Mental Health Break

3 tips for getting through the hard times

By Jeff Shannon  |   Jan 28, 2015

By anyone’s standards these are tough times to be cop. We’re getting more stink eyes and middle fingers from people in the community than at any other time in recent memory. Just the other night I got a text message from a frustrated colleague who asked, “Why should I continue doing this job?” He was stopped at an intersection and smiled at a guy crossing the street. The citizen raised his two middle fingers and started in with the FTP rhetoric.

How can we stay well physically, psychologically and spiritually through these challenging times? Through violent protests, looting and physical assaults on law enforcement, including the politically motivated assassination of two of New York’s finest? All of it has been made worse by a cowardly media that reminds me of someone I knew in high school: He was never in the fight but was always there in the circle of onlookers egging it on.

It’s hard on our loved ones too. They worry about us. They worry we’re going to get injured or killed just because we wear a police uniform. They worry about the toll “the job” is taking on us. Our significant others, parents, children and close friends may or may not say anything to us. But they watch as enthusiasm and idealism are slowly being replaced by apathy and cynicism in our lives.

Nowhere in our job description does it say, “Give up the potential for living a joyful, meaningful and satisfying life, both at home and work.” Yet, our work is so stressful that, if we don’t learn how to stay proactive about our wellness, we’ll start to break down. We’ll stop caring about our chosen career. We might even actively hate it. We’ll start showing the signs people show when they’re overwhelmed: irritability, isolation, drinking more alcohol and/or other addictive behavior, depression, and sleeping problems. Here are a few practical steps LEO’s can take to stay well during this difficult period.

1. Control the sights & sounds you take in. In good times one of the challenges for LEO’s is being over-stimulated with the sights, sounds and smells of police work. It’s a good idea to fully unplug when you’re done for the day. Watching CNN online or on the television will only raise your blood pressure. If something huge breaks in the media or at your department, learn about it when you go to work, not when you’re trying to relax at home.

Bottom line: We’re being bombarded with media porn, random people asking us how we feel about this or that aspect of what’s going on, and heated conversations at work. Our homes should be a sanctuary and serve as protection from world affairs, protests, cops being killed and so on. Sitting in front of a screen before bed is a bad idea, even if you’re watching something lighthearted.

2. Know the difference between social support & venting. Cops are doing a lot of venting these days. Everyone needs to blow off steam every once in awhile, but venting has limited value for our emotional wellness. An unintended consequence of venting is that it makes an already toxic work environment even more toxic.

Social support, on the other hand, is a little different. It’s all about asking our workmates how they’re doing on a slightly deeper, more personal level. Let them talk—and, yes, vent—and conveying to them that you’re listening and care; that you get it. Many departments across the country have official peer support programs, which is a great thing. However, you don’t have to be on the team to provide peer support. LEO’s do this all the time. When citizens call to complain about a gaggle of officers standing around after clearing a call, that’s what they’re usually seeing: cops debriefing (usually with copious amounts of gallows humor) and providing support. This is a time when every cop should be a peer supporter.

3. Locate & foster your observing self. We all have a “self” that is grounded, quiet and unmoved by whatever craziness may be happening around us. Every culture and religion has a concept of this, they just use different language to describe it. A good place to find your observing self is in silence. Meditation or prayer also work. It’s found in “being” rather than “doing.”

Example: You can take your children to the park and surf the web on your phone until it’s time to go home. Or, you can just sit on the bench and “be” there, appreciating the simple pleasure of watching your children play. To stay well through the war-like scenario law enforcement seems to be in, we could all benefit by visiting our observing selves often and staying as long as it takes to refuel.

Conclusion
It’s okay to feel down once in a while. What we don’t want is a habit that becomes a character flaw or clinical diagnosis.

Taking time to recharge and put things in perspective—unplugging, listening, and being present—are habits that can go a long way in maintaining and improving your overall wellness.

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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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