Bend, don’t break
A personal resilience plan for public safety professionals
By Josh Rahn and Gloria Sepanik
A short fuse. Cloudy thinking. Low energy. A sense of impending doom. Poor sleep. All could be signs that stress is beginning to negatively impact your life. But what is stress, really?
The Mayo Clinic defines stress as “a normal psychological and physical reaction to the demands of life.” Stress is the brain’s fire alarm, alerting you to danger and getting you ready to physically perform, whether that means fleeing or fighting. It’s a useful reaction in the short term to help deal with immediate, present danger – like a critical incident response or a charging rhino.
Problems arise when stress becomes a chronic state of being – something that can occur all too easily in public safety. Avoiding constant stress begins with identifying the symptoms of stress in your life so that you can develop a personal resilience plan.
Know when you’re stressed
Stress affects the body and the mind. And it can manifest in countless ways. Everyone experiences stress a little differently, but regularly checking in with your physical and emotional self is a good starting point for knowing when you’re stressed. Many people don’t take time for themselves in this way; however, a few minutes each day to do a quick self-assessment can help you be better at just about everything.
Many public safety professionals find it useful to conduct this self-assessment at the end of their shift. This mental ritual can not only help you identify warning signs; it can also be an effective way to let go of the shift and be more present with family and friends outside of the job.
Here are some of the most common signs of stress:
- Muscle tension
- Headaches and general aches/pains
- Upset stomach
- Feelings of anxiety or sadness
- Emotional coldness
- Lack of focus
- Binge eating
If you’re caught in a cycle that regularly includes one or more of these signs, it might be time to dig deeper and find out what’s underneath these maladaptive feelings and behaviors.
Identify root causes of stress
Recognizing stress gives us a chance to zero in on the root cause of that stress and then do something about it. Is there a problem in your professional or social life that has been lingering? Is there an upcoming event that you find yourself worrying about excessively? Journaling and quiet contemplation are a couple of ways to do some root cause analysis on stress and anxiety. Once you’ve tunneled down and discovered the likely sources of these negative feelings, ask yourself these questions:
- Is this really as bad as I think it is? Am I fixating on the worst-case scenario?
- Do I have the power to affect this situation? If not, can I let it go gracefully?
- If I’m capable of dealing with the root cause, how do I do that? Can I put together a plan?
- Am I confident that I can overcome this issue? Can I recall some past stressors where I bent but did not break?
- Do I have a friend or partner who I’m confiding in? Are feelings of stress passing through me, or are they becoming bottled up and intensifying?
Manage stress and become resilient
Resiliency is the ability to recognize and manage stress in a productive way that ultimately increases personal effectiveness and quality of life. The following practical steps can help you develop your personal resilience plan and drain away stress:
- Eat well. A proper diet that meets your nutritional needs goes a long way toward keeping stress in check. Be wary of comfort or boredom eating, as these can be signs of bottled-up emotions.
- Get good sleep. Sleep is one of the biggest determiners in your overall well-being. Establish a regular bedtime, when your shifts allow, and avoid digital distractions in the last hour or so before nodding off, and you’ll sleep much better.
- Exercise. Physical exercise releases feel-good chemicals in the brain, and a healthy and fit body handles stress better than an out-of-shape one.
- Release emotional tension. Our emotional life has an enormous impact on our physical being. Letting your worries go, rather than letting them build up inside is essential for how you manage everyday stressors. Don’t dwell on things out of your control.
- Socialize. Humans need community. For most people, isolation leads to swirling negative thought patterns and sadness. Getting out of your own headspace as often as practical is a preventive measure against too much stress.
Each of the above practices work together and reinforce each other. That means you can exercise all you like, but if you’re not sleeping or eating well, it’s mostly for wasted energy. A personal resilience plan for public safety professionals must be comprehensive, deliberate and consistent to provide protection against the cumulative stress you experience by responding to traumatic incidents, working under the threat of violence and experiencing the highs and lows of adrenaline rushes.
Therefore, it’s useful to think seriously about organizing your life around your own well-being. This isn’t selfishness: After all, you can’t help someone else put on their oxygen mask until yours is firmly affixed. Managing stress makes you a better teammate, a better friend, and a more productive and positive member of the community.
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About the authors
Gloria Sepanik retired after 11 years of service from the Punta Gorda Police Department in 2018, where she worked up from telecommunicator to accreditation manager. She achieved the rank of team leader for the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation. Sepanik currently works in content development at Lexipol and volunteers with the Southwest Florida Critical Incident Stress Management Team.