Healthy Ways to Deal with Chronic Stress

Every day, public safety professionals are expected to face dangerous situations, comfort accident victims and grieving families, and put their lives on the line to protect others. It comes as no surprise that law enforcement jobs are rated among the most stressful in the nation. According to a 2012 report by careercast.com, being a firefighter was ranked the second-most stressful career in the country, second only to that of an enlisted soldier. Being a police officer ranked fifth, just one place behind military generals.

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While short-term stress can keep you alert and focused, long-term stress can deteriorate your physical and mental health. Cumulative stress has been shown to contribute to depression, obesity, sleep disorders, and impaired memory. Dr. Kevin M. Gilmartin, author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, believes that one of the most difficult issues for public safety personnel is balancing the constant stress of their work environment with the desire to “turn off” their brain and emotions at home. Stress leads to emotional exhaustion, which makes it difficult for officers to interact with family and friends.

“A police officer who must make split-second decisions at work doesn’t even want to think when he returns home at the end of a shift,” he said in a 2009 article for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “It is this level of disengagement during off-duty hours that typically spells doom for both the personal life and the long-term job satisfaction of many excellent police officers.”

Stress also takes its toll on public safety dispatchers. According to the Utah’s Emergency Management Dispatcher Trainee Guide, the unpredictable schedules of shift work and the emotional impact of talking to people in crisis situations can contribute to high stress levels.

Fortunately, there are actions that public safety personnel can take to mitigate the effects of chronic stress. The following list is designed to provide you with ideas on how to reduce stress by maintaining your physical and mental health.

1.       Exercise

Even 30 minutes of daily exercise has been shown to boost energy levels, reduce depression, and increase endorphins. If you can’t seem to get motivated to work out, try tapping into your competitive drive by signing up for a race or find a workout partner and set times to exercise together.

2.       Plan constructive ways to spend your free time

Law enforcement is often emotionally and physically exhausting. If you wait for the mood to strike before you do something, Gilmartin says, you’ll probably spend your entire day off on the couch. Instead, he recommends using a calendar to schedule specific activities. Engaging in hobbies and family events will strengthen relationships and help you build an identity that doesn’t revolve completely around your job.

3.       Get adequate sleep

Sleeping for seven to nine hours each night will help maintain your physical health and reduce stress. If you struggle to unwind at the end of a long day, Officer.com contributor Bryan Fass recommends shutting off pagers and phones and using blackout blinds and a white noise machine to create a relaxing environment.

4.       Set realistic expectations

Public safety personnel often hold themselves to unrealistic expectations. When they inevitably fall short, the results can include increased stress, depression, and job burnout.  The dispatch stress-reduction organization Headsets911 recommends dispatchers eliminate unnecessary work stress by accepting that everyone, even dispatchers, make mistakes.

“There are NO perfect dispatchers,” an article on Headsets 911 states. “While we do our jobs and try to do them well there are going to be times when we screw up. The one thing about mistakes is that everyone makes them. The best thing we can hope or strive for is that we learn from our mistakes and try not to repeat them.

5.       Utilize company resources

Your agency or dispatch facility may have resources to help you de-stress while on the job. For example, at Utah’s Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC), dispatchers can unwind in “quiet rooms” that are equipped with lamps, rocking chairs, blankets, and books. Dispatchers who prefer to release stress in a more physical way can take advantage of the punching bag in one of the rooms. VECC human resources manager, Jeff Monson, said the rooms were designed to give dispatchers a quiet place where they could unwind in privacy or talk through their feelings with a supervisor.

“It gives them a place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the dispatch floor, close their eyes, and stretch or practice deep-breathing techniques,” Monson said.

6.       Seek professional help

Just like going to the doctor or visiting the dentist, you may want to make therapy part of your regular health care routine. Police suicide prevention organization The Badge of Life recommends that every police officer meet with a licensed therapist at least once per year, whether they feel stressed or not. The site says that an annual mental health checkup can give you a chance to discuss issues that are bothering you, look for areas where you want to make changes, examine your coping and resiliency skills, and set goals for the following year. You can also seek help through your agency’s employee assistance program or discuss your feelings with a member of your clergy.

By exercising, engaging with others, getting adequate sleep, setting realistic expectations, utilizing company resources, and sharing your worries, you can help manage the effects of cumulative stress. It is important to note that you should seek professional help immediately if you feel like stress may cause you to hurt yourself or others.