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What we don’t know about stress might kill us

Law enforcement can learn a lot from academia, business and high-performance military teams on stress management and human performance

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I think it’s an understatement to say that the law enforcement profession can be challenging. The difficulties of working in the field, oversight by ultracrepidarians (look it up, because you are dealing with them every day) and the ever-present issues occurring inside our organizations and it’s no wonder that officers are tired and stressed. Stress levels are very often connected to our mental health and as a result, we have a personal stake in understanding this connection, but our understanding has been limited.

When an officer and violent suspect meet face to face, both are under stress. If I were asking what is occurring in the body, most of you would easily recognize the brain choosing between fight or flight (some might add freeze). The suspect is considering if they should run or attack and the officer is preparing to follow or fight back.

While they are both thinking, the body is releasing remarkably similar stress hormones to prepare for a response. The problem is we have all been told that these hormones are bad and that high stress will result in early death, but this is a simplified explanation for an extraordinarily complex system.

What you think is what you get

Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s research on stress has generated some surprising results that law enforcement officers need to be aware of because it may not be the stress that is leading to an early demise, but our beliefs about stress.

The idea that what you think is what you get has some scientific validity. If an individual believes that stress hormones can enhance focus and increase problem-solving abilities, performance improves and less traumatic stress symptoms appear.

Dr. McGonigal goes further to address the oversimplification of the body’s stress response, making it very clear that fight or flight is not the only option, and very often isn’t even the most common. Under stress, your body can respond in several different ways, and while she uses wording appropriate for the general public, when I teach on this topic for Blue H.E.L.P. I add a “tactical” twist because cops resist terms like “mindful breathing,” but we are more open to “combat breathing.”

three ways Your body responds under stress

1. What’s next (challenge response)

When you are facing a stressful event where life is not at risk you may still have a stress response. Stress hormones enter the body and increase self-confidence, generate motivation to act and prepare you to learn from experience. This may occur in a training environment where you are learning challenging techniques and once you are successful you are ready for the next revolution.

2. Protect the team (tend and befriend)

In law enforcement, I have seen this stress response activate numerous times. There is little we won’t do for our partners. When facing a stressful event that threatens the team, our stress hormones generate incredible levels of courage and motivate us to connect with other members of the team.

3. Never quit (excite and delight)

This occurs when you are about to do something that is stressful, but you feel ready to go after the goal. Stress hormones, in this case, increase energy and after the event, we are often left feeling exhilarated. An example may be a police pursuit or entering a home during the execution of a search warrant

Each of these responses serves its own purpose, and each increases our ability to perform in high-stress situations to help us bring everyone home. This article offers just a small bit of the information law enforcement needs if we are going to change the future of mental health and stress in the profession. The problem is much of what we are taught is out of date science or presented out of context. Law enforcement can learn a lot from academia, business and high-performance military teams on stress management and human performance and the time to start is now.

NEXT: Get ‘brain fit’ for critical thinking and peak physical performance under stress

Jeff McGill has 25 years of law enforcement experience. He has an earned doctoral degree with research that focused on the perceptions of mental health and suicide amongst law enforcement recruits. Jeff is a co-founder of Blue H.E.L.P., a national nonprofit that works to reduce the stigma of mental health issues in law enforcement. He now works full time as the Director of Public Safety Training at Northwest Florida State College overseeing training for law enforcement, corrections, dispatchers, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and firefighters.