Police work is stressful. A recent report by CSNBC claimed that police officers have the fifth most stressful job in America. Hans Selye, considered the big daddy of stress research, said policing “is the most stressful job in America.” Let’s not split hairs about wether or not we have the most stressful or tenth most stressful job. Let’s just say we carry a rather high stress load, and leave it at that.
What do we do with the stress we accumulate at work? The stuff we do with our stress is called “coping.” Here’s where we have a choice. We could opt not to think about our coping or how to improve the way we cope. This is like deciding not to give a shit about your diet. You could just say, “I eat what I want.” That’s a choice. And, with that choice, we receive natural consequences. If your diet consists of nothing but shite you’ll probably be sicker and live a shorter life.
You could choose to think about coping. You could choose to eat better.
There are two main types of coping that cops engage in, “active coping” and “avoidant coping.” Unfortunately, police officers tend to prefer the latter. I'd like to nudge you in the direction of active coping. Here's an excerpt from my book on this:
...pretending some feeling isn’t actually here is like hearing a strange noise from your car engine while driving along the freeway and dealing with it by turning up the volume on the car radio. It works pretty well to blank out the noise, but is not too effective in preventing the engine from seizing up ten miles down the road.
(Mark Williams, The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness).
Avoidant coping or “experiential avoidance” (Williams et. al., 2007) is an attempt to block out the unpleasant feelings associated with stress. I remember watching a commercial for a line of bath products in the 1980‘s. A middle aged woman laments, “”The traffic...the boss!...the baby...the dog! Calgone, take me away!” Contemporary stressors are still the same, but today we would end with, “Call of Duty, take me away!”
Levenson and Dwyer (2003) note that cops tend to gravitate toward these avoidant coping strategies. Kevin Gilmartin, in his book, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, calls this “sitting in the magic chair.” The magic chair could be in front of a television, a computer or it could be a barstool. We think of it as “decompressing,” and it’s quite effective for that. However, in the long run and in itself avoidant coping is ineffective for managing stress. This, because avoidant coping merely blunts the discomfort (physical & emotional) associated with stress but doesn’t address the source of stress. In police officers, avoidant coping has been associated with anxiety, depression, perceived work stress, health problems, risk-taking behaviors and partner abuse (Gershon, et. al., 2009) (Essex & Scott, 2008) (Burke, 1998). Some avoidant coping strategies (alcohol, tobacco, extramarital affairs) are worse than others. At the end of the day we say again, “what you resist, persists.”
Active coping, on the other hand, involves preemptively engaging in behaviors that reduce stress, before encountering the stressors. Research has shown that officers who have active coping styles have more job satisfaction and less work-family conflict and psychosomatic symptoms (Burke, 1998). In medicine, this is referred to as “primary prevention.” Exercise, taking a yoga class, or hobbies, such as fishing, or playing a musical instrument are examples of active coping. The difference between active and avoidant (or “escapist”) coping is important, as it highlights the difference between surviving a career in law enforcement and thriving in it. Those who rely solely on avoidant coping methods will usually survive their careers. Officers who want more than surviving need to know that active coping - which requires more organization and consideration - affords us the opportunity to beat stress back before it has a chance to reek havoc in our bodies, and therefore it affords us the opportunity to thrive.