Stress - The Silent Cop Killer

By Russell C. Doc Davis, Ph.D.

Make no mistake about it. Stress is deadly. The average cop is much more  likely to die from stress than from bullets, car accidents, or other  headline grabbers. Stress is called the silent killer because we are  often not aware of its effects. Indeed, we often don't even know that we  are under stress until its too late-like finding out that we have high  blood pressure, heart disease, or other serious medical problems.

Here's  how it might go down. Lately, you haven't been feeling quite right. Lot  of stomach gas, you seem to be tired all the time, and generally just  feel out of sorts. So, finally, you visit the doctors office. After an  examination, you get the word: your condition is serious and it appears  to be stress-related. You look stunned. You ask yourself how could this  happen? After all, you're still relatively young. You're a cop. Sure,  there's a lot of stress on the job, but you can handle it. Hell, you're  Superman (or Superwoman). You can leap tall buildings in a single bound  while carrying doughnuts in both hands!.

The Origins

Stress  is sometimes called the carbon monoxide of the mind. It is odorless,  colorless, and can sneak up on you without warning. So where does this  stress come from? In its more dramatic and much more easily identified  form, it comes from danger or the threat of danger. Being at the circus  in the animal tent when Bubba, the 500 pound gorilla, breaks out of his  cage is definitely one of those.

But stress overload also comes  from the day-in-day-out dealing with too much pressure. Its the result  of too many demands and too little time, and the frustration of not  always being able to get things to come out right. Trying to be the  super cop. Dealing with the troubles and woes of the public. Going nose  to nose every day with the scum bags. The constant gut-grinding  frustration of trying to cope with a million different tasks, each of  which seems to be screaming for our immediate attention. And, that's not  all. Its also the results of all those unhealthy habits we develop,  including hit-and-run eating (mostly greasy junk food swilled down with  too much coffee and colas!) and the attempts to wind down or numb up  with too much booze after your shift is over.

Good Stress - Bad Stress

Not  all stress is bad. In fact, a certain amount of stress is good because  it can motivate you and stimulate you to action. Its that cautious  edginess that street cops develop on the job. A state of readiness, so  that they are alert and ready to respond instantly to whatever comes  their way.

Think of stress as automotive fuel. You need some in  your tank or you cant drive your car anywhere. That's the good kind of  stress. Bad stress, on the other hand, is an overload. It is the fuel  which spills out onto the driveway when your tank is overfilled. Just  like a big (and growing bigger!) puddle of fuel, stress overload is  explosive and represents a real danger.

Stress, like fuel, comes  in a variety of kinds (leaded, regular, super, diesel, etc.) and an  assortment of octane ratings. A given type with a particular octane  rating may function very well in one vehicle but cause immediate and  serious damage in another. Further, each of us, like different makes and  models of vehicles, has an individual fuel capacity. You could pump a  100 gallons of number two diesel into some big double-clutching  18-wheeler and it wont even begin to reach its full capacity, but try  that with some little bitty four-cylinder and you've got a potential  disaster on your hands.

Fight Or Flight

Psychologists and  other mental health practitioners have a term for the mind-body reaction  to stress. Its called a fight-or-flight response and it is triggered  automatically whenever you face a danger or the threat of a danger.  Actually, fight or flight are only two of the four possible responses to  danger. The other two are freeze and faint.

Response to a direct  threat is called fear. When you worry about the possibility/probability  of that threat, its called anxiety, but the mind-body response is  identical. Your mind becomes alert to the danger (real or imagined), it  triggers a massive dump of adrenaline into your system, this causes your  lungs to start sucking in oxygen, your heart to pump like crazy to  drive the oxygen-rich blood from your lungs through the body to the  muscles. They, in turn, gorge themselves full of the blood and get very  tense, and your whole body gets ready to either do battle with the  threat or else say Feet, do your stuff! Some other things are going on  at the same time, but you get the idea. When the threat of the danger is  over, your emergency response mechanism shuts down and your body goes  back into a normal mode to recover.

Unfortunately, when the  threat is the constant struggle and stress of a life spinning out of  control in response to all the demands and tribulations, you may find  yourself in a more or less continuous cycle of this fight-or-flight  reaction. It does to your mind and body what trying to drive down the  road at full speed in first gear with the other foot on the brake pedal  does to your car: its a recipe for a certain breakdown and disaster.

The Facts

Statistics,  those cold and objective descriptors, paint for us some frightening  pictures of the deadly effects of stress. For example, when compared to  the general population, cops tend to have significantly higher rates of  divorce, suicide, and alcoholism, which I submit, may be either caused  or exacerbated by job-related stress. Statistically, the job also seems  to contribute to the abuse of both over-the-counter and prescription  drugs, to significantly higher rates of gastrointestinal disturbances,  and even to certain kinds of cancer.

A 28-year longitudinal study  of Buffalo, N.Y. police officers published by Drs. John Vena and John  Violanti (Law and Order, August, 1986) yielded some pretty alarming  statistics. Depending on the length of service, police officers in this  study, when compared to the general population, had up to 300% greater  risk for digestive cancer, and up to 400% greater risk for colon,  lymphatic, brain, and bladder cancer! Vena and Violanti concluded that  these and other equally alarming statistics may be the direct result of .  . . high [job] stress, irregular sleeping and eating habits, poor heath  habits (alcohol use, cigarette smoking), and lack of exercise.

PTSD and Other Lurking Killers

Both  years of accumulated stress and single particularly traumatizing events  can also contribute to this deadly pattern. The experiences of the  Vietnam war and its aftermath have led to a sharpened definition and  awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is,  fortunately, both diagnosable and treatable. While the initial focus was  on military personnel and the results of being exposed to the horrors  of war, PTSD is no respecter of job or status. It affects military  personnel, first responders, and civilians alike. PTSD occurs when an  individuals ability to cope is overwhelmed. The onset is either gradual,  as a result of long term exposure to too many things which keep taxing  our capacities. Or, it may be triggered by a single particularly  traumatic incident, which blows away our defense and coping mechanisms.

Each  individuals reactions to a particular event (or a series of events) is  very personal and depends upon that individuals background and  experiences, and upon how close the individual can identify personally  with the circumstances and/or persons involved. Witness a kid on a bike  wandering out into the traffic lane and getting hit and it instantly  produces a very human reaction such as anger, concern, or shock. If you  have a kid of your own who closely matches the accident victim in  physical appearance, or if you had something similar happen to you when  you were about that age, then those feelings you experience could be  expected to be significantly more intense. To repeat: the more closely  you can personally identify with a circumstance and/or the person(s)  involved, the greater potential it has to increase your emotional  reaction and the greater its potential for triggering stress overload.

Severe  stress can cripple an individuals ability to do his/her job and live a  normal life. Unresolved trauma can kill just as surely as a gun.  Maladaptive attempts to deal with the stress of trauma include denying  your feelings, trying to suppress any memories of the event(s), and  attempting to numb yourself with alcohol or drugs. In the extreme,  unresolved trauma can result in an inability to continue doing ones job,  force one to change jobs, trigger emotional disability, or even provoke  suicide. It also affects family members, friends, and coworkers.

Telltale Signs

The warning signs of stress overload include:

1. Irritability, being upset, angry, and short-tempered. Finding yourself over-reacting and snapping at people.

2.  Sleep disturbances - either not being able to sleep well or,  conversely, spending excessive time in bed hiding and avoiding contact  with the real world.

3. Changes of eating patterns such as a loss of appetite or a compulsion to eat constantly.

4. Intrusive thoughts -- replaying or reliving events over and over again in your mind.

4. A feeling of guilt (I could have done more or I should have done things differently, etc.).

5.  A lack of concentration or a sense of helplessness, anger (at self or  others), frustration, alienation, loneliness or confusion.

6.  Onset of physical maladies such as problems with the stomach, bowels,  headaches, or skin disorders. Physical signs can also include cold or  sweaty hands, constant muscular tension, especially in the back, neck,  and shoulders, tension in the jaw or grinding your teeth, fatigue, and  nervousness (feeling keyed up). Of course, we all feel some of these  symptoms some of the time, but when they are intense and/or constant,  that's stress, my friend.

Solutions

What, then, can be  done to reduce the potential lethality of job demands, an unhealthy life  style, stress and trauma? Fortunately, there are several simple and  practical steps one can take. Just as you, a police officer, might put  on a protective Kevlar vest to blunt the potential affect of a criminals  bullet, so, too, you can learn to armor-proof yourself in an emotional  sense.

First: legitimatize your feelings. Accept that you may not  have all the answers and that, despite your best efforts, you may not  always be able to make things come out right. You are a human being with  human feelings. You are not Wonder Woman or Superman. You have certain  strengths and talents, but you also have some limitations and  weaknesses, too. Most importantly, its OK to have them. Nobody is  perfect!

Second: learn to monitor yourself and to be honest about  your feelings and needs. You can BS others, but the face that looks  back from the mirror knows when you are telling the truth and when you  are indulging in the massive application of toro-feculence (That means  spreading a lot of bull s---, just in case you were wondering!). If you  notice that you are experiencing any of the stress symptoms mentioned  above, especially if they are persisting for any length of time after an  event or have become a more or less chronic pattern in your life, then  get help. Talk to someone you trust. Seek out the services of a  professional counselor or therapist. The wrong thing to do would be to  deny their existence or that they are a very normal and human reaction  to something which is beyond your ability to cope successfully.

Third:  develop positive anti-stress habits. The following is a list of  twenty-one guidelines which will help you to develop a powerful and  positive defense against the effects of stress.

1. Know your strengths and accept your limitations.

2. Be introspective - take time to monitor yourself and be aware of what is going on...AND WHY.

3.  Learn to laugh. Don't take life (or yourself) so seriously. Norman  Cousins, the famous writer, attributes the remission of his cancer to a  stack of old classic slapstick comedy movies, which he watched over and  over again until, as he said, he laughed his cancer away.

4.  Organize yourself by developing plans and priorities, but be flexible  enough to be able to respond to changing situations - Being over-rigid  can be just as stress-producing and self-destructive as having no plans  or inadequate ones. Organizing makes life a lot less hectic and promotes  a sense of I am in control.

5. Remind yourself that you may not  be able to control those things which happen around you or the actions  and words of other people, but you have 100% ability to control your  reactions to them.

6. Make certain that your plans and priorities  include plenty of time for you and yours, there's nothing wrong with  taking that kind of time, no matter how busy your schedule is or how  many demands are being made upon you. Not too long ago, I had a long  heart-to-heart with a friend who is a priest. He was literally on the  verge of worrying and working himself to death in an effort to attend to  all the needs of his flock. When I suggested he needed to take time out  for himself, he gave me a pained look and said that he just couldn't be  that selfish, that people needed him so badly. (Which was true. He is a  very diligent and caring person, but the demands placed upon him by  both himself and others were rapidly bringing him to the point of  physical and emotional collapse.) I suggested to him that if he did not  practice a little selfishness on a regular basis so that he could attend  to some of his own needs, he would soon be incapable of attending to  anyone's! I rested my case!

7. Learn simple relaxation  techniques. Knowing how to do a progressive relaxation or deep breathing  or self-hypnosis can act like magic to shrug off the symptoms of  physical and emotional stress.

8. A few minutes spent listening  to some favorite quiet music while focusing on slow, relaxing breathing  is often worth a handful of Valium and a whole lot easier on your  system!

9. Practice good nutrition by eating the right kinds of  foods and cutting back on the bad stuff, especially limiting those which  are known to cause problems like heavy greasy junk foods wolfed down on  the run.

10. Make sure your diet includes plenty of fresh fruits  and vegetables and is rich in fiber and complex carbohydrates such as  grains, pasta, rice, etc.

11. Limit your intake of sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. (Watch those daily stop-offs at the doughnut shack!)

12.  Make sure you get enough vitamins and minerals. Anti-stress and  anti-oxidants such as vitamins A, B-complex, C, D, and E are all  important. Enough means adequate, not mega doses. Perhaps one of the  best guides is THE VITAMIN BIBLE by Mindell. Its available in paperback  and is written in a clear, simple, no-nonsense style.

13. Listen  when your body talks to you. Don't ignore those signs which tell you  you're pushing too hard or not taking proper care of yourself.  Headaches, backaches, skin disorders, grumbles in the tummy and its  nether regions are messages. Danger, Will Robinson!

14. Avoid  long term or regular use of medications, including over-the-counter  drugs unless you are doing so under a physicians care. Even then, the  question should always be Is there something which I can do which will  allow me to be able to discontinue the use of these medications? It  would be poor advice to discontinue a medication for, say, an ulcer when  it is flaring up and your tummy is feeling like the convention site of  the B.O.A. (Blowtorch Operators of America). However, merely treating  the symptoms is also ill-advised. You should make every attempt to  identify what is causing the ulcer in the first place and then work  towards reducing or eliminating that cause. Ulcers are frequently caused  by and exacerbated by stress, so while you are taking the prescribed  medication for the symptom, take a hard look at your life and find out  what is causing the ulcer. Any physician will tell you that treating  only the symptoms is not practicing good medicine.

15. Use  relaxers such as aerobics, exercise, walking, jogging, swimming, yoga,  massage, sauna, meditation, self-hypnosis, games, etc.

16. Learn to leave your job at work. This is one of the most difficult things for cops to do.

17.  Develop time for family and friends. Make and maintain friendships with  people who don't work with you, so that you have some outside interests  and do not end up talking shop when you are trying to socialize. Sure,  cops are clannish and tend to limit most of their social contacts to  other cops, but enlarge the circle and find non-cop friends. According  to research, a circle of supportive friends will help you to live longer  and be healthier.

18. For many, relying on your faith can be a source of solace and an anchor in a sea of uncertainty.

19.  Get a hobby or two (or three!!!) I am often amazed at how much better I  feel after a long day when I spend some time in my garden or just stick  my nose in a good book.

20. Learn to have long honest talks with  that face in the mirror and to engage some positive self talk. You can  BS. a lot of people, but the face that stares back at you in the mirror  knows when you're spreading the bovine excrement.

21. Learn how  to say no. Cops, especially, have a hard time saying no. A lot of  self-induced stress overload is simply the result of over- extending  yourself.

The bottom line then, to combat stress, that deadly  killer which takes more lives every year than any gun or other weapon,  is to practice both preventative and remedial techniques. It begins with  learning to monitor your feelings, to give yourself permission to  accept them as legitimate, and to take those positive steps necessary to  work them through. Finally, to understand that you can practice  stress-proofing yourself by doing a few of the things mentioned above to  change your life style. Prevention is always better than remediation  and its especially true in combating this lethal effects of this deadly  killer called stress.

An Effective Anti-Stressor: Learning To Ozone Out

One  of the most potent weapons at your command in the war against stress is  the power of your own mind. Using that power in a practical and  positive way is often called imaging, realization, or self-hypnosis. Its  powerful, easy to use, and the results are nothing short of miraculous.  Its also OK for you macho-types to use, too. Consider this: its the  same thing that the former Soviet Union and East-bloc athletes used for  the over 40 years to help them to cream everybody else at the Olympics.  Its also the same stuff used by practitioners of oriental martial arts  since Confucius was a pup. Nobody ever called some Russian weight lifter  or some karate champ a Whooz...not to his face...and darned sure not  twice!

The process is simple. All it takes is a little time, a  little concentration, and a little privacy, at least at the beginning.  After you've practiced it a few times, you can (and I DO) use it even in  the midst of the noise and confusion of a busy airport terminal.

Here's  the recipe which I have taught to literally thousands of people  including I need to be pried off the wall screamers and a whole posse of  Mr. and Ms. Macho types. This same technique has helped people to  control panic attacks, improve athlete performance, drop job stress into  the dumpster, and give minds and bodies a fast recharge.

1. At least initially until you have practiced this a few times, try to get yourself situated in a fairly quiet place.

2.  Get comfortable. Sit in a nice chair or lie down, if you wish. Turn on  some nice quiet, relaxing music if you want to. (In the airport, I  sometimes use a Walkperson with headphones!)

3. Take five (5)  easy, deep, relaxing breaths at whatever pace seems comfortable. With  each breath, give yourself a mental message: I breath in relaxation. . .  and I breath out stress and tension. Let each breath come in through  the nose and exit through the mouth, so that you automatically relax the  jaw muscles, which often carry a lot of tension.

4. On the fifth  breath, as you exhale, allow your eyes to close, and continue breathing  freely and easily, at whatever pace feels comfortable, as you repeat  the message that you breath in relaxation and breath out stress and  tension, sending that message throughout your mind and body. It would  also be good to use the eyes of your mind to mentally scan your body,  searching for any signs of stress and tension. If found, focus upon that  part of the body, sending it a mental message to relax, loosen up, and  just let go. (Be particularly attentive to neck, shoulders, and back  muscles, where so much tension is stored.)

5. Now, give yourself  permission to experience someplace wonderful (Somewhere you have been  before, some place you have wanted to visit, or, if you wish, use this  time to invent the perfect special place. In the dead of winter, the  beaches of far off Tahiti do it for me!). Allow yourself to experience  it in any way you wish: see it in vivid colors, smell the fragrances,  hear the sounds, touch it, taste it (the salt in the beach air, for  example), and get in touch with the emotional high you get from being  there. The better your ability to fantasize, the more vivid the  experience. Get a little wild if you want to! You're not breaking any  laws if you only THINK it!

6. When you're ready to face the world  again, just count slowly from 1 to 5, open your eyes, fill your lungs  with air, and stretch. Give yourself a leisure minute or two to convert  the relaxation you have achieved into a feeling of energy, confidence,  and a sense of I am back in control!

How long should you stay in  this la-la state before counting yourself back to full alertness? As  long as you want to! Usually, 4-8 minutes in this state is sufficient to  give you the same effect of a two or three hour nap, but nobody ever  O.D.ed on relaxing, so you decide how long to stay in the state. Each  time you do it, it'll seem easier, more automatic, and-best of all-more  effective. Do it two times per day minimum, ideally three to four times.  Within 10 to 14 days you will have established an automatic routine,  and will then be able to do it easily without having to ask yourself  what to do next.

This same technique can be employed to increase  your ability to do something such as improve your golf game, give a  speech, or any similar task where practice can increase performance.  Minus a few bells and whistles, this is the same basic technique which I  have successfully taught to athletes (professional and otherwise),  sufferers of stress overload, and countless others. It worked for them.  It can work for you, too.Type your paragraph here. 

Stress goes both ways.  Traffic stops stress out drivers but they are serious business to the police

Stress goes both ways.  Traffic stops stress out drivers but they are serious business to the police