As law enforcement officers, you have mastered multiple aspects of a job that most people cannot begin to comprehend. When I teach yoga, my students often ask me what the most stressful part of my police job is. Usually I have to pause and think of the most eloquent way to articulate that every single facet of my job creates some form of stress.
While reading this article, take a moment to pause and consider: What is the most stressful part of your job? The first thing that probably jumps to mind is the type of scenario that involves a fight for your or your family’s life. For a corrections officer, hearing a garbled and shrieked “444” from a module officer causes an immediate stressful response. For a patrol officer, responding to “officer down” or “tone alert” calls rises to the top of the stress list. What about the stress immediately after the original altercation or incident? Nowadays, after the initial stressful event, the burden of proof falls on you to articulate your actions and how you came to be in that situation. If you’re lucky, the inquisition stops at the supervisor/blue team level, and all you have to do is shoulder the critical eye of your peers. Hopefully, your scenario sidesteps media involvement and the subsequent public scrutiny.
What about all the other “minor” stressful situations you find yourself in? Every time your heart rate increases and you feel that twinge of stress in your belly, your body is excreting hormones and chemicals that are toxic. That sympathetic nervous system stress response is what kept humans alive thousands of years ago. That nervous system response evolved to help humans make a split-second decision about whether the animal in the P# 10040 bushes was a deer or a tiger.
I don’t have to tell you that being a cop is stressful. Continuous traumatic stress disorder (CTSD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders are often par for the course. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, the world’s leading trauma expert, defines trauma as “the residue of imprints left behind in people’s sensory and hormonal systems. Trauma is both the event and what is left behind in the body after the event.”
Stress in the body is a normal reaction. When faced with a perceived harmful event, the stress response causes the sympathetic nervous system to fire (this is often called “fight or flight”). Chemicals and hormones are immediately dumped into the body, creating an energetic response that most people identify as adrenaline. While these chemicals and hormones give us energy to either run or fight, they are also toxic to the body and can cause headaches, chest pain, muscle tension and pain, fatigue, digestive problems, sex drive changes, anger and depression. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Fortunately, the body is expertly designed to clean up this toxic spill of chemicals and hormones through the parasympathetic nervous system (often called “rest and digest”). Unfortunately, it can take up to 24 hours to completely restore the body back to normal hormonal levels after the stress response. When the fight-or-flight response repeatedly fires without a chance to completely restore hormonal levels, the body begins to store these hormones and chemicals deep within the connective tissues (fascia). As this buildup continues, the physical body and immune system deteriorate, and mental disorders begin to develop. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems become imbalanced and no longer work efficiently together. This is the birthplace of CTSD and PTSD.
Some of the symptoms shared by both CTSD and PTSD include:
• Feeling emotionally numb
• Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
• Hopelessness about the future
• Irritability or angry outbursts
• Difficulty maintaining close relationships/avoiding connection with others
• Hypervigilance/sleep disorders
• Exaggerated startle response
Although all of these symptoms are alarming, having an exaggerated startle response is extremely disturbing for a cop, and it can be lethal. Police officers already have a tremendous amount of pressure in making split-second decisions. Imagine having to make those decisions when your startle response is compromised due to a buildup of stress, chemicals and hormones within your body. This could lead to anything from a relatively benign but inappropriate verbal outburst to mistakenly seeing a weapon during a volatile situation in dim light. This is precisely why explaining officers’ perceptions and reactions to civilians can be so difficult.
Do You Have Issues in Your Tissues?
New research into the science of stretching shows that the sensation of tension you feel during stretching is caused by your sympathetic nervous system trying to protect you. If you are inhibited from touching your toes due to the sensation of tension, it’s not because your muscles are “tight” or “too short”; it’s because your SNS response is hypervigilant and is trying to protect you from hurting yourself. This self-protection manifests as the sensation of tension, which limits your range of motion. When you are under anesthesia, there is absolutely no tension in your body, and the doctor can take your leg and bend it back over your head. The moment you regain consciousness, your nervous system uses the sensation of tension to limit your range of motion to protect yourself. The amount of tension you have in your body is a good indicator of how much stress your body has absorbed. Give it a try: Sit on the floor with your legs extended straight out in front of you, fold forward and bring your hands out to hold your feet with your forehead on your shins. If the sensation of tension stops you, you have “issues in your tissues.”
Try Something New
If you keep doing the things you have always done, you will keep getting the things you have always gotten. In order to improve some of your nervous system imbalances, tension and CTSD/PTSD symptoms, take a moment to evaluate where you are at. If you are not currently exercising, please consider doing so. The human body was designed to move, and once we become sedentary we began to suffer dis-ease. Over time, this repeated dis-ease manifests as disease. If you currently have an exercise program (running, cycling, weightlifting, CrossFit, etc.), the physical effects on the heart, lungs and muscle tissues are incredibly beneficial. However, all those activities stimulate and reinforce the sympathetic nervous system response. After your workout, give yourself 10 minutes of complete rest without movement. Close your eyes and try to let your mind rest. This is how your parasympathetic nervous system heals and digests all those issues in your tissues.
Consider a few minor lifestyle changes to give your sympathetic nervous system a rest. Instead of watching television or listening to radio programs that cause stimulated emotional responses (news, dramas, reality programing, etc.), try unplugging and reducing the amount of external input your nervous system is exposed to. Adding alternative forms of exercise or activities, such as yoga, tai chi, massage, Reiki or meditation, also gives your parasympathetic nervous system a boost. Give yourself a 30-day trial and discover the difference you feel, physically, energetically and mentally.