To Better Withstand the Stress of the Job, Resolve to Condition Your Body and Mind
It was early on a Tuesday evening, approximately 1800, when I stepped out of my car and took in a deep breath of cool ocean air. I surveyed the world in front of me. The waves were slow and methodical, the sand was cool and the last rays of sunlight were just starting to disappear over the horizon. Another day, come and gone. I grabbed my rucksack out of the trunk, took a gulp of water and headed down to the beach. A few months back, a team of cops and I started training for one of those ridiculously bougie spartan races. I’ve always enjoyed exercising — yes, some of us psychologists do more than read books and ask you invasive questions. I even continued to show up after learning what a “sugar cookie” is. (If you don’t know what that means, the best way to find out is most definitely at 1800 at the beach.) What I couldn’t make sense of — what I couldn’t wrap my head around — was: How is it that I am outpacing some of these guys?
Now, I’m no spring chicken. I am in my late 30s and have had two kids in the last four and a half years. Yes, exercise is important to me; however, being in shape does not have a direct impact on my ability to do my job, much less survive my workday. You wouldn’t go on patrol if your duty weapon wasn’t working properly. So, what would the career of an officer look like if we had the same standards for mental and physical conditioning?
I’m not suggesting cops need to have their own pinup calendars (leave that to the firemen, seats taken!). But what I am wondering is: When did it become OK for you to lower your own standards and expectations? Why hasn’t our profession demanded more of you? I recently heard a story of a guy on night shift buying a tuna fish sandwich at 7-Eleven. To eat. Please, if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, call me and I will personally mail you some almonds or a protein bar. No questions asked.
As a police psychologist, I see folks in my office for a variety of reasons: trauma, failing relationships, substance abuse, organizational stress and more. No matter the reason you’re in therapy, we are going to talk about diet and exercise, and here is why. There are three things all of the above have in common. First, there is a true or perceived lack of control over each event and situation. Second, these situations are common in police work, some might even say normal. Third, they suck. The million-dollar questions become: “If these are common, what can we do to prevent some of this?” and “What can we do when it’s right in front of us and we’re dealing with it?”
Getting Ahead of It
When you exercise, your body regulates stress hormones and releases endorphins and other chemicals in your brain that regulate mood, sleep, attention, body temperature and heart rate. When you have an exercise routine, your body gets used to releasing these chemicals and regulating itself without you needing to think about it. In other words, you’re at a better baseline. In other other words, when you come home after work, you don’t snap at your kids right away. You have more resilience. More in your tank. More for your family. You can avoid some of the angst that becomes behavior that becomes habit that becomes the catalyst for more serious problems like clinical depression. Fun fact: Research shows that a good exercise routine can be just as effective, if not more effective, than antidepressant medication. I’m not saying that if you exercise every day, you don’t need any other supports. What I am saying is that exercise sets you up for mental success. It is something you do have control over. And it is a great tool to have in your toolbelt.
Dealing With It
Whether you’re on patrol, detectives or motors, or you’ve successfully promoted yourself into the underbelly of department politics and management, you have periods of time within your day when you experience stress. For some, stress is felt physically (fast heart rate, tightness in your chest, stomach pain); for others, stress is experienced as thoughts (shoulda, woulda, coulda and what if?). Most have a mix of the two. When you are under stress or experience a traumatic incident, you don’t always have time to process what you just went through. This is an adaptive quality in police work — being able to compartmentalize. It’s how you are able to conduct death notifications and not fall apart on scene. The problem is that, over time, the stress and trauma don’t always dissipate on their own, and if they’re not dealt with, they can turn into post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI). Because stress is felt both physically and mentally, you need to engage in routines that involve both physical and mental conditioning to try to mitigate the negative effects of your job. You need to release the pressure valve and make a habit of it before it becomes something you are no longer able to contain or control.
Set Yourself Up for Success
If you have been eating gas station tuna fish sandwiches by moonlight, and your daily exercise routine consists of getting in and out of your black-and-white, therapy is not going to be as successful as it could be if you were taking care of yourself. Remember, therapy is typically one to two hours a week, and that leaves a whole lot of time for you to work on you. When your diet and exercise are on track, you are more focused, your memory works better and you can process information more quickly. You will absorb more of what we’re discussing. You have more mental space to talk about and process the things that are hard. Not to mention the positive effects on your self-esteem, your self-efficacy and the tactical advantages that go along with being in shape. If for no other reason, you’re less likely to be outpaced by the department shrink during PT…
So why wait? In the wise words of Gordon Graham, “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.” If you don’t have an exercise routine, what would it look like if you started one? Start small if it’s been a while. Walk 20 minutes a day four times per week, and when that becomes comfortable, add in some strength and conditioning. Talk with a buddy and hold yourself accountable. Challenge yourself. When it comes to mental conditioning, you can learn to work with your thoughts instead of avoiding them. Just because you think it, that doesn’t mean it’s true. What would be different about your headspace if, before you left work every day, you set a timer and journaled for five minutes about whatever is on your mind? Or if, on your way home from work, you identified an offramp where you “leave” the stress of your workday (so to speak) and pick it up on your way to work the next day? Remember, the intention here is to develop a physical and mental routine that releases the pressure valve.
At about 1900, we concluded training and stood along the shoreline drinking chewable coffee (my favorite). We accomplished our mission. Together. After a few minutes of catching our breath and conversation, it was time to go our separate ways. I packed up my car and thoroughly appreciated the 30-minute drive home with no kids and no work calls. Just me, my thoughts, my music and the picturesque drive between Ventura and Santa Barbara County. What would the career of an officer look like if the profession treated your mind and body with the same care and concern as it does your duty weapon? What would your life look like five years from now if you started implementing mental and physical conditioning today? My guess is it wouldn’t look worse. You’ve got this.