Not meant to make it alone
January 27, 2021 By Colleen Stevenson
When we perceive a significant threat to our lives or the lives of others, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. All parts of the body respond to maintain life at all costs and the body’s sole focus is on surviving the crisis at hand.
Our hearts beat faster. Pulse and blood pressure increase. Blood flows to the muscles, the heart and the vital organs. The liver releases glucose, which is directed to our muscles for energy. Our breathing speeds up and our lungs dilate, sending more oxygen to our brains. We are more alert, with heightened cognition and sensory awareness.
Research even suggests that our pain threshold rises in acute stress (which explains the phenomenon called “hysterical strength”, the classic example being the mother who lifts the car to save her child trapped beneath).
This rapid-fire response occurs before we are fully capable of processing the sensory information in the prefrontal cortex to know exactly what is happening. This is why we are able to react so quickly only to make sense of what happened later.
All of these reactions work towards survival under imminent threat. But they all require a vast amount of energy, energy that is instantaneously redirected from other systems geared towards maintenance and repair such as digestion, growth and reproduction. We evolved to activate this complex stress response in times of extreme crisis. This means it should be activated = for short spurts and infrequently.
The problem for humans is that we are conscious beings who face not only real-life, physical threats but also ruminate and rehash those same threats long after we are out of danger. Add to that our ability to envision a whole plethora of threatening scenarios… and we have a situation that keeps our stress response system activated far beyond its evolutionary usefulness.
And then there are you, the police and corrections staff that work in dangerous environments. Moreover, the job itself is to monitor and be alert to every hint of potential threat. Rather than your stress response being activated briefly and infrequently, you spend your entire workweek in a highly activated stress response state.
Compounding this are other factors in your particular line of work that impact your stress level:
- We fare better with stress when we can predict its intensity and duration, information to which you have no access. You work with people who are unpredictable and, for police officers, in settings often unknown to you.
- While harm to oneself can be extremely impactful, being a witness to violence between others is even more impactful. People in law enforcement regularly witness violence.
- Harming others can be the most impactful type of stress. You are trained in the use of force but can have your actions perceived as excessive or even unintentionally hurt people.
- Neither police nor corrections work are understood by society at large. Even worse, media portrayals of law enforcement are rarely favourable. We all need to feel understood and a common understanding of our role by our society helps us to regulate our stress.
- Custody centres are closed to the public and police work must be kept confidential so very few professionals understand the challenges you face.
Our human tendency to ruminate, imagine and worry, along with the unrelenting nature and the specific elements of your police and/or corrections work, put you at high risk for the impacts of chronic stress.
Some of the issues people under chronic stress face have to do with the diversion of energy away from maintenance and repair. On the physical front muscles atrophy, fat accumulates around the midsection, blood pressure rises, insulin is used inefficiently, digestive issues develop, sexual function and arousal can be impaired, fertility declines and immunity is suppressed. Mentally, chronic stress impacts learning, memory, the ability to correctly assess risk, and the capacity to recognize safety cues. And emotionally, chronic stress reduces pleasure, which, in its extreme, is a definition of major depression.
Speaking of depression…. How bleak! When your very jobs, by definition, require a heightened stress response, how can you counteract the impacts on your health and well being?
Luckily, there is a lot of research focusing on the factors that protect against the impacts of chronic stress. Here are some strategies you’ve probably heard before but it never hurts to revisit helpful suggestions you might have long put off or even forgot:
- Set aside time for a hobby that is separate from your work; an outlet for your pent-up energy, whether it be carpentry or trekking or kayaking or fixing cars or singing or cooking. Just keep those parts of yourself alive as these are the parts that use other skills and interests than the ones you use at work… Even if you are a novice, even if it has no “productive” value, even if you derive minimal pleasure from the hobby at first, just keep going.
- Notice where you have control of your surroundings and exercise control in those environments.
I think of my father’s workshop. Every wrench and screwdriver had its place, every extension cord was wrapped just so and every cordless power tool was charged and ready. That was the one environment where he could exercise control. (Maybe that says more about my mother than my father.)
Maybe for you it is your desk, your kitchen, your greenhouse or your vehicle. And maybe your family teases you or your friends don’t understand. That’s okay: they don’t need to understand everything, because frankly, they probably cannot understand what you face every day.
Alternately, find a ritual or specific practice where you can exercise control. Maybe it is as simple as drinking your coffee in a specific mug. Or maybe it is the practice of starting every rotation of days off with a trip to a particular favoured bakery or organic market. Maybe it is a routine of walking your dog to a favourite viewpoint after your shift. Maybe it means doing something small to tell yourself that work is over and you are shifting gears to be at home. I am thinking of a doctor friend who would wash his hands and face between each patient, not just for the hygienic reasons, but to ritualistically ready himself for the next patient. For myself, I put my lipstick on after seeing clients to remind myself that my workday is over. And I think of those of us who have dogs to greet us. How better to shift gears from work to home that a good snuggle and wrestle at the door?
- Most importantly, cherish the social connections you have. Accept that your friends and even your partners may not understand the environment that you work in. Try to take in the support they offer, however imperfect.
Maybe the friends you play hockey with are people you can joke around with and argue with about who will win the NHL. And maybe that is where it ends with them. Of course that is not enough when you are carrying a heavy weight from work, but it is also not nothing. It is still friendship and it is important.
Maybe the people you hike with love the same authors as you do and enjoy sharing ideas about world politics. They might not be the folks with whom to process the stresses of your work, but perhaps you can forget about the grisly events of your week as you hike and chat.
Maybe your extended family drive you a bit nuts (whose don’t, really?) but you know that certain relatives will have your back. Or maybe your family of origin is not a healthy one but you love your children to the moon and back. Then spend time with them.
Hold on to your friends, your neighbours, your family members, your pets — anyone who you care about and who cares about you. We are not meant to make it alone. We are social animals and we can endure terrible stresses when we have people supporting us.
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Colleen Stevenson is a registered clinical counsellor (RCC) based in Victoria, B.C. She has served as a trauma counsellor for inmates in a maximum-security jail and also as an educator across the globe. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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