By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski  |  11/06/2023


stress management

Policing is an inherently stressful career. If that stress is not managed properly, officers are at risk of a wide range or physical and mental health problems. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), marriage problems, cardiovascular disease, depression, other mental illnesses, obesity, and sleeplessness are all common problems that police officers can experience due to stress in policing.

When completing my Ph.D., my dissertation topic involved effective police stress management. I selected this topic because throughout my police career I saw the devastating effects of police stress if it is not managed properly. I wanted to discover what seasoned officers who effectively managed stress did differently than officers who were adversely affected by police stress.

This was important to me because during my law enforcement career I observed officers who experienced cardiovascular disease, mental health problems, and even suicide as a result of police stress. I observed how it negatively affected some while others it did not.

Therefore, I set out to study and interview officers from different parts of the country who, through a screening process, were found to have effectively managed police stress. Effective peer support programs and having a life and identity beyond policing were two consistent findings among the participants. Receiving training was also identified by the participants as an important component of effectively managing police stress.

 

Where Does Police Stress Come From?

Law enforcement officers experience a lot of stressors that are uncommon in other careers. These stressors can have a significant impact on their physical and mental well-being. Understanding where police stress comes from is crucial in addressing and mitigating its effects.

Traumatic Events

For example, law enforcement officers are commonly exposed to traumatic events. These can include responding to homicides, traffic fatalities involving children, mass shooting scenes, and other crime scenes that are difficult for many people to process.

To put into perspective how many traumatic events an officer may experience, the Los Angeles Police Department's Behavioral Science Services Division that manages an in-house mental health assistance program found that the average officer will be exposed to around 800 traumatic events during their career, compared to only three or less by the average citizen.

Inherent Danger

In addition, policing can be dangerous. Officers are often at a higher level of alert than the general population because they know that they may be targeted because of the uniform that they wear. If you walk into a restaurant when an officer is eating, it is likely that he or she will be positioned with his or her back to a wall and will likely be facing the entrance way into the restaurant. This is common because officers remain at a heightened state of alert even between calls for service.

Agency Stress

One of the biggest factors associated with agency stress is when the agency leadership do not support the justified actions of their officers. If officers have a perceived lack of support from the agency while engaged in public safety, if supervisors take credit for the hard work of the officers, or if leadership will not back their officers, then stress is likely to occur. Other kinds of agency stress can involve:

  • A lack of proper staffing
  • Toxic leadership within the law enforcement agency
  • Policies that are not evenly enforced among the staff
  • Broken equipment
  • Excessive overtime due to mismanagement of staffing
  • Low pay

 

Public Mistrust

Another stressor in policing is mistrust from the public. Law enforcement officers risk their lives on a daily basis for their community.

When officers receive unjust public scrutiny and mistrust, it has a significant impact on officers' morale. In law enforcement, patrol officers handle a wide range of calls for service.

On the same shift, they may respond to a report of a child drowning and may conduct CPR. An hour later, that incident may be followed up by a call regarding a neighbor dispute over grass that is too high to responding to someone who is experiencing a severe mental health crisis or another call involving a shooting.

 

The Physiology of Police Stress

Officers also commonly respond to calls for service where a citizen experiencing a mental health crisis may be a danger to themselves or the officers. There is a physiological component of police stress that occurs when an officer experiences these different types of calls for service.

  • Changes in heart rate – During a patrol shift, an officer is likely to go from a resting heart rate to a rapid heart rate when responding to an in-progress emergency through the body's involuntary response to cortisol.
  • Cortisol spike – Cortisol is a brain hormone that when the body is placed under acute stress such as responding to a high-risk situation or dangerous situation, cortisol is released. Initially, cortisol can increase the body's ability to focus during an emergency and increased energy, but multiple spikes of cortisol in a day can result in adverse reactions. Cortisol influences and interrupts the human body's thyroid, which can lead to reduced metabolism over time. This may account for obesity and cardiovascular problems many police officers experience.
  • Adrenaline rush – When the body is exposed to immense acute stress associated with responding to an emergency, the brain's amygdala sends a distress signal to the brain's hypothalamus that releases adrenaline associated with a fight-or-flight reaction. While an adrenaline rush is not that uncommon for people to experience, it is uncommon for this to occur multiple times in a day, such as during an officer's shift. Frequent releases of adrenaline can result in an officer experiencing lightheadedness, increased heart rate, and insomnia.
  • Tunnel vision – Tunnel vision involves being fully focused on one target, situation, or person and inadvertently missing the big picture. This can be dangerous for officers because if they respond to an in-progress emergency and lose situational awareness, they may miss another threat aside what they are focusing on.
  • Auditory exclusion – When officers experience the adrenaline and cortisol delivery to their body, officers who do not properly manage it are likely to have rapid breathing, an inability to be fully aware of their surroundings during an emergency and may have difficulty processing what they are hearing because they are hyper-focused.

 

Overcoming the Stigma

There has long been a stigma that needs to be overcome regarding police officers seeking mental health services through mental health providers. For decades, a culture has existed within policing that officers feel that they are weak, may be taken out of patrol duties, or may face problems within their agency if they seek out mental health resources.

As a result, many officers have held in the stress and traumatic experiences that they experienced in the field to their own detriment. Whether it is their physical health, their relationships with loved ones, or their mental health, not dealing with cumulative police stress that is adversely impacting the officer will likely have negative consequences. Fortunately, the culture within police agencies is improving about recognizing the devastating effects of police stress that is not properly managed.

 

Combating the Mental Health Crisis with Peer Support

In addition, there has been a focus by police departments to support police officers who experience traumatic events through a peer support program. Peer officers who are experienced in dealing with traumatic events and who receive mental health training are in a unique position to help fellow officers immediately following a traumatic event and in the subsequent time following a traumatic event, such as experiencing a violent crime scene, officer-involved shooting, or fatality involving a child.

Since the officer who was involved in a traumatic event puts their trust in their peer officer with their lives each day, they may be more willing to be honest about experiencing mental health problems following a traumatic event. Crisis intervention team training is important in this type of program. Typically, the trained peer officer will be assigned to the officer who experienced a traumatic event immediately following the incident.

In the case of an officer-involved shooting, the peer officer may accompany the officer at the police station by removing the officer from the field and out of the reach of the media. Peer officers remain open to speaking about the event and often have similar experience to the challenges that the involved officer is experiencing.

While monitoring for signs of a mental health crisis, peer officers can explain how they managed the stress associated with their similar experience and can offer resources and support to the effected officer.

 

Addressing Police Stress Through Self-Assessment

Experiencing such a high number of traumatic events reflects the importance of not only understanding police stressors but also being able to recognize when they are having an impact on an officer.

Officers have an important responsibility to monitor their own mental health. A police officer should monitor themselves for changes in behavior, indicators of PTSD, difficulty sleeping, substance abuse, and other signs of a mental health crisis that could be associated with police stress.

Indicators of post-traumatic stress disorder include irritability, self-destructive behavior, social isolation, loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed, guilt, emotional detachment from loved ones, nightmares, and insomnia.

 

Mental Illness and Policing: What Is Mental Health Training and Why Do Police Need It?

Many police agencies have become mental health advocates in terms of encouraging officers to seek out mental health professionals when an employee is struggling with police stress. Many agencies have sponsored specialized training in mental health for their officers. By focusing on the issue of mental health training for police officers, more officers are able to recognize signs that police stress is adversely impacting them and are taking steps to mitigate police stress.

 

The Need for More Training Officers

Both in police training academies and in annual police department training, qualified training officers have an important role in educating officers about mitigating police stress. An emphasis on officer mental health and resilience is needed. Specialized training should be provided in promoting officer mental health by mental health practitioners.

Officers should be trained on the indicators of various mental illnesses and how these mental illnesses can influence a person's thought process and actions. Several training hours should be dedicated to fostering good mental health in officers.

 

The Need for Additional Psychological Screenings

Typically, police officers are screened by a psychologist once in their career as part of the hiring process to become sworn officers. Since mental health problems can develop throughout an officer's career if police stress is not properly managed, additional intervention opportunities are needed. A police force may implement a psychological screening to ensure that officers are not experiencing risk factors, suicidal ideation, or other mental health crises following a major event in an officer's career, such as being involved in a police shooting.

 

The Need for Stress Management Counseling

Another option is to implement a stress management component to an officer's annual employee review. Typically, officers are counseled by their supervisor regarding their annual performance. That may be a good time to implement a stress management portion of the employee review to ensure that the officer is not experiencing adverse reactions from police stress or a traumatic event and to ensure that the officer is not experiencing a mental health crisis.

If a stress management component is implemented in a sworn officer annual evaluation, supervisors should receive crisis intervention team training and should be prepared to offer mental health resources such as employee assistance program information or access to mental health counseling services. Monitoring for warning signs and allowing officers to express any concerns that they have in regard to how stress is impacting their lives can be very effective.

 

Effective Police Stress Coping Strategies

An emphasis by police departments and mental health practitioners should also be on effective police stress coping strategies. Coping strategies are not one-size-fits-all. Therefore, officers should be trained in exploring several stress coping strategies.

One common trend in police stress management is having a life and identity outside of policing. Historically, many police officers tended to only associate themselves with other officers from the agency and had a difficult stepping out of the role of a police officer when off duty. This is fostered by officers feeling that they always need to be aware of their surroundings and being at a heightened state of alert. While being aware of one's surroundings is important for everyone, remaining at a high state of alert can create anxiety and an inability to relax. Therefore, it is important for officers to engage in activities that help them take their mind off of the stressors associated with policing.

Once effective stress management techniques are found, it is important for officers to consistently find time for them. Some examples of effective stress management techniques include:

  • Exercise
  • Spending time with family
  • Travel
  • Relaxation techniques, like meditation
  • Complete separation of job and life, often by changing out of a uniform before leaving work
  • Speaking to a spouse or loved one about their experiences on the job

 

Mental Health Training for Police Officers: Strategies for Small and Rural Law Enforcement Agencies

Local police departments in rural areas are less likely to have the mental health services that a larger agency would. However, smaller law enforcement agencies can still provide training on stress management, implement a wellness check in terms of stress management as part of officers' annual employment performance reviews, and can still emphasize the importance of good mental health for their officers.

While law enforcement officers in rural agencies may experience less frequent exposure to events that can cause PTSD and other trauma-related problems, officers from these smaller agencies can still experience problems if police stress is not properly managed. There are various solutions that these smaller agencies can experiment with to find what works.

  • Partner up A small police department may wish to partner with their local sheriff's office or with other small agencies to sponsor a training program on effective stress management for law enforcement officers. The training program should highlight stressors in policing, how to recognize when an officer is experience adverse reactions to police stress, and how to mitigate these adverse reactions through mental health and counseling services.
  • Train as a team – Small and rural law enforcement agencies may benefit from working with a national institute that offers crisis intervention team training, peer support program training, and mitigating police stress training. Additional resources may be available through the state for small and rural agencies. Working with other agencies in terms of training in police stress management may be necessary.
  • Tap into neighboring resources – Urban agencies are more likely to have the budget to sponsor in-house counseling services with a police psychologist on staff. One resource that may be available in areas where a licensed behavioral health clinician is located is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR was developed in the late 1980s and has become a leading treatment to treat those that are struggling with trauma. EMDR works to remove distressing memories and can help officers develop skills needed for healthy functioning in regard to overcoming trauma.

While the flood of adrenaline and cortisol may not be able to be controlled in the human body, how we respond to it can be. For example, officers can overcome tunnel vision and auditory exclusion by using patterned breathing which can help reduce the officer's heart rate.

Unless the situation requires it, slowing down the officer's response to the situation can help to reduce tunnel vision and auditory exclusion. When arriving at a scene, taking that few extra seconds to survey the scene, using patterned breathing, and actively listening to radio traffic can help the officer become mentally prepared for what they are about to face.

Law enforcement officers place themselves at risk of serious injury on a frequent basis to protect the community. Officers experience some of the most traumatic incidents imaginable and encounter citizens who are having the worst day of their lives. Stressors in policing can take a toll if police stress is not managed properly. Police agencies have an important role in emphasizing good mental health in their officers and providing resources to officers who are struggling with police stress.

Law enforcement agencies also have an important responsibility in monitoring their officers for mental health challenges and in providing training to effectively mitigate police stress. Fortunately, the stigma in law enforcement about receiving counseling and support is waning. This trend can continue by agencies continuing to promote the services that they offer.

Currently, law enforcement is struggling to maintain staffing levels, due to increased public scrutiny and the “defund the police” movement. Both public scrutiny and the defund the police movement can be major stressors for law enforcement officers. Promoting good mental health is critical for officer retention and morale.

Community policing can be improved along with the police response to be proactive in mitigating crime. Community stakeholders can display support for local law enforcement, which can be an effective way for the community to partner with law enforcement. Officers who feel appreciated, trusted, and needed are more likely to have higher morale, which can also reduce police stress.

Law enforcement is just one component of the first responders community that are exposed to these unique stressors. Fire rescue personnel are also exposed to traumatic events.

One area that should be explored is having more within the first responders community partner together to mitigate first responder stress. For example, law enforcement and fire rescue agencies may benefit from receiving training together. Learning coping strategies from a different point of view can be effective for first responders.

 

The Risks of Not Effectively Managing Police Stress

Police stress impacts every officer differently. If stress is not managed properly, it can impact the officer in myriad ways ranging from hostility toward family to burnout. Officers with unmanaged stress and hostility may take their aggression out on their family members, leading to domestic violence and relationship problems.

Officers who are experiencing mental health issues and burnout are less likely to be proactive in meeting the needs of the community. In my law enforcement career, I observed this firsthand and found that officers who were burned out were cynical, mistrusted everyone, and were not productive.

 

Effectively Managing Police Stress and Fostering Resilience

Helping police officers effectively manage stress can have a wide range of benefits, not only for the individual officers but also for the community as a whole. Some of the positive effects include:

  • Improved physical health – When officers receive support and resources to manage stress, they are more likely to prioritize their physical well-being. Regular exercise, healthy eating habits, and proper sleep become more attainable, leading to better overall physical health. These healthy habits, in turn, can enhance their performance on duty and reduce the risk of chronic health issues.
  • Enhanced mental well-being – Managing stress effectively can significantly improve officers' mental health. By providing access to counseling services, peer support programs, and mental health resources, we can help officers cope with the emotional toll of their work. This can lead to reduced rates of burnout, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Increased job satisfaction and retention – Officers who receive adequate support and stress management resources are more likely to experience higher job satisfaction. They feel valued and understood by their agencies, which can lead to increased retention rates. Increased retention rates promote stability and expertise within law enforcement organizations, benefiting the community by having experienced officers who are familiar with the area and its residents.
  • Enhanced community relations – When police officers are equipped with stress management tools, they are better equipped to engage with the community in a positive and empathetic manner. By reducing stress levels, officers can approach interactions with civilians with patience, understanding, and professionalism. It fosters trust and mutual respect, leading to improved community relations and cooperation between law enforcement and the public.
  • Effective decision-making – High levels of stress can impair an officer's ability to make rational decisions in high-pressure situations. By helping officers manage stress, they can maintain clearer thinking and better judgment, ultimately leading to more effective decision-making. It can help prevent instances of excessive force or biased policing, promoting fairness and justice in law enforcement practices.

I have provided training on effectively managing police stress within law enforcement agencies both in the United States and internationally. In speaking to officers from around the United States and in different countries, I have found that the stressors are relatively the same, but resilience levels differ based on the person. For officers with a resilience to police stress, this is often reflected in their achievements and performance in the field.

It is important to recognize and address these stressors to ensure the well-being and effectiveness of our law enforcement personnel. By implementing strategies that support mental health, improving management practices, and providing the necessary resources and support, we can help alleviate the burden of stress on police officers and create a healthier and more resilient law enforcement community.


About the Author
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at www.Sadulski.com for more information.

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