Rotating shift work, holidays, excessive but necessary paperwork, equipment changes, distorted media reports and being critically involved in society day to day in a heightened state of awareness, various stages of the career, (rookie to a veteran) lend to the overall effects of job stress. And, a certain stress actually begins when you put on the badge and gun. Frivolous lawsuits and serious injury and death are real possibilities. Externally there is the social status and command presence. Internally there is inadequate career development or advancement opportunities and often second security jobs for extra money. Factoring in the family, missing special events, and how we are trained can cause us to become overly suspicious or interrogate those we love with intensity due to a “professional paranoia” mindset that everything is suspect. All effects of a “fishbowl lifestyle.”
Denying working in a stressful career is not the answer. Finding answers and actively engaging occupational stress is possible. Although it is impossible to eliminate all stress it is possible to reduce its effects on an individual basis. Working within an organization in which you trust the people you work for and having pride in what you do is a basic anti stress tool. Adequate training also reduces stress by preparing you to properly handle difficult and dangerous situations. And, experience helps build the personal confidence in your abilities and skills.
Stress itself is the “response of the body to any change, or demand, that exceeds previous experience and the ability to perform to the level one is motivated to perform”. A condition of the occupation known as ustress refers to the mental and physical forces that emphasize the importance of the task and propels us forward. It drives our need to be involved and is often referred to as the “rescue personality”. The danger however is in believing most people are helpless without us and we take on peoples problems just to feel important and too believe we are making a difference
Distress however is the result of the fragmented nature of the job. Distress is the result of the consequences of being unable to be all things to all people. Factor in such things as the death of a family member, terminal illness, divorce, career moves and financial obligations with the lack of money management tools and there is cause for us to take serious inventory of our overall health. Potential problems of occupational stress include;
Excessive use of alcohol.
Exclusive non-family camaraderie.
Extra marital affairs.
Emotionally traumatized children.
Neglect of friends.
Physical Signs and Solutions
Historically there is a tendency to view officers as being equipped to handle all stress. Officers are expected to remain solid, efficient, never emotional and always detached. This has been referred to as “the challenge of keeping balance while walking on the edge”. Do not respond to distress as a denial of existence, rationalize with excuses, repress the idea or minimize signs internally. And, do not project symptoms as if it is someone else who has the problem.
Physical signs: Appetite changes, headaches, sleep disturbances, rapid heart rate, nervousness, fatigue, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Mental signs: Negative self talk, taking captive intrusive past thoughts, abandoning or overlooking daily tasks and giving up on personal and family goals.
Emotional signs: Irritability with family and friends, disengaging from co-workers, fear of the future, feelings of wanting to be isolated, over emphasize minor incidents, low frustration tolerance and resenting people in need.
Some basic prevention techniques could include; Being aware of the warning signs, allowing yourself personal time before rushing out to work, schedule recreation time with family and friends away from work, develop hobbies, volunteer in the community, take retreats including spiritual weekends away, re-identify personal values of life and living that stand the test of time, identify principles and beliefs that guide behavior and decisions.
Managing distress is a regular process in maintaining the physical, intellectual and spiritual health of an individual. Officers committed to the career, believe in themselves and believe in an authority greater than them selves will do what it takes to maintain a healthy mind, body and spirit. And remember a basic intervention strategy is to seek out a chaplain or other professional.
A tragic aspect of Police distress is that we are trained to recognize signs, actions and indicators in others but go into denial when we observe potential harmful signs in ourselves or in others close to us. Un-addressed symptoms of distress can lead to chronic depression and suicide.
Contrary to popular belief suicide is not a death wish. It appears to be a viable non-attractive option to life under an extreme distressful situation. In an earlier study ( Wroblecki &, McIntosh Phd’s ) reported that in 64% to 72% of cases involving officer suicides, the top danger signs were all talking behaviors that included being preoccupied with death and the overall feelings of;
Helplessness: Feelings of the inability to take any meaningful action that could or would alter current life circumstances.
Haplessness: Resigning ones self to the idea that there is not even a remote possibility of an action that could be taken to change the current situation.
Hopelessness: No acknowledged anchors in life on which to fallback on for support. Hope, recognized as “the light at the end of the tunnel” has vanished.
It is very important to share experiences with others in a type of personal critical incident debriefing exercise. Encourage communication among co-workers. Allow others to unburden without interruption. And, don’t give others your recipe for happiness! Daily contact and verbalization of problems tend to limit our negative responses at home.
And remember, home is where we do not have to always appear to be the expert. Home is the place to avoid the feeling that others are dependant on us to control in order to feel important. Home is not a place to justify our existence and get people to notice us. Finding a way to maintain role boundaries as a police officer and husband, wife and parent is important. And yes, they will ask if they want your professional opinion.
Ask and answer these questions. What happened? What do I think? How do I feel? And what do I want? Also, is the problem something I can change alone? Am I being an influence only where I can be? And, Do I know when I have done enough in a certain situation? And, it is important to avoid feeling guilty when realizing we have not protected everyone.
Jesus As Our Example
Distress is fueled by our own emotional fears that include fear of failure, fear of rejection and fear of the future. At one time or another we all face stressful situations. Circumstances in which we must choose to move forward or abandon our purpose.
Jesus is our ultimate example of one who experienced the fear and distress of the very purpose for which he had entered the world; to redeem people from the bondage of sin. The night before Jesus died a tortured death on a cross and felt the weight of the worlds sinfulness and that in his human nature Jesus was in “anguish” and “began to be deeply distressed and troubled”. Mark chapter 14 verse 34 tells us Jesus’ soul was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death”. In addition Luke chapter 22 verse 44 reminds us “His sweat was like drops of blood”. A condition, according to the American Medical Association (March 1986), known as hematidrosis, which occurs when “immense emotional stress causes the capillaries in the hands, arms and forehead to rupture causing bloody sweat”. A few reported cases of this condition have been found in healthy individuals who knew their deaths were imminent and could not prevent them.
What comfort to know that Jesus understands more than anyone our own pain and suffering. Jesus remains our greatest example and hope for not allowing our problems to become greater than our faith.
The CPA acknowledges the work of the following individuals and organizations.
Chaplain Jim Bontrager
Morton Feldman, NACOP
Pastor Robert E. Douglas Jr.
Dale Ellens, Betheda Christian Counseling
International Conference of Police Chaplains