Stress management: The good, the bad and the healthy

Q: What is meant by "stress management" in law enforcement? How can officers and support personnel do their jobs if they're all mellow and relaxed? Is stress always bad? Isn't some stress good for you?

A: A lot depends on the kind of stress and how you handle it. A certain amount of optimum stimulation is necessary for peak performance. The evidence suggests that stressful situations that are challenging but not overwhelming may actually contribute to better physical and psychological health.

University of Nebraska psychologist Richard A. Dienstbier uses the term "toughening" to describe what happens when challenging situations require active coping and problem solving.  Animals and humans who are stressed, but learn to adaptively work their way out of the problem, show a distinct psychobiological pattern.

Overwhelming stress overtaxes the nervous system and leads to a variety of maladaptive effects, including high blood pressure, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal problems, chronic anxiety, or depression.

However, individuals who have learned to deal effectively with such emergencies - that is, developed good coping and mastery skills - show a more efficient and adaptive nervous system response that only lasts for the specific period of stress, and returns promptly to normal baseline when the crisis is over.

It's been shown that as an individual learns to cope with challenges in an adaptive way, a positive spiral develops: More effective coping leads to a smoother psychobiological stress response; the more this happens, the more the person learns to have faith in his or her own coping abilities - and so the stress response becomes even more adaptive and less disruptive.

This is what the "toughening" response is all about.  Tough people - by virtue of innate gift or deliberate training - are able to cope adaptively with adverse situations and are therefore less likely to succumb to stress-related illnesses.

How do you toughen up?  Unfortunately, many so-called "stress-management" programs rely mainly on relaxation or other arousal-reduction techniques - as if dealing with stress amounted to floating on a cloud.  But these mellowing-out techniques and therapies may actually work against developing true adaptive toughness.  By portraying stress as something to be reduced or avoided at all costs, these approaches inhibit the learning of adaptive coping skills to deal with life's challenges. 

Especially in law enforcement and emergency services, there are times when it's important to increase arousal, alertness, and attention - along with learning to use imagery, language, and thinking techniques - to pump up the physical and emotional adrenalin to the point where it helps you scan the environment and focus on the immediate task at hand.  You need that psychological pump to zero in on life-and-death situations and make the most effective response in a split second.  Only when the emergency has passed, do you need to be able to ratchet down the arousal level so that a sustained stress response doesn't produce unhealthy consequences.

In other words, it's the flexibility of the nervous system's stress-response system that enables an officer to muster the appropriate level of arousal to handle a difficult and dangerous task, and then relax and decompress.  Accordingly, a truly useful stress management program should teach officers how to approach potential obstacles in an assertive, yet flexible way, so that the "mental toughness muscle" is progressively exercised and thereby becomes better able to handle more and more complex challenges.  Remember: resilience, not resistance is what makes you tough.  In fact, this is precisely what my METTLE: Mental Toughness Training for Law Enforcement Officers program is designed to do.  (This is a popular training seminar and the subject of a forthcoming book by Looseleaf Law Press.  Contact the author for details.)

Thus, the truly "tough" person - in the healthiest sense of the word - is not the man or woman who avoids all stress, but the one who knows how to deal with different levels of stress as they occur, on the job or anywhere. 

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