Being a police officer is extraordinarily stressful due to the constant array of dangerous situations and uncertainties they are exposed to. For a law enforcement officer, learning techniques for police stress management is paramount, as it can make the difference in someone’s own mental health, as well as their actions when in the heat of a high-stress situation.
There are programs that help police officers deal with stress, but it is also important to know personal strategies in order to help self-regulate someone’s stress management. Police and stress go hand in hand, and there won’t be a situation where a law enforcement officer’s job isn’t filled with potential dangers. As a result, it is important that police officers know how to manage their stresses both in the moment and at home in order to avoid police burnout or other detrimental outcomes.
What Types of Stress Do Police Deal With?
There is no short answer to this kind of question. Police can be involved in anything from routine traffic stops to heavily armed, very fragile hostage situations. However, for police officers, there is never a way to be sure exactly how any situation will turn out. Routine traffic stops can quickly become complicated if an officer smells alcohol or drugs in the car, or if a car tries to flee.
Officers may not be aware if the car has a dangerous person inside or a person with outstanding warrants. However, those they pull over certainly would be aware and be ready to do whatever it takes to avoid a confrontation with law enforcement. This kind of uncertainty is incredibly stressful to deal with, and creates a situation where a police officer must constantly be thinking of, and prepared for, the worst-case scenario — even with something that may seem routine. From loud parties to bar fights, domestic violence, and even suspicious individuals that may or may not mean any harm, the array of stressors for law enforcement officers is extreme, and the constant uncertainties that come with each and every interaction puts an immense amount of stress on the shoulders of those tasked with protecting their communities.
Police officer stress is common, as they aren’t in a job where they are contacted when good things are happening. Each time there is a call for their services, it means there is something wrong, as per the nature of their job.
This constant stress and exposure to traumatic and difficult situations can lead to a number of mental health issues in law enforcement officers, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and even be driven to thoughts of suicide or a developing addiction to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate their daily, potentially life-threatening, stresses.
The Effects of the “Curse of Knowledge”
Being an experienced law enforcement officer has a number of advantages, from being prepared as one can be for certain situations, as well as a wealth of experience talking to civilians during stressful circumstances. However, there is also a struggle that comes with having seen everything. That is, that officers have seen exactly how wrong something can go. This “curse of knowledge” is a constant stressor, as officers are forced to try to mentally prepare for the worst-case scenario that they know is possible, and have experienced first hand. Always being on edge and knowing the potentially disastrous outcomes that can happen as a result of something that should be routine is immensely taxing for someone’s mental health, as it means that the worst-case scenarios are never allowed to leave the mind of a police officer.
The Problems With Being the Beacon of Strength and Protection
Being a law enforcement officer means that someone is tasked with constantly being a bastion of protection for those around them. This means constantly putting up a tough exterior, and being a stable and prepared person who is ready to take on any challenge. However, always having to embody this tough persona takes a mental toll. Law enforcement officers are also expected to keep up this tough, in-control exterior whether they are in their uniform or pajamas, and as a result, don’t typically get the time they need to rest and be vulnerable for their own mental health. This tough exterior also carries another problem, as seeking therapy for one’s stresses, anxiety, depression, or PTSD as a result of their line of work is somehow perceived as a sign of weakness, and thus something they must avoid in order to keep up the tough persona. This means stresses are left unaddressed and can continue to compromise the mental health of law enforcement officers.
Police as a Public Figure
Police officers, regardless of if they are wearing their uniform or not, are constantly in the eyes of the public. This constant spotlight can take a toll on someone, as every action they take is being watched. Constantly being in the spotlight causes one to consistently second-guess every move they make. This can be incredibly mentally exhausting, thus compounding the stress that each law enforcement officer feels, regardless of if they are on duty or not.
Law enforcement officers also have to constantly be aware of the political relationship between cops and the civilians they are tasked to protect. Due to the political atmosphere, police officers must constantly change their practices in order to try to continue serving the community that they are a part of while trying to maintain a beneficial relationship with the civilians around them. This constant political lens causes further stress that can feel out of control of the individual officer, thus leaving each officer to continue second-guessing each of their decisions.
Learning to Cope With Stress as a Law Enforcement Officer
Stress is a constant for police officers, and the world in which they are tasked to protect isn’t slowing down to give each officer the chance they need to properly recuperate. However, there are strategies that can be used to deal with stress in law enforcement. Yet before law enforcement offers can employ any of these stress management techniques, it is paramount that each officer is allowing themselves to admit that their job is extraordinarily stressful and full of dangers and that these dangers inevitably can take a toll on their mental health. It is important not just for officers to allow themselves to be vulnerable from time to time, but it is just as important that society as a whole allows them to be people just as much as they are police, and acknowledge the need for mental health care and support. Learning stress management means first acknowledging the stress and the negative impact it has on someone and their mental health.
Find Colleagues and Identify Supports and Professional Programs
Even if talking about vulnerabilities is still stigmatized, especially as a law enforcement officer, fellow officers and first responders are also the most well-equipped to truly understand the stresses of daily life in this line of duty. Reaching out to workmates as a mutual invitation to talk about the daily stresses can be beneficial for all involved. Additionally, it can be the first step to breaking down the stigma that law enforcement officers constantly need to be tough at all hours of the day, regardless of who they are with. Fellow officers can be the most supportive and understanding people that one can reach out to. However, that is not the only support system available to someone. Family and loved ones may also be willing to try to understand the daily stresses of being a police officer, and even if they cannot fully understand, having a caring, listening ear can help someone mentally begin to work through their own stresses, anxieties, depression, or PTSD.
Supports can also be professional, and there are programs available that are catered particularly to the trauma that law enforcement and all other first responders are exposed to each day. These programs are highly specialized to deal with the unique traumatic experiences that first responders are exposed to while also breaking down the tough front that first responders are expected to put up at all times.
Know the Law Yourself
A lot of stress comes from uncertainty for law enforcement officers. However, in order to try to mitigate this as much as possible, it is important to know the law as best as one can when they are enforcing it. Police are dealt a difficult hand, as the law is constantly changing, and the laws written can be vague in terms of what constituted what kind of crime, as well as what authority each officer has in a particular situation. Knowing the law, and asking questions when laws are unclear, can help someone be as clear as possible both when enforcing it, as well as when you must communicate with civilians about the nature of any particular interaction. The ability to be clear about the situation can help diffuse situations, as well as help each officer act with deliberate intention rather than feeling as if they have to toe a line in the heat of a moment.
Learn to Sleep
Sleep is one of the most direct ways to give the brain a break. While trauma and stress can prevent sleep, incorporating it into a set schedule can help program the body to be tired, and thus help ensure that someone is getting enough rest, even after a long and stressful day. Lack of sleep can accentuate feelings of depression or anxiety and can induce even more stress into situations if someone isn’t well-rested.
Learn to Be a Civilian
Asking, “Is being a cop stressful?” is just the very tip of a conversation that needs to happen. The discourse surrounding the expectations of law enforcement officers is something that needs to change for the mental well-being of police themselves. Not only is it incredibly taxing to be a law enforcement officer — between the anxiety, depression, and traumatic experiences leading to PTSD — but the lack of knowledge and support regarding the problem of their own mental health can make it incredibly difficult for officers to get the help they need in order to continue doing their best to protect their communities. Left undiscussed and unaddressed, the mental health of law enforcement officers can continue to suffer and lead to other destructive practices, such as addiction, PTSD, and suicide.
Law enforcement stress management is needed and extraordinarily difficult, but it isn’t something that should be left wholly to the officers’ own devices. Just as law enforcement officers can benefit from learning to manage stress, it is equally as important that the public also learns to manage their expectations and images of what law enforcement officers need to be.