By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University
Police officers must constantly maintain a high state of alertness and be prepared to respond to any number of situations. When officers are called into action, their bodies undergo a variety of physiological responses, which are necessary to help them react.
While many physiological responses are beneficial in the short-term, they can quickly become problematic, causing loss of fine motor skills and other physical limitations. For example, when an officer’s fight or flight response is triggered, they may experience an immediate improvement in sight and hearing. However, this can quickly turn into tunnel vision and auditory exclusion.
Prolonged exposure to high-stress situations and the physiological responses that go along with it can have long-term implications for officers. This includes health problems such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and mental-health problems. Therefore, it’s critical that officers understand the physiological responses they experience and find ways to manage the impact to their body.
[Free eMagazine: Understanding and Managing Law Officer Stress]
What Happens to a Body Under Stress?
When the body is exposed to a danger, a part of the brain called the amygdala delivers a distress signal to another part of the brain called the hypothalamus. This alerts the adrenal glands to release adrenaline into the bloodstream, which results in physiological changes such as increased breathing, increased heart rate, and a narrowed focus on the threat.
These biochemical interactions occur when officers respond to an emergency or are faced with a physical confrontation. They even occur at the higher levels of alertness that officers maintain to remain safe. The amygdala and hypothalamus make the changes very quickly, sometimes before the brain’s visual centers are able to fully process what is occurring. This may explain why officers can react instantly when faced with significant dangers, such as deadly force encounters or avoidance of vehicle crashes.
However, these chronic stress responses take a toll on the officer’s body over the course of a police career. Continued exposure to these processes that occur in the brain can result in damaged arteries in the body, increased blood pressure, and an elevated risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Stress also causes the release of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol helps increase body energy, but in the long term it can interfere with thought processes and interrupt thyroid function in the person’s body. The thyroid gland plays a major role in metabolism, so if affected, it can lead to an accumulation of abdominal fat and reduced overall metabolism. This may help to provide insight into the elevated risk of cardiovascular disease in policing.
Controlling Your Body’s Response to Stress
The good news is that officers can take steps to mitigate the body’s response to stressful encounters. Recently, I conducted a two-year qualitative study on police stress and how it can be effectively managed. The study involved data from police officers who have successfully managed stress throughout their careers. Through the lived experiences of the officers and my research, below are strategies that can promote resilience from physiological stress responses.
Engage in Patterned Breathing
When the physiological reactions to stressful events occur, patterned breathing is essential. Patterned breathing involves taking deep breaths through the nose, which delivers oxygen to the lungs and diaphragm. This counters the body’s stress response of taking shallow breaths. Patterned breathing is intentional and can help the officer focus on the immediate threat or think through the stressful encounter.
Avoid Tunnel Vision and Auditory Exclusion
Tunnel vision and auditory exclusion are common responses to a threat. These responses can impact officer safety by lowering situational awareness. To avoid tunnel vision and auditory exclusion, officers must first recognize when they are happening and take conscious actions to overcome them. Signs of tunnel vision include reduced use of peripheral vision and intense focus directly on one target. When tunnel vision occurs officers don’t see other objects in the vicinity, thus reducing their overall situational awareness. Auditory exclusion is a stress response associated with tunnel vision and involves temporarily not hearing nearby noises or voices.
[Related: Integrating De-escalation Techniques into Policing]
To avoid having these physiological responses occur, officers can take measures prior to arriving on scene. For example, officers can engage in patterned breathing that may help to reduce the officer’s heart rate. They also need to consciously take time to evaluate all the information currently available about the call and think through potential actions that may need to take when they arrive on scene.
Also, it is important that partners monitor one another for signs of tunnel vision and auditory exclusion. This can be done by continual communication and the creation of an action plan for how the officers will respond prior to engaging the threat.
Learn from Experiences
Mental preparedness for encountering stressful events is important. In policing, it is commonly stated that no two calls are the same. This is partially true. As the officer accumulates exposure to stressful situations in the field, officers may find it helpful to develop patterned responses to handling stressful events. Often, responses to emergencies result in standard actions taken by police officers. Patterned responses can help officers reduce stress by applying what was learned or experienced in past similar calls. If officers can view traumatic events as monotonous and develop a patterned response for how the psychological aspects should be approached, officers can decrease their stress and stress reactions. Using past experiences while responding to similar incidents can help officers understand the stress they are about to experience so they’re prepared for it. Developing “a routine” to handle traumatic events is completely different than viewing calls “as routine,” which is dangerous because it can result in complacency.
Maintain Off-Duty Activities
To mitigate the long-term consequences of chronic exposure to police stress, off-duty activities are very important. Mental preparedness for job-related stress in policing is impacted by the rest, relaxation, and clarity of thought that are gained while off duty. To prepare for the physiological stress that occurs on duty, officers can benefit from engaging in off-duty activities that completely remove them from the badge. These activities may include attending church activities, exercise, spending time with friends who are not police officers, and engaging in family activities.
[Related: Why Your Off-Duty Life is Important for Stress Management]
Understanding the effect of physiological stress on an officer’s body is important in policing. If officers know how their bodies respond to stress, they can actively engage in strategies to combat their negative effects. Patterned breathing, developing strategies to overcome tunnel vision and auditory exclusion, and mentally preparing for the job while off duty are all important to help officers respond and recover from stressful events.
About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an adjunct professor with American Military University. He has spent more than two years studying police stress and its influence on the lives of police officers. Sadulski has conducted a review of approximately 300 peer-reviewed scholarly articles that focused on topics associated with police stress and officer wellness and he interviewed veteran officers who have served in law enforcement both domestically and internationally. Based on what has been learned from his research in the study on police stress, Sadulski is authoring a book on effectively managing police stress through a successful police career, which covers in further detail the physiological effects of police stress and how it can be managed. Sadulski has 20 years of policing experience between both federal and local law enforcement. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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