The Stress-Proof Career

Stress comes with the territory, but these three habits will ensure it doesn't end your career (or your life...)

By Jeff Shannon  |   Dec 26, 2014

Highly publicized events of the last year confirm for me that these are difficult times to be a cop. In addition to the usual family, organizational and personal stress we carry with us, we’re now up against homegrown violent extremists. Additionally, antipathy for law enforcement is particularly high in many communities throughout the country. Not surprisingly, more cops on more skirmish lines facing more hatred from the public stresses us out. Bottom line: It’s more important than ever to cope with our stress in ways that are life enhancing rather than personally destructive (i.e., more stress = more booze).

As a stress and wellness law enforcement instructor, part of my job is converting behavioral science research into practical steps officers can take away and use immediately. Working on our “stress hardiness” is a perfect example.

What happens to a bunch of male executives when the company they work for breaks apart? Pretty stressful stuff! What happens when their world is rocked and their future is up in the air? Researchers Suzanne Kobasa and Salvatore Maddi asked these questions when they studied the divestiture of the Illinois Bell Telephone Company. What they found was some of the 200 executives got sick and some didn’t. Kobasa and Matti then studied the people that didn’t get heart disease, cancer and panic attacks. What was it that protected them from such intense stress?

Apparently, they had developed a mental habit that turned stressful events on their head, making them not just survivable, but life enhancing. They have what the researchers called the “stress-hardy personality.”

LEOs who do well share with these executives the three Cs: control, challenge and commitment. These are words I invite you bring into your life, learn about and practice. The longer you’re able to stick with it, the more likely they’ll become natural coping strategies.

Challenge: Understand (at a deep level) that our jobs and the expectations of our bosses and the public are always changing. Like the reactionary curve, we want to anticipate change rather than get caught reacting to it.

Example: You may find yourself dealing with angry protesters and you might feel yourself the victim. The alternative: You let go of what you’re “supposed to be doing” and take it as an opportunity to develop your personal flexibility. Rolling with change is a skill. It’s a skill that will help keep us sane and healthy throughout our law enforcement career.

Control: Actively, consciously, and regularly remind yourself to let go of the things you have no control over. Instead, focus your energy and effort on what you do control. After being laid off, some of the executives at Illinois Bell sat at home ringing their fingers, fretting, or punching their walls. They wanted to control what was already settled. And it took their health.

Others spent little time on this. They immediately turned their attention to what they could do … and did it. Two areas law enforcement officers always control is our level of professionalism and our attitude.

Commitment: Commitment is not forgetting what’s important in the big picture. Too many of us don’t reflect regularly on why we became cops or what kind of person we want to be, and so we lose the bigger picture. If you wanted to be a cop to help people, remind yourself of that. Last I checked people still need your help. If you wanted to put bad guys in jail, remember that’s what brought into the job and work toward making that happen.

What are you committed to? What’s really important to you in this work? Answer these questions. Okay, now keep the answers close to your chest and try not to forget it when life’s challenges start to get in the way.

Conclusion

You won’t find the three 3 Cs in your favorite TV shows. You can’t take them as pills. It takes dedication and work not to forget them. I used to write a small “C” in the webbing between my right thumb and first finger. I picked that spot because it would often come into view without my effort. When I glanced down and saw the C, it would remind me to see where in my current situation I could apply challenge, control and commitment.

Stress kills. It kills overtly, by making us do stupid stuff, and it kills covertly, by destroying our health. Despite the challenges we face in law enforcement, there are proven ways to reduce the impact stress has on our bodies and minds. The three Cs are tools. Deploy them often to ensure a long and healthy career.

 

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Jeff Shannon
Jeff Shannon worked in law enforcement for 14 years. He is a nationally recognized expert in the area of police stress. He is a licensed mental health professional with a private practice specializing in treating first responders. In California, he is a certified Master Instructor through the California Commission on Police Standards and Training (POST). Jeff consults and provides training to law enforcement agencies through his company, BlueResilience (www.blue-resilience.com).
Jeff Shannon

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