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Surviving through self-affirmation

Unresolved stress inhibits our performance and judgement, which makes it an immediate survival issue, not just a long-term one

Self-affirmation isn’t just standing in front of your mirror every morning telling yourself that you’re good enough. It is an intentional effort to make your work and achievements rewarding for their own sake.

It is a neurological fact that stress makes you stupid. Our brain is exceptionally good at alerting to danger. It is less adept at responding since the basic strategies of fight, flight, or freeze don’t necessarily coalesce into an effective plan to deal with a threat. This is why we train, imagine scenarios and examine case studies to create action pathways so that we can respond effectively to threats using a set of rehearsed actions. Effective action over confused panic is what sets first responders apart from the ordinary citizen.

Big stress, little stress, both dangerous

What we also know is that we are wired to handle major stressful incidents much better than constant lower stress. A knife blade can be ruined by one blow or dulled by thousands of routine cuts. Since our brains are constantly occupied with assessing threats, we are much more receptive to negative sensory inputs than to positive. We spend more time scanning the ground to avoid snakes than we do looking up to enjoy a beautiful blue sky. Our mind and body don’t have to be disciplined to watch for danger, but do have to be disciplined to look for joy.

Since we know that unresolved stress and conflict wreak havoc on our bodies through higher blood pressure, higher cortisol and resulting fat, sleep disruption and self-medication, we must attend to its life-shortening threat as well as to those code three calls. Since unresolved stress loads us down, it also inhibits our performance and judgement. That makes it relevant to our daily efficiency and alertness, which makes it an immediate survival issue, not just a long-term one.

Among the well-known strategies of exercise, nutrition and rest, first responders must add self-affirmation. This isn’t just standing in front of your mirror every morning telling yourself that you’re good enough, smart enough and, doggone it, people like me. It is an intentional effort to make your work and achievements rewarding for their own sake.

Where is your thank you?

External rewards in terms of recognition, a thank you, awards and ribbons are not the primary morale builders in the life of the first responder. There simply aren’t enough pats on the back to push out the negativity and doubts that come your way.

Many supervisors are so concerned about maintaining discipline, avoiding lawsuits and keeping up with documentation, that exceptional performance and even routine good work gets overlooked. Their attention is often focused on truly problem employees. There is also the principle that no one deserves a medal for simply doing the job they are paid to do, and constant attaboys end up being meaningless.

That puts the burden for keeping one’s boat afloat directly on the individual. Here’s how:

  1. Schedule your own evaluation: Most agencies require an employee evaluation at least once a year. And for most agencies and employees it is a hoop-jumping exercise that not everyone takes seriously. Another evaluation that should be on your calendar at least once a month is self-evaluation. How are you doing? What successes have you had? What improvements have you made? Even if you have just maintained your relationships, your health, or your diet count that as a win.
  2. Reward yourself: Establish one little goal at a time, personal or professional. Put $10 in your savings account. Have one fewer argument with your colleagues. Like all goals, make them measurable and achievable. And make them small. Then reward yourself.
  3. Think deep: There is something special about being a professional hero. We don’t get to measure our influence anymore than a butterfly can take credit for the hurricane, but we know somehow, somewhere, with somebody we made a difference. It can be hard to pin down specific achievements, so it is important to be intentional about remembering what your job means to you and those you serve.
  4. Ceremony: Emergency services has great traditions for graduations and funerals and occasional events in between. Individuals can benefit from personal rituals. One sheriff I know places his hand on his mailbox before entering his home at the end of a shift. He symbolically leaves the troubles of the day there to refrain from bringing them into the house. Whether you want to keep your work outside your house, remind yourself of the value of what you do, or take time to forgive yourself, a daily ritual can help.
  5. Don’t go it alone: Although the person in the mirror is your best supporter, friends are good medicine. Don’t mistake getting together to complain about the job or the world as support, although commiseration has its place. Having people who can voice positivity, appreciation and motivation can be vital.

And if all else fails, call me. I’ll say thank you for what you do.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.