by Brian Mc Vey
A friend complaining about his weight grumbled that after years of eating unhealthily, he’d gained 50 pounds! He added, “Over the years, the police job has made me too lazy to do the work needed to lose the weight.” He also complained of his hips hurting, believing it to be from years of wearing his duty belt, which holds his weapon, Taser, cuffs and an assortment of other equipment.
A few months passed and the overweight cop informed me he had lost 15 pounds, was going to a gym and was seeing a chiropractor, but even though he was feeling better, one thing was still nagging him. He said, “I haven’t had a healthy bowel movement since I came on the job 15 years ago.”
At around the same time, I was driving my car and heard a George Strait song called “The Weight of the Badge.” It’s a beautiful song about the real (unseen) weight officers carry. The lyrics speak of the stressors the job brings. Being next to death and evil daily weighs heavy on one’s psyche and is not healthy. This enormous stress seeps into the body and causes havoc; for some, it’s deadly. Here are a few of the stressors officers carry:
- Death/evil seen daily = stress
- Poor leadership = stress
- Biased media = stress
- Local politicians = stress
- Long hours + court = stress
- Missing family events = stress
Poor leadership brings resentment, anger, frustration — all stressors. Countless officers across the country lament poor leadership and often outright betrayal in their departments. This destroys officers’ morale and desire to work.
The weight of anger and bitterness from the constant negative portrayal of police by community leaders, politicians and the media is another heavy load that has ramped up to unheard-of levels in the last 10 years. One solution, though difficult, is tuning them out. Be aware of this early on and you will feel less stress.
Most civilians do not understand a vital stress-management tool in law enforcement: a sense of humor, often dark and sick! Learning how to use humor as a stress reliever is an art form worth trying to master. Away from the public, laughter and sarcasm at horror and evil can help process the unspeakable. Humor is often medicinal. Take Norman Cousins, who cured himself of a life-threatening bout with cancer by renting Laurel and Hardy and other funny videos. This doesn’t mean denial of stressful events; it does mean we can choose an attitude that creates a more life-enhancing mood.
I recently came across an article on stress relievers by Dr. Martin Cohen. He offers 10 effective stress management tips for officers:
Awareness is the first step. Know the signs that you are stressed. Being aware of your reactions increases self-understanding and what to expect in your unconscious response to stress. Know thy enemy!
Sleep is very important. Sleeping at least seven hours moves our brain through sleep cycles that help us process stress. Deep sleep and dream states (even the disturbing ones) recharge our systems and promote a sense of well-being. There are herbal supplement sleep aids that may be helpful in promoting deep sleep. Avoid prescribed drugs if possible; some are habit-forming.
Exercise is a must. Aerobics burn off harmful stress hormones, release muscle tension and allow release of endorphins, the brain’s natural pleasure chemicals. Our brains and bodies are symbiotic, and exercise helps them sync. It is wise to establish exercise patterns (maybe more than one discipline) so that when stress hits, we do it automatically. Start today! If you are out of shape, start by walking at least 30 minutes daily. Many cops can do it by foot-patrolling their beat.
Watch your nutrition. There are certain foods that help reduce anxiety. One major culprit that ramps officers up is caffeine. The better our sleep habits, the less we crave it. Cut down on coffee, cola and energy drinks. Stress levels decrease when your intake does. Substitute herbal teas, some of which contain natural energizers like ginseng.
Practice deep breathing. We’ve learned more and more about the importance of breathing and teach our children to use it when they are upset. Breathing exercises were taught in my police academy. When tension mounts, it helps to stop what you’re doing and breathe slowly, consciously and deeply. Follow your breath by counting the inhales and exhales (one to 10), then start over. Breathe deep from the diaphragm; allow your stomach to expand fully and focus on your abdomen. The increased oxygen levels and body–mind meshing promote calm and clear thinking as they stave off the effects of stress-induced adrenaline overload. Practice breathing in calm settings, too, to stimulate mindfulness. Try an app called Headspace; the first 10 short exercises are free. You can also go to YouTube and search for “meditation.” There are hundreds of free options that require listening only.
Start your day with positive enthusiasm. It sets a tone. The attitude with which you start something influences the outcome.
Decrease negative self-talk. Become aware of negative self-talk and change the language cues you are giving yourself. Become your own editor. There’s an excellent book on this by Shad Helmstetter called The Self-Talk Solution. Try this exercise: Tomorrow, be a hero when you rise; don’t hit the snooze button. Sit up straight, immediately. Enthusiastically rub your hands together and say something positive about being above ground — for example, “It’s a great day to be alive.” Then take 30 seconds to read a positive thought from a book of your choice. Most cops start their days with alarms, rush hours and news reports of murder, mugging, robbery, rape, immorality, famine, rising prices and terrorism. Be different. Start your day with positive enthusiasm. It sets a tone. The attitude with which you start something influences the outcome.
Manage your time. Make to-do lists, but do not become a slave to them. Lists help sort out chaos. Prioritize your lists by sorting tasks into Must Do, Should Do and Like to Do categories, and attack the Must Do tasks first. A classic book on this subject is 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Dr. Jordan Peterson. Those who make and fulfill their plans are less prone to becoming stressed out.
Find avenues for self-expression. Keep a journal, take an acting class, hike, learn to play an instrument; the possibilities are endless. Find projects that draw you, things that stir your passions. When the going gets rough, we need expressive outlets. Many find reading or painting a source of comfort.
Develop a support network. There are few substitutes for talking about what you are experiencing. Support groups are vital in this kind of work for two reasons: the feelings of connectedness, and the human setting of empathetic people who will listen and offer encouragement and healthy feedback.
Choose your attitude toward the stressors in your life. Viktor Frankl survived the concentration camps of Germany by exercising this power (for more about this, read his landmark book, Man’s Search for Meaning). Realize that all these methods take time, practice and perseverance.
It is glaringly obvious that the weight of the badge is increasingly heavy. Big and small departments have seen an increase in suicide in the last few years and there is much ado about it, but much of it is lip service. This may sound cynical, but my law enforcement experience leads me to believe it is true in many agencies. Don’t expect your organization to be completely accommodating in prevention. You must work your plan, not theirs. Put yourself and your family first and resist the culture’s encroachment. Too many of us do not feel the weight until we break down and it’s too late.
Brian Mc Vey was a Chicago police officer injured in the line of duty in 2012. He is a proud father, adjunct professor and freelance writer. He holds a master’s degree from Adler University in Chicago, Illinois. You can reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org.