Coping with Police Stress

The Good, the Bad, & the Just Letting It Be

By Jeff Shannon  |   Apr 18, 2016

Abide at the center of your being. For the more you leave it, the less you learn.—Lao T’zu

You’ve just gotten through your front door after a particularly stressful day at work. What do you need to do to unwind?

  1. Jump right into bed for a good night’s sleep.    
  2. A few drinks.
  3. Exercise.
  4. Watch T.V. or get online.
  5. Read Bible verse.
  6. Spend some time with your family.
  7. Watch porn.

The one thing these all have in common: They’re coping strategies. Stress accumulates in our mind-body all day long, and humans have a need to unburden ourselves from this oppressive pressure.

Because policing remains one of the most stressful occupations in the world, the sheer amount of stress we retain in our mind-bodies makes it all the more important to engage in relaxing, resetting behaviors.

As you (hopefully) figured out by reading the list of options above, not all coping strategies are created equal. We can break down coping strategies into two categories: active coping and avoidant coping (also known as experiential avoidance). Let’s talk about active coping strategies first.

Coping Strategies

A simple way to figure out if what your doing to relieve stress is an active coping strategy or not is to ask yourself the following question: Does the relaxation I get from this behavior last longer than a few hours? When I go back to work tomorrow will I still feel the positive benefits from this coping strategy, or will it have vanished? If you still feel the benefits from the coping strategy you used last night the following day, it’s probably an active coping strategy.

For example, if you get a good, long workout in after coming home from work, you’re still going to feel the benefits from the workout the next day. You’ll feel proud of your self for sucking it up and going for the run and you may have more energy throughout the day because you probably slept better than you would have if you had decided to play first-person shooter games until 2 a.m.

Avoidant coping strategies, on the other hand, usually only work while the person is engaged in the activity. Drinking alcohol may work well in the moment, but all that’s left the next day is guilt and maybe a hangover. So the good feeling doesn’t last.

Active coping involves letting the stress work through the mind-body … sort of flushing it out. These techniques often don’t feel good, like going for a long run or talking it out. They can make us quite uncomfortable, but the benefits we get from them are worth the discomfort. Experiential avoidance, on the other hand is like smashing down our uncomfortable feelings with a sledge hammer. You don’t really get rid of them, you just pound them into submission temporarily.

The conclusion we’re reaching here of course, is that it behooves LEOs to find, develop and use active coping strategies, and, similarly, to move away from the easier sledgehammer approach to quelling stress.

To be clear, most of us use both types of coping at different times. The goal is to (a) identify for yourself which coping strategies you use most; (b) make an assessment about how many are active vs. avoidant in nature, and, finally, (c) make a commitment to scaling back on experiential avoidant coping, and breathing new life you’re your active coping strategies.

So What Do You Do?

Let’s revisit our original question and take it one level deeper. You’ve just gotten through your front door after a particularly stressful day at work. What do you need to do to unwind?

The next rung up on the latter of emotional wellness tells us that we don’t need to do anything. We don’t need to look at our cell phones or check Facebook or rush to the gym. The next rung asks us simply to experience our emotions without trying to escape from them.

Sitting with uncomfortable emotions can be excruciatingly painful. It involves being with our lives as they are in this moment, not how we want them to be or how we think they should be. There is always a great temptation to move away from the stress and tension that our work creates in our mind-body.

Most of us run for cover at the first whiff of uncomfortable feelings, but feelings are completely harmless. They come, they go. I feel really pissed off, I feel anxious, I feel depressed. A French proverb tells us, “Everything passes, everything perishes, everything palls.” Emotions won’t kill us. Unfortunately, some of our coping strategies will.

Conclusion

Being with what is isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s not realistic for most of us to start breathing through all our painful feelings. We can, however, start dancing around the edges of our comfort zone. No pressure: Next time stress arises, poke around to see what you can learn about yourself.

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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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