I don’t need to tell you that your job is stressful. You regularly encounter situations that most people will never experience in their lifetime. A great amount of time is spent on tactical training to prepare you for stressful situations that you may encounter, so that when the stuff hits the fan, muscle memory kicks in and you respond appropriately. But what about your emotional responses to these stressful events? The reality is, you are not immune to the emotional part of the job. You may have that one call that sticks with you, or perhaps the impact is seen when you arrive home from work mentally drained, with little energy left for dealing with personal life issues. It is also possible that you and your significant other frequently argue more from the work toll. Maybe you work a lot of overtime to avoid dealing with your personal life. How come some people go through their law enforcement career seemingly unscathed and others have unhappy personal lives and/or are unable to cope? One word: resilience.
Resilience is the process of adapting to and recovering from traumatic, threatening or other adverse situations. This skill is known to decrease the long-term effects of chronic stress and repeated exposure to traumatic or threatening events. This article will identify some of the psychosocial factors associated with resilience. If you are doing some of these things, great job! If not, now is the time to start implementing some of these things to help build resilience, to effectively manage the emotional part of the job so that you can focus on attaining a healthy work–life balance.
- Positive emotions and optimism: Positive emotions tend to reduce physiological arousal, expand focus of attention, and facilitate more flexible and creative responses to trauma. Be mindful of how this job influences your way of thinking and how you react to day-to-day situations both on and off duty. You do not want to become the cynical deputy who can’t see beyond the negative.
- Active problem-focused coping: Active problem-solving strategies (i.e., gathering information, acquiring skills, reappraising negative information in a more positive light) have been shown to be more effective than passive emotion-based strategies (i.e., avoiding or withdrawing, diverting/distracting attention, abusing drugs/alcohol). The law enforcement profession attracts problem-solvers. Don’t just use your active problem-solving skills to solve other people’s problems — use them to solve your own problems in a healthy way!
- Attention to physical health and fitness: Physical activity protects against the negative effects of stress by suppressing cortisol and using your body’s normal processes to eliminate the adrenaline that is poured into your body daily. It is also known to enhance your capacity to manage stress by improving mood, attention, memory and decision-making. Job demands and crazy schedules tend to interfere with the ability to maintain an exercise routine. The reality is, if you can sit down on the couch for at least 30 minutes, you can exercise for that same amount of time. Even if it is just taking a walk outside or jogging, any physical activity is better than no physical activity.
- Capacity to regulate emotions: While negative emotions can be adaptive in some circumstances, if left unchecked they can dramatically increase your physiological reactivity and impair executive functioning, such as rational decision-making. Strategies include reframing negative/adverse events into a more positive light, learning to accept that which is not in one’s control, and focusing on the present moment rather than the past or future worries and fears. Be aware of your emotional responses to adverse situations. Are you holding on to anger or frustration to the extent that it interferes with your ability to make sound decisions both on and off duty?
- Positive social support: High levels of positive social support have been associated with better outcomes after a variety of traumas. Take an inventory of who you surround yourself with both on and off duty. These should be people who can help you through a difficult situation, not people who feed into negative thinking.
These are just a few examples of ways to build resilience. For additional information, I recommend these resources:
- Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement (2002), by Dr. Kevin Gilmartin
- PTSD Research Quarterly article (2014), “Resilience: An Update,” by Drs. Steven Southwick, Robert Pietrzak, Jack Tsai, John Krystal and Dennis Charney
If you would like to learn additional ways to build resilience or are experiencing difficulty adapting to adverse work and/or personal life situations, please contact Psychological Services Bureau at (213) 738-3500 to schedule a confidential appointment. To obtain additional information, you may visit our intranet site (http://intranet/intranet/ESS/Index.htm).