Handling stress in law enforcement is critical. There is no quicker way to achieve burnout and get fired or sued than by failing to manage stress. Here are some of the tips, I give new officers for dealing with the stress associated with working the road.
First is that you should already have an innate ability to handle stress. High strung people who don’t handle stress well don’t make good cops and they rarely last long. The repetitive crushing weight of the horrors seen day in and day out wear them out quicker than those who already come to the table with excellent coping skills. Be honest in your self assessment of how you handle stress. If you feel your coping skills may need a boost, don’t worry! There are lots of things you can do to help.
Stability and balance in your personal life
The trick is to be as stable of a person as possible. The way to do that is to have some sort of rock in your life that you can use to counterbalance all the crap out there. Being a cop isn’t good enough. The guy who eats, sleeps and breathes law enforcement rarely lasts long. I always tell new guys to have SOMETHING outside of law enforcement that grounds them. Religion or family or some non law enforcement related hobby. Something to draw strength and purpose from outside of the job. You should work to live, not live to work.
Having friends and family to talk to outside of the job can be a huge help when processing negative emotions. Talking to fellow cops helps too, but try to be aware of who you’re talking to. Some people still believe all that tough guy nonsense and will just tell you to suck it up.
Recognize that it is okay to be upset or have something bother you!
Just because an incident bothers you or scared you, doesn’t mean you are going to cry yourself to sleep at night, start drinking heavily or sleep with your gun in your mouth. It just means you are HUMAN. Recognize it is human to be bothered by some of the horrors you see and make a game plan for dealing with the negative emotions. After my first Officer Involved Shooting, I made sure that I didn’t drink at all, exercised heavily and took part in some activities I enjoyed like hiking and reading. I knew I was fine, but I didn’t want to take any chances by doing something stupid like getting blackout drunk just in case there was some sort of craziness rattling around upstairs. Although to be fair after five years on graveyard, dealing with the extremely intoxicated, I can’t even stand the smell of alcohol, so getting drunk was pretty much out of the question.
Most departments these days have peer support officers who are trained to sit down and chat with coworkers who may need it. Don’t be afraid to talk with them. The officers who are part of the peer support teams tend to be the kind who actually care and believe talking helps. Usually spending a few minutes joking about how messed up your last call was can make all the difference in the long run.
Critical Incident Stress Debrief
Another aspect of this is to Always go to the Critical Incident Debrief!! The first time someone shot themselves in front of me, I decided not to go to the debrief. After all…it was my Friday and I just wanted to get home. After getting home I started replaying the incident in my head. Then I started feeling guilty and second guessing everything I did or didn’t do and wondered if I could have done SOMETHING else to keep him from killing himself. I spent my entire 3 day weekend beating myself up over the situation, before finally coming to the conclusion that there truly wasn’t anything I could have done. When I got back to work, I talked to the peer counselor. He told me he wished I had gone to the debrief, because several other officers were initially feeling the same way. The officer who had been trying to talk to the subject was crying and felt he had personally failed to talk the man out of killing himself.
After everyone talked about the situation they came to the conclusion that everyone did all they could and the involved officers all left feeling better. I eventually came to the same conclusion, but wasted 3 days needlessly beating myself up. Now I ALWAYS go to the debrief, even if I know I’m fine. I may say something that helps someone else.
Training training training…
The second aspect of dealing with stress and traumatic situations is training. Stress inoculation does wonders for dealing with the real thing. Another powerful tool I tell new people to do, is to utilize visualization techniques on and off duty. A lot of stress in LE is from handling the unknown and not being sure about how they would respond to a given situation. There is a significant amount of research out there regarding the benefits of visualization training and how it affects performance and stress.
Cops are often faced with extremely stressful and dangerous situations where they are forced to make a split second decisions with very little information. Decisions are much easier to make if you have already made similar ones over and over in your head. This creates a series of mental “options” for you to pick even under the most stressful of situations, because to the brain, you have already done it. I still come up with “What when” scenarios almost daily and run through every facet of it in my head. I feel like it helps a LOT when I’m out working and suddenly faced with an unusual or dangerous situation.
Training helps overcome instincts, which can be dangerous and lead to overreactions. As human beings we are all biologically wired to respond to perceived threats the same way our cavemen ancestors did…namely clubbing it over the head with a rock and dragging it away from your cave.
The amazing power of exercise
I know, I know. Everywhere you turn someone is lecturing you about exercise! Maintaining a workout schedule is actually VERY difficult in police work. Between hellish hours associated with shift work, overtime, court, family duties and all of life’s other stresses, it can be extremely hard to find the time to exercise. Read Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement for much more detail on why exercise is critical to counter the “Hyper-vigilance Rollercoaster.”
While we all want to be badass supermen who are capable to lifting a small house while still being able to run a sub 7 minute mile, remember my adage when it comes to exercise: “Something is better than nothing.” If you don’t have time to spend 2 hours in the gym, don’t sweat it. Even dropping down and knocking out a few sets of pushups and situps or some lunges around the room is going to be better than nothing.
Try to find hobbies that disguise your exercise. Even better try to have a hobby that includes exercise AND helps with practical training for law enforcement. Something like…Brazilian Jiu-jitsu! See my post on how critical training for defensive tactics outside work truly is.
Humor in emergency services
The last thing I feel is critical to handling stress on the job and maintaining a healthy psyche is humor. Every single day out there you get a chance to laugh your ass off over the shenanigans of human beings. You can’t even make up the crap an officer sees day in and day out. It is critical to never lose that sense of humor. Granted it is a dark and sometimes twisted sense of humor, but it is a very healthy response to very unhealthy emotional stress.
What NOT to do…
What you never want to do is try to self medicate. Things like drinking, chasing risky sex or out of control retail therapy do NOT help. Neither does allowing yourself to become too emotionally invested in your calls. Being compassionate is laudable and necessary, but make sure you keep some level of emotional distance as well. While it isn’t always easy (or even possible), it is important not to take the job too personally. At the end of the day you should be able to go home, hang up your uniform, turn off the radio and not give either a second thought until it is time to get ready for work again. Remember…Work to live, NOT live to work.
Anyway I hope this helps or at least gives food for thought! While I could easily add another half-dozen tips and tactics to these I will leave it at this for now. If you found something in here thought-provoking, I would appreciate you sharing it! And feel free to comment if you disagree or have a method of handling stress that you feel people should learn about. I would love to hear your ideas!
Also published on Medium.