The Mindful Officer: Extinguish The Flames of Burnout

Most officers accept burnout as part of the job, & that's deadly

By Shawn Perron  |   Aug 3, 2016
What awaits you behind that door? Photo ICE

Burnout associated with stress has become somewhat acceptable as part of a police officer’s daily experience. While we may accept that, most don’t realize the extent of the toll it takes.

Down-right dirty and dangerous, stress-related illness will takes just as many lives of officers—some studies say more—as gunfire from bad guys and vehicular accidents combined. Consider these statistics: 80 – 90% of physical ailments killing police officers are preventable. In combination, preventable illnesses account for nearly 90% of all healthcare costs across industries. Healthcare for treating workplace stress-related illness will cost our economy upwards of $300 billion bucks.

Face it: Someone you fight crime with is suffering from one or more of the following diseases: Type II diabetes, heart disease, obesity (25 lbs. or more overweight), insomnia or something else. Often these can be compounded by addiction (tobacco, alcohol, and other), and often depression can be the final course or desert served up by our own bodies 24/7 emergency response system. In case you feel I’m pointing fingers, understand this: The finger would also be pointing in the direction of a mirror. After more than 20 years, the author has nursed himself for his share of several of those afflictions mentioned above.

Our bodies react to stress, just like any other bodily injury or physical illness. It will send biochemical and physiological elements that result inflammation and cause immediate activation of antibodies or genes to combat infection and eventually healing will begin. Herein lies the major issue with our bodies “shotgun” like response to stress: Our body is unable differentiate between actual stress caused by traumatic events and stress that is perceived or anticipated by less than extraordinary events.

In other words, if your body senses a “threat” or “dangerous situation,” it kicks you into survival mode—fight, flight, or freeze. In turn, let’s say your getting chewed by a narcissistic lieutenant or he kicks back a lengthy report because he would choose different punctuation. Well, guess what? Your body responds (on a physiological level) by signaling the same response as it did for the “real” traumatic event. Same reaction, different stimulus.

While that system is meant to protect and serve us, consider how many times daily this occurs for a police officer. The result is devastating and unhealthy. The body’s reaction, resulting in pain and inflammation, is the actual origin of the “burn” in burnout. This is just very basic explanation of the physiological response to stress.

If you want more information on how it works, check out the American Institute of Stress.

Water on the Flames

Cops have figured out by now that everyone loves firefighters. Now’s my chance! Listed below are some ways I have been able to extinguish flames of burnout. I’ve found the following not just helpful, but essential.

Baseline: Try forming some of the following as “keystone” habits (daily for at least 60 – 90 days) with most obvious of these basic needs: good nutrition, regular physical activity, and at least 7 – 8 hours sleep per day.

Sleep: If you suffer from insomnia (destructive to body and mental capacity), limit use of caffeine at least four hours prior to going to bed.

Depression: For bouts of depression, try supplementing with Omega 3 fish oil. I found this very effective, and studies back it up. If this doesn’t work for you, try something else: therapy, help groups, books—whatever it takes to get through the fog.

Be mindful: Sit quietly for at least 5 minutes a day focusing on your breathing. Activities that require using your hands can give you a break from your thoughts.        

Socialize: Isolation usually worsens depression. Force yourself to socialize if necessary. Find others for support or to participate in the process. Friendly competition? Having like-minded companions will greatly improve your chances or rate of success.

Be kind to yourself: Understand that your WILL stumble and you might fall. Probably more than once. Stay positive, and most of all be self-compassionate. Treat yourself as kindly as one would his or her best friend or dear elderly mother.   

Conclusion

You probably have never heard of it, but there is a field of study called epigenetics. It entails research of environmental influences on genetic expression. Genes like the ones mentioned above that combat inflammation in the body can be activated or deactivated just like an old switchboard. (If you don’t know what a switchboard is, ask the oldest officer you know and then get out of slapping range.)

Consider basic needs of the body, as they will act as the dimmer switch or disconnect to deactivate genes that adversely affect our health. So more specifically, what we EAT, what physical activities or MOVEMENT, how we SLEEP, and how MINDFUL we are will cultivate more healthy physiological conditions or HEALING.

The shorthand: (Fuel + Movement + Sleep) x Mindfulness = Healing.