Am I Stressed Out?
Signs and Symptoms of Police Stress:
Headaches – Fatigue – Pounding Heart – Digestive Upsets Teeth Grinding – Light Headedness – Lowered Sex Drive Irritability – Short-tempered Backaches – Muscle Aches – Over-eating – Insomnia Restlessness – Muscle Tics – Rashes – Drinking too Much
These are all common physical, behavioral and emotional reactions to prolonged stress. The stress that causes them may be obvious and acute as well as subtle and unrecognized. If you have just one and it disrupts your life or is upsetting to your family, you may be having a police stress reaction.
Prolonged stress, and I don’t mean just having stressful situations occur fairly frequently, but I mean unrelenting and unresolved stress, sometimes bottled up over a period of years, can contribute to physical illness like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Stress of this kind can also compromise the immune system and cause you to be more susceptible to everyday illnesses. Using alcohol even in moderation can mask underlying problems and lead to more serious problems in the long run.
Too many officers make the erroneous assumption that reacting to stress in their lives with emotions like anxiety and depression is a sign of weakness to be avoided, or at least hidden, at all cost. Thus warning signs are sometimes ignored. Incidents occur, you may feel upset briefly, other officers may joke about it, and you end up stuffing your feelings back inside.
As an officer dealing with other people’s stress, your own denial can be so ingrained that you may not even experience stress emotionally. It may sneak up on you with physical symptoms or actual disease, or behaviors that put barriers between you and your loved ones.
Look at some of the stereotypes of officers in the media and how they are depicted dealing with stress.
The Captain swilling Maalox
The detective chain smoking
The stakeout car filled with fast food debris
The infamous donut everywhere
Contemplating “eating your gun”
The ultimate “cop bar” on my favorite show, Homicide
What’s dangerous about these characterizations is that they all to some extent glamorize avoiding coping head on with the underlying causes of the stress.
The Most Common Causes of Officer Stress
Having treated several hundred officers I’ve reached the conclusion that ranked in order of prevalence, the most common causes are:
OTHER FAMILY PROBLEMS
what civilians may think of as POLICE STRESS, the actual stress OF THE JOB
The reason that the stress of the job is the least of the reasons that officers seek professional counseling is that what Joe Citizen may view as stressful in law enforcement work, officers accept and relish. After all, that’s why you choose to have a career in law enforcement. I’m not minimizing the impact that dealing with a critical incident can have on you. Nor do I mean you shouldn’t take seriously the insidious psychological effects of the build-up of cynicism and negativism that can come from dealing day in and day out with crime, criminals and the imperfect court system. I’m merely describing the frequency of presenting problems I see in my practice, demonstrating that more than anything else, law enforcement officers are human and subject in their own somewhat unique ways to the perils of being alive.