Policing is a complicated undertaking, and in today’s modern society, it is not likely to get any less complex. Naturally, the pressures associated with the duties of an officer can create an elevated level of stress, and the coping techniques utilized are widely varied. So, that begs the question, “how do police officers deal with stress?”
When we think of coping mechanisms, we commonly assume that police officers, as with other respected professionals, seek out healthy ways to deal, but that is not always how it plays out. The police are typically expected to be transcendent by the communities they serve, but in reality, officers are people just like you and me. That being the case, harmful or unhealthy coping behaviors can rise to the surface just as quickly as their counterparts. Scenarios run the gamut from positive releases like regular exercise to the contrary, such as drinking alcohol in excess. Both of these are effective methods for discharging stress, but the long-term impacts are drastically different.
What Elements Bring on Police Stress
Take a moment to ponder your own life and all the day-to-day stresses that leach their way into the fold. You may have a demanding career or kids with a schedule so densely packed that you can no longer consider sleep as a viable option. There are mortgages, car payments, in-laws, relationships, marriages, and the ever-mounting crusade to keep up with the Joneses.
Now, exacerbate all that with the potential threat of violence, uncertain danger, and seemingly relentless public judgment or criticism. That is the recipe for the life and reality of a modern-day police officer. However, despite everything, they rise every morning or evening and head straight onto the front lines to serve the communities they love.
Needless to say, the stress cultivated by their profession coupled with their personal life is circulating throughout them and seeking satisfaction. Coping methods are unavoidable, so it is best to identify what they are, how they work, their potential impacts, and ultimately which ones need to change.
Related Article: Types of Police Stress
Physical Fitness Vs. A Sedentary Lifestyle
Across the board, incorporating regular exercise into your routine or maintaining some element of physical fitness is significant in the grand scheme of your overall health and well-being. However, we tend to focus more on the physical aspects of exercise rather than how it may be mentally beneficial. I know – all you really crave is to look attractive and ensure that your beach body is in tip-top shape!
The truth of the matter is, regular exercise is a fantastic way for you to stay on top of your mental health game. When you exercise, endorphins are released. Endorphins are neurotransmitters or tiny messages from your brain, which tell you how good you feel – what a great feature for your brain to build into itself! The process ultimately produces a natural high in your body, and when you fill-up the space with more of that good feeling, there is subsequently less room for stress to live and grow.
On the contrary, officers who cope by embracing a sedentary lifestyle will face the opposite effects. Sitting around for extended periods will ultimately lead to a lack of motivation, general unhappiness, overall fatigue, and an inability to manage anxiety or stress effectively. With that being the case, an officer sitting in their cruiser all day long on the hunt for speeders would benefit more by seeking ways to be more active while on duty or finding time outside of shifts to implement a fitness routine. The less effective approach is heading straight home to park in front of the television accompanied by a bag full of fast food and a six-pack.
Police officers, as like any human being, are encouraged to incorporate a physical fitness routine into their training and lifestyle. Those that do will undoubtedly experience a reduced level of stress and be more effective on the job, as well as at home in their personal affairs. Those who choose to be static will inevitably experience higher stress, anxiety, depression, and potentially even suicidal ideation.
Proper Nutrition vs. Poor Nutrition
It is way too early, and you are intensely staring down the alarm clock, cursing it for interrupting your slumber. Nevertheless, it knows what is best for you, and sitting around the house all day procrastinating will not pay the bills. So without much choice in the matter, you muster the willpower and pull it together enough to make it out the door for work.
On the way, you pull up to your local coffee and doughnut joint only to find the entire police force in line ahead of you—what a way to start the day. Now, perhaps you find my tale a bit dramatic. Still, putting stereotypes aside, many officers are using these tasty treats or other processed comfort foods to relieve stress temporarily. But how is consuming all that sugar or operating solely under the influence of caffeine contributing to all-around mental health and stress levels?
Drastically fluctuating sugar levels in the blood lead the body into a vicious cycle of highs followed swiftly by crashes. During the crash, we cycle back for the counterfeit fuel and, shortly after that, crash again. So on, and so forth. By doing this, we build up a tolerance. Quite rapidly, we require more sugar and more caffeine, eventually turning this operation into an ever-mounting source of toxins fueling the body. So although every bite of a savory doughnut provides instant gratification or a momentary escape from the stressful realities of police work, it is a driving factor in keeping stress alive and well.
Eventually, the body will give in and start working improperly or not functioning at all. The adrenal glands shut down, and cortisol levels follow suit. Without cortisol levels being acceptable, simply taking out the garbage can become an overwhelmingly daunting task. So perhaps instead of having coffee with your sugar in the morning or reaching for a doughnut, replace it with a green veggie shake or some eggs and a bowl of fruit.
Stress has adverse impacts on blood pressure and blood flow as well, so the nutrients in healthy foods such as omega-3’s and vitamin E can help to regulate or improve this dramatically. Overall, adopting a healthy diet will ultimately lead to a happier police officer and a less stressed-out human being. The nutritional value in food directly relates to how well mental capacities will respond to stress. It’s akin to how the old input, output procedure works. If you put trash in, you are likely to get junk out and vice-versa.
What’s the final takeaway here? Although it may be less convenient for an on-the-go profession such as police work, leaving the doughnut at the shop and packing a protein-rich salad to eat instead will lead to a much happier officer on the job and an overall higher quality of life in general.
Connection And Social Support Vs. Risky Behavior And Substance Abuse
As we have seen thus far, there are many different methods that individuals resort to in an effort to manage stress, especially when a profession such as police work compounds that stress and elevates it to the next level. Whether or not these various methods are well thought out and calculated choices or merely just a means to an end, they all have their supplemental consequences.
Perhaps the most dire and in need of awareness are the officers who subside into antisocial mentalities, risky behaviors or begin to cut off healthy social support slowly. This will actually drive up stress, anxiety, or depression, and even abuse of substances such as alcohol or prescription painkillers. So although these mind-numbing approaches are pretty practical stress busters in the short term, they are substantially unhealthy ways of coping with the ever-towering stress levels overall.
Social support and stress resilience are unquestionably linked, according to an article published in 2007 by Psychiatry (Edgmont), courtesy of Matrix Medical Communications. Their findings generally indicate that stress resilience is associated with keeping the HPA-axis and noradrenergic activity within optimal range while under direct stress and terminate stress response when the stressor is no longer present. Based on these findings, if social support increases stress resilience, it should enhance the overall neurochemical stress response. So, an officer lacking meaningful social support would consequently be less effective in fending off stress altogether.
Substance abuse is also no stranger to the community of law enforcement. According to information provided on police1.com, some reports have concluded that almost twenty-five percent of law enforcement officers are living with some form of alcohol use disorder. To put that in perspective, among the general American population, approximately six percent of people live with an alcohol use disorder. Do the quick math, and you will find that police officer rates are almost four times as much as the general population. Granted, they deal with probably even higher multiples of stress and trauma than the general population as well.
What is the takeaway from all this? There are healthy outlets to funnel stress just as much as there are unhealthy ones. Social support and meaningful connections provide relief, understanding, empathy, and a sense of purpose or belonging. Some circles have fun catch phrases such as, “What I cannot do alone, we can do together.” At the end of the day, it is crucially beneficial to find your community and join together to support one another.
Connection does not just have to be with other people, however. You can learn how to connect with yourself in healthy ways through practices like meditation or yoga. Alternative health has burst onto the scene, offering various methods of unique and effective therapy such as float tanks, reiki sessions, acupuncture, and the use of essential oils. All these methods will aid in the battle towards stress reduction.
In Summation – How Do Police Officers Deal with Stress?
Stress is an inevitable manifestation as an inhabitant of our planet and member of society at large, but it does not have to be overwhelming or even significantly impactful on your life. Take a deep breath. Assess your life and your options. There is no mountain too massive to conquer. There is no stress that somebody else has not figured out how to overcome. You just need to know where and how to channel it effectively.
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Chris is a freelance writer and blogger focusing on implementing alternative health methods into everyday life. He was born in Red Bank, NJ, a suburb in the shadow of New York City. A diverse career path and life experiences culminated in his passion for writing, blogging, and creating compelling content. He actively writes and contributes to various outlets while remaining grounded with his wife and daughter in their home state of New Jersey.