Learning how to manage stress is critical for corrections officers who work in highly volatile and dangerous environments. High levels of stress can adversely impact an officer’s professional performance and personal life. As discussed in an earlier article, research studies have found very high suicide rates in the corrections field, although very little attention is paid to the topic. It’s important for officers to learn what is causing their stress and healthy strategies to properly manage stress levels.
Causes of Stress
One of the primary causes of stress for correctional officers comes from working in overcrowded and understaffed prisons. Such conditions often require officers to work mandatory overtime and inconsistent rotating shifts. Moreover, perceived and actual threats of physical violence are a daily occurrence for officers. To compound matters, ongoing and ever-changing administrative demands result in tension with coworkers and/or supervisors that contribute a surprising amount of stress.
Signs of Stress
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), signs of stress include:
- Emotional numbness
- Feelings of sadness, frustration, and helplessness
- Recurring feelings of fear and anxiety
- Anger, tension, and irritability
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Reduced interest in usual enjoyable activities
- Wanting to be alone and avoiding others
- Loss of appetite or eating too much
- Irregular sleeping patterns
- Headaches, muscle pains, and stomach problems
- Smoking or increased use of alcohol or drugs
Stress Management Strategies
When people feel stressed, they often resort to negative coping strategies that are counterproductive and tend to exacerbate—not improve—stressful situations. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to manage stress, so individuals must experiment and determine which techniques and strategies work best for them. There are many resources to help reduce stress, including a stress management website that outlines a number of important strategies:
Avoid unnecessary stress
Unnecessary stress can be avoided by learning how to say no to things and avoiding or minimizing contact with stressful people or situations.
Alter the situation
If you cannot avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it by expressing your feelings in an assertive and constructive manner and remain open to compromise.
Adapt to the stressor and adjust your attitude
If you cannot change the stressor, you must change your expectations and attitude by reframing the problems and adapting to the situation. Look at the big picture and focus on all the positive qualities and aspects of your life. This often requires you to adjust your standards.
For example, perfectionism is a major source of avoidable stress. Learn how to set reasonable standards and expectations for yourself and others. If you embrace all the good qualities and characteristics about yourself, you are more likely to feel good. However, remember the reverse is also true, so eliminate self-defeating and negative thoughts as well as destructive language.
Accept the things you cannot change
You cannot control how others think, feel, behave, and act, so accept that and focus on changing your own reactions and responses to certain people and situations. Accept the fact that you cannot control the uncontrollable. Look for the upside or the positive in every situation, share your feelings with trusted others, and learn to let go of anger and resentments.
Make time for fun and relaxation
If you regularly make time for fun and relaxation, you will be better equipped to handle stress. Try to do something you enjoy every day. Make sure to maintain a sense of humor, which includes the ability to laugh at yourself. In a 2014 World of Psychology article, Nine Ways That Humor Heals, the author notes that humor combats fear, provides comfort, relaxes and reduces emotional and physical pain, boosts the immune system, reduces stress, spreads happiness, cultivates optimism, and helps us to communicate with others. Also, be sure to set aside time to spend with your family—they are often your greatest asset and can help get you through even the most stressful situations.
Adopt a healthy lifestyle
You can increase your resistance to stress by strengthening your physical and emotional health by exercising regularly, eating clean and healthy, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and getting enough sleep. Feeling good about yourself will increase your self-confidence and improve your self-esteem, both of which can help reduce stress.
Lastly, do not be afraid to seek professional help for stress management for both you and your family. Recognize that working in a corrections environment is extremely stressful, and there may be times that you need professional support and guidance. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.
About the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro, assistant professor within the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University, is a 28-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings. He has lectured in higher education for the past 15 years while also serving as an author, editor and subject matter expert.