvious and can build up without us being aware of its existence - much less accumulation. Let me explain what I mean. I'll use myself as an example and hope no one laughs at me too hard.

I went to the academy in 1986. On the day after I graduated, I had to work my patrol area alone and ended up handling a motorcycle accident. A man had decided to teach his girlfriend how to ride a motorcycle and while she was driving - with him on the back - she had wrecked. Both of them were wearing street clothes suitable to the day's temperature, which was running in the nineties. It was a nice August summer day - until they wrecked, and both ended up with a lot of road rash, lacerations and one broken leg. I had just finished dealing with that when my shift ended, and my relief came in. I headed home - which was less than five minutes away - to find my new wife relaxing. It was a Saturday: what else should she be doing?

Now I have to point out: I have never been an easily angered guy. I'm pretty laid back and I enjoy being home. After exchanging greetings on that Saturday afternoon my wife let me know that the dishwasher broke and she had spent several hours cleaning up the mess, not to mention washing the dirty dishes by hand. She made it clear that she wasn't happy about it and we needed to get the dishwasher fixed as quickly as possible. My reaction was out of character, but it was my reaction just the same: I couldn't believe that she was complaining about something so petty as the dishwasher. Didn't she realize I'd just spent several hours dealing with the victims of a motorcycle accident? Didn't she know how much effort I had expended cleaning up the accident site and doing paperwork? Didn't she realize how much effort I had spent giving preliminary first aid to the victims until EMS had arrived? How dare she unload on me as soon as I had walked in the door about something as trivial as a broken dishwasher.

Yes, my reaction was uncharacteristic as I said. It certainly wasn't what she'd expected. I had never been that way before. But it was a direct result of the fact that I was loaded up with stress from having dealt with my first traffic accident as a police officer. Neither of us recognized my reaction for what it indicated. She got upset with me for being so uncaring and I got upset with her for not being supportive.

After I'd been on the force about ten years, I asked one friend of mine how another friend was doing. The answer took me completely by surprise. The friend I had inquired about was in the hospital and had been retired on disability. What had happened? Traffic accident? Shooting? STRESS. The officer had gotten ready for work one day and on his way to his patrol vehicle (agency had take home cars) he had simply fallen over having something akin to a seizure. This was a result of stress absorbed and not managed by the officer. He retired on a stress disability and made his hobby of woodworking a full-time job.

So, how do we avoid these things? We obviously can't get rid of stress in our lives. It comes from having to deal with the things we face every day doing our jobs. This applies to soldiers even more than to police officers. Day-to-day immersion in a combat environment has been shown to saturate a soldier's system with stress - sometimes even during periods when the soldier is "off duty". That's because just living in or near a combat area is stressful.

One psychologist gentleman I know believes that stress management begins as a child. Our upbringing and what we are taught sets a foundation for how well we will handle and manage stress throughout our lives. Let's face it: some kids have stressful childhoods. That child whose dad was an alcoholic and maybe abusive. The mother who had a sleeping disorder that caused her to take medication but never made her anywhere near loving. That child whose parents never married but share joint custody, so he has to listen to both of them constantly insult the other and is pressured into "taking a side." Simple survival: physical, emotional and mental mandates that these kids develop control mechanisms early in their lives that help them deal with the stressors they experience.

Some of those kids end up in bad shape because the methods they choose to control stress don't control it at all, but instead helps them escape reality. Running away from a bad home isn't a control method. Doing drugs isn't a control method. Stealing liquor from the cabinet isn't a control method. None of those things make the situation better, but instead create other problems that compound the already existing one(s).

Then there are the kids that somehow find the intestinal fortitude to stand up, take what's coming and deal with it. They find the strength somewhere inside of them to recognize the cause of what they're dealing with, and they begin to manage it. Certainly that management can be just avoiding whichever parent is being the problem. But for some it might mean learning when to duck, how to say things differently so as not to cause an issue, or to adjust their schedule around that of an abusive parent so there's minimal interaction. Those kids have recognized a problem, assessed it, and made a plan to deal with it. Having done so, then when they aren't in any immediate danger of harm, they can actually enjoy their time more. The heightened enjoyment of "down time" aids them further by reducing the stress saturation they're carrying, and they end up better off in the long run.

Now, that is not to say that all people who have good stress management skills had bad childhoods. Some kids learn good stress management from their parents as a result of good parenting. Some parents are exceptional teachers of the skills needed to get through life. How we deal with problems is something we should have learned from our parents at a relatively young age. I have found that in my own children one of the biggest problems they have is worrying about things they have no control over, and while I encourage them to think about things they can change - so they make the appropriate change - I also encourage them not to worry about what they can't change. That is just a waste of energy and builds up your stress levels with no positive outcome.

I'm not trying to throw religion into psychology, but the Serenity Prayer goes something like this: Lord, grant me the strength to change what I can; the patience to accept what I cannot; and the wisdom to see the difference.

I know I don't have the exact wording right, but the message is the same. Spend your energy on what you can change. Quite wasting your energy worrying about things you have no control over. But I digress… back to those children.

Those kids, when they become adults, will use those same stress management skills to minimize the impact of stress on their lives. First, they will recognize those things that they cannot change, and they won't waste time thinking about it. That's not to say that they'll be uncaring, but they'll understand there should be a reasonable limit to how much time and energy they devote to something they have absolutely no control over. I know officers who get stressed because it's going to be a rainy day and they're going to have to wear a raincoat. No, I don't like it either - but that's just how things go. I can't change the weather. So, why worry about it? If it's not life endangering; it's just life.

"It is what it is," is a common statement around my police department. It's what comes out of someone's mouth when we recognize a situation that we're not happy with but we're powerless to change. "Deal with it," is the unsaid part. It is what it is. Deal with it. There is, on rare occasion, the time when this is said to stop someone from whining. When we find that brother cop who is known for complaining about things no one has any control over... "It is what it is," he'll be told. "Deal with it" is the part he knows but didn't have to be told.

So, aside from those learned stress management techniques, what else can we do to minimize the stress in our lives? There are a couple of things that are widely recognized but sometimes (unfortunately) ignored. The two biggest are pretty easy:

1) Stay fit: OK. How many times have you heard that? Exercise. Don't get fat. Plenty of doctors disagree on what "fat" means, and even the Department of Health recently recognized that maybe they were wrong when they set the weight limits in relation to height and age for "healthy" adults. Maybe they were a bit too conservative, and a few extra pounds recently won't kill you. But the ugly truth in America is that we have a great many people who are overweight and who don't maintain any level of cardiovascular fitness. These kinds of folks are joked about as "couch potatoes" or "arm-chair warriors." The Internet doesn't help. It gives these people a way to experience the outside world without having to go outside into it. They continue to get fat and happy in their chair while interacting through the computer. STOP. Go outside. Walk. Run. Swim. Shop. Visit. Do damned near anything and you're better off than just sitting looking at a screen - TV or computer. Exercise and do your best to stay in shape. Not only will this increase the quality of your life in your golden years, but it will also help you keep your stress levels down now. It does so by allowing you to burn off excess energy - energy you would instead be devoting to worrying about all that stuff you can't control.

2) Take Time Off: This doesn't mean that you go sit on the beach with your laptop and cell phone, working in a lounge chair. It might be a pleasant setting, but it's still work. Take Time Off means exactly that. Take time and get away from work - period. Forget your laptop. Take your cell phone but leave it turned off. Then why take it? In case you need to dial 911 for assistance. Take time off and go spend that time doing stuff that takes your mind off the things that stress you out. Go boating. Go to the beach. Go rock climbing. Go fishing. Go window-shopping at a mall. Go visit the museum. Just GO do something and don't take work with you.

Get away from work and let your body and mind bleed out some of that stress saturation. After all, while you're at work you simply continue to absorb stress. It has to come out of your system somehow. It's much better for the stress bleed to be controlled and on your terms rather than after you've burst the figurative artery and you're having a stress stroke.

To maintain optimal performance during times of work, you have to allow your body some periods of time away from work. Take that time off. Enjoy it. Do something that is productive and enjoyable. Good down time does not involve consuming huge quantities of alcohol until you pass out. That's escaping - not reducing stress. A buddy of mine likes to jump out of planes to reduce his stress. I personally would find that highly stressful, but he enjoys the under-canopy time and finds it relaxing. That it is relaxing is what matters. Figure out what relaxes you and spend some time on it. Reduce your stress before your stress reduces you!

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