Take care of yourself: Why law enforcement officers need self-care

You must take care of yourself and your own well-being before you can be called upon to reliably take care of others


Here we are, near a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic that has turned all of our lives upside down. For many, the first couple of months were fraught with uncertainty and confusion. COVID-19 has changed the way we work, and limited our socialization, our stress-relief outlets and our overall satisfaction with life. Sure, some got on the sourdough breadmaking bandwagon, but eventually, even this proved unsatisfactory. We soon had more pressing issues to deal with, like the social unrest and anti-police sentiment that swept across the U.S.

Sadly, negative sentiments linger. As we reflect upon the last year, many officers have decided to retire or leave for other departments, and some have decided to pursue other careers. I cannot blame them. There is no other profession I can think of that is as regularly blamed and scapegoated for political and societal failures. Too often, law enforcement is automatically assumed at fault before due process has even begun.

But I know there are more of you out there who continue to put on the uniform, serve your communities, and hold the line. How can we ensure you are healthy and happy as you continue in your noble work?

If you are stressed and tired before your shift, you may be less alert and more prone to make a mistake, with your preoccupied mind drifting off.
If you are stressed and tired before your shift, you may be less alert and more prone to make a mistake, with your preoccupied mind drifting off. (Getty Images)

Take care of yourself

I have previously written that officer suicide prevention, wellness and a healthier mindset is not a matter of checking a box. Yes, vaccination is widespread and the threat of COVID-19 is greatly diminished. But the weight of the daily stress and traumas of the job are still there. Your personal and family life still matters. With all these stressors, what are you doing to stay balanced? How are you taking care of yourself?

Like most of you, I haven’t been on a plane in a long time. But I do remember the pre-flight safety brief – specifically, put on your oxygen mask before helping others. The analogy fits: First responders must take care of themselves before they can be of service to others. If you are stressed and tired before your shift, you may be less alert and more prone to make a mistake, with your preoccupied mind drifting off. Stress from work spills over into home life, and vice versa. Do you have healthy means for dealing with this stress, whether from work or home? Following are some suggestions for developing or improving your de-stressing practice.

Sleep

If you’re not getting enough, congratulations, you are in the same boat as most Americans. Sadly, sleep is oftentimes the first thing we readily give up and the worst thing we can do.

Nearly every medical condition, physical or psychological, can worsen due to lack of sleep. Lack of sleep is associated with errors, irritability, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, weakened immunity, increased risk of diabetes, weight gain, risk of heart disease and lowered sex drive.

If you work day-shift or evening-shift regularly, set a regular sleep schedule. I know many of you won’t get 8 hours a night, but try to get an extra hour and stick to it. Even if you work nights, good sleep is important. For you night-shifters, invest in room-darkening shades and blinds, shut off the phone and structure your day.

 

Exercise

Some form of regular movement will do wonders for your physical and mental wellbeing. A mere 20 minutes of walking can help with weight, blood pressure, diabetes and overall satisfaction in life. Walking can help you to de-stress and have an escape. If you’re pressed for time, do some stretching.

Eat well

Packing a healthy lunch is much better than anything you will get at the drive-thru and safer since you know you prepared the food. Most of the stuff you would buy at fast-food places will be high in sodium, cholesterol, fat and calories.

Choosing lean meats for sandwiches on whole-wheat bread, salads with low-fat dressing, fruits and vegetables, along with more water, is ideal. Too much caffeine can deplete nutrients and those energy drinks are loaded with sugar or potentially sketchy sugar substitutes.

Relax

You need to take time to rest and actually use your time off wisely. Ask yourself, when is the last time you took a vacation? It doesn’t need to be huge – three or four days off in a row is a great start to revitalize and relax.

Connect

This can be journaling, talking to a friend about your feelings or seeing a therapist or peer support team member. On your days off, actually, take off and spend time with your family, friends and outside interests. No work; no shop talk!

Keep your partner close

It’s also a good idea to keep communication open with your spouse or partner. Focused, connected and meaningful daily conversations are essential to trusting relationships. You and your significant other need to decide what and how much you will talk about. Some partners want to know all the details, others want just the Cliff Notes version. Some couples will need no words as they sit and cuddle together on the couch and watch TV. Regardless, you need to let your loved one into your life.

Conclusion

In the event of cabin pressure loss on an airplane, you would first secure your own oxygen mask before helping out your neighbors. This isn’t selfishness; it’s common sense. After all, what good are you to others if you lose consciousness? The principle holds true for first responders: You must take care of yourself and your own wellbeing before you can be called upon to reliably take care of others. So take care!

NEXT: Enhancing first responder resilience through mindfulness

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