What do you do when you have a tough day at work? How do you shift and reset so that you can effectively recharge your mental, emotional and physical energy? Common ways to cope might include talking to a friend or family member, working on an enjoyable hobby, exercising, listening to music or a podcast, zoning out on a cellphone app or mindless television show, or having a few drinks. We all develop ways — both healthy and unhealthy — to manage the impact of stress from a tough day.
Law enforcement work is stressful to the body and mind, even on a good day. A certain amount of stress is needed for you to perform optimally and maintain functional hypervigilance on duty to keep you safe. However, as you acclimate to stress over time, you can become mentally numb to it while your body continues to physiologically experience stress. The accumulation of stress can impair your mental and emotional clarity, mental and emotional health, relationships and physical health. Now, imagine the added stress of having a tough day at work — a difficult call for service, non-stop calls, frustration with administration, dealing with hostile subjects or community members, or working a double shift.
The accumulation of stress can impair your mental and emotional clarity, mental and emotional health, relationships and physical health.
Think about how you experience stress. What physical, emotional and mental signs does your body give you that it is under stress? How do you feel when your stress is low, medium or high? The goal of building awareness about your own stress experience is so that you can, ideally, respond to stress in the moment or shortly thereafter. Many of you have already developed ways to decompress after a tough workday. However, not all coping skills work in every situation. On an especially tough day, you may need to modify or boost your usual ways of coping.
Square peg, round hole. People can get stuck in a stressful state and become discouraged or frustrated when their usual way of coping is not working. Here are some warning signs:
- Activity level changes. Watch for significant sleep disturbance lasting more than one week. This could be sleeping too much or not enough. If this occurs, you may feel overly tired, unable to concentrate and irritable toward others. It is also important to look at your daily activity level — social isolation or disinhibited behavior can also be warning signs.
- Interpersonal difficulties. Pay attention if you notice that you are “short” in conversation or find yourself experiencing more verbal arguments. You may have someone comment that you seem “grumpy,” “angry,” or “not your usual self.” Alternatively, you may “shut down” and avoid human interaction. This includes your interactions with members of the public, acquaintances, co-workers, friends, family and romantic relationships.
- Work-related difficulties. This could be work performance issues (tardiness, frequent callouts, forgetting equipment, report writing difficulties, etc.), decreased performance and/or high error rate, increased conflict or disengagement from co-workers, or impaired decision-making and judgment.
- Substance use. Motivation matters. Drinking or using substances to feel better or not feel at all is problematic. Engaging in behaviors such as driving under the influence or carrying your firearm when intoxicated are also problematic. Additionally, engaging in promiscuous sexual activity, spending excessively and/or gambling as a means to feel better can also be signs of unhealthy coping.
Adapting coping skills. You will inevitably encounter a stressful situation when you feel that your usual way of coping is not working. If you do not manage your stress well and another stressful event occurs, you may be at risk for making bad decisions or handling a situation poorly, both on and off the job. Pay attention to the warning signs and adapt your coping skills ASAP. If you usually drink, try exercising instead. If you usually keep to yourself, try talking to a friend or family member. Some additional coping skills include breathing exercises, meditation, visualization and positive self-talk. You can also seek additional support from a member of the Peer Support Program, a chaplain or a counselor.
Remember that it is normal to experience a tough day at work, and you need to have a plan to cope with the stress. Keep in mind that the same coping skill may not work in every situation. Learn to recognize when you are beginning to cope ineffectively and know how to adapt. The goal is to reduce stress so that you are focused and functioning well at both work and at home. Take care of yourself!
Dr. Medina Baumgart is an organizational psychologist with the Psychological Services Bureau of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and a board-certified specialist in police and public safety psychology. Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.