Blue Line

There WILL be stress

April 1, 2015  By Stephanie Conn

Policing is ranked one of the most stressful jobs. In a recent study, 96 per cent of Canadian police officers reported moderate to high levels of stress in their work <1>.

When you consider that most officers work for 25-30 years, it is alarming to consider the toll that chronic stress could take. The stress of police work can be categorized as critical incident stress, secondary traumatic stress and organizational stress. I’ll discuss each of these in turn.

Critical incident stress is actually a misnomer. A critical incident such as an officer-involved shooting or assault is a traumatic event, not a stressor. Stress and critical incident stress are not on a continuum because they involve different physiological responses.

Stress can be understood as pressure while a critical incident stress involves fear. Critical incident stress activates the fight, flight or freeze response from our primitive brain, which entails changes in breathing, redirection of blood flow and shutting down some bodily functions to preserve energy for fighting or escaping.


Critical incident stress interrupts your brain’s ability to receive, code, store and retrieve information. This explains the PTSD symptoms of flashbacks, intrusive images and thoughts. Similar to a stress response, critical incident stress also bathes your system in stress hormones. The fight, flight or freeze response and the surge of stress hormones are adaptive at the time of the event but problematic when they continue because the brain keeps reminding you of the event with PTSD symptoms.

When these responses continue, it creates a chemical change in your body that wreaks havoc on your health, interrupting sleep, decreasing mood and pleasure in activities, increasing bodily pain, impairing the immune system and increasing glucose, which heightens the risk for diabetes and the chance of heart disease.

Sounds pretty scary, right? Thankfully, you can take measures to interrupt this process before it impacts your health. Critical incident stress does not always lead to PTSD. In fact, usually it does not. The steps you take immediately following the critical incident can promote your recovery. Unfortunately, the stigma of getting help, the culture of “sucking it up” and the lack of education on these matters have prevented many from effectively managing their critical incident stress until it begins impacting their health.

The recovery approach is multifaceted. First, it’s important to take care of the body and offset the surge of stress hormones with exercise, proper nutrition, sleep and activities that increase your dopamine (feel good chemical) levels. Watch a funny movie or do anything else that makes you laugh or lifts your spirits.

Next, look at how you are thinking about the critical incident. Are you blaming yourself or replaying the event to get some sense of control over what was outside of your control? These kinds of thoughts are destructive and will not make you a better officer at the next call.

Identify the thoughts that are pulling you down and determine a more realistic evaluation of the situation. If the incident had happened to someone else, what alternative evaluation would you suggest to them? It’s oftentimes helpful to think of how we would interpret the event when someone else is involved. We tend to be far more critical of ourselves.

Lastly, if you are having flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive images or thoughts, see a counsellor who does EMDR (discussed in my January 2015 column) so that you can properly store the event in your brain to stop episodes of re-experiencing.

Secondary traumatic stress can be likened to death by a thousand cuts. Seeing others suffer every day can take a toll on your health and view of humanity. You might feel a sense of responsibility to save others from their misery or you could go the other way and emotionally disengage because it is too overwhelming to think of their unfixable suffering. This can be a problem because it’s hard to disengage emotionally at work and then emotionally re-engage when you get home.

The tendency is to stay numbed out, sometimes using alcohol to maintain that feeling. Since secondary traumatic stress is chronic, the chemical changes I described following re-experiencing a critical incident are the same, resulting in multiple health problems. The antidote is also the same – attending to your physical health, watching how you think about the events and possibly even receiving treatment if you are re-experiencing the stress.

Organizational stress is actually the most troubling of the three stresses discussed. It tends to be relentless – paperwork, scheduling issues, unsupportive policies and procedures, lack of influence over your work…

Police officers don’t expect to be dealing with organizational stress. They worry more about the bad guys and traumatic stressors and are surprised to find that the organizational hassles are more damaging to their morale and sense of purpose in their work. It’s hard to deal with a stressor you’re not prepared for.

Agencies don’t exactly provide support and education on how to deal with organizational hassles. Failure to manage this stressor can result in burnout, marked by cynicism and emotional/physical exhaustion. Managing it involves 1) anticipating its inevitability, 2) accepting it as a part of the work instead of fighting with it as something that must go away and, 3) finding meaning in your work independent of these hassles.

Focus on what you do control and don’t fight what you don’t and you will be more constructive in directing your energy.

Stress in police work will not likely ever lessen so it is vital that officers improve their strategies for coping to promote their well-being. Police agencies would also be well-advised to take measures to enhance their officers’ stress management strategies with additional support and education.

<1.> Duxbury, L. & Higgins, C. (2012) Caring for and about those who serve: Work-life conflict and employee well-being within Canada’s police departments. Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP.

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