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Stress in Law Enforcement

Stress in law enforcement. Everyone lives with stress — it’s part of life. Stress itself. Stress itself is neither positive nor negative. How you handle or react to what you perceive as stress is what determines its effects and symptoms.

However, stress can affect your quality of life and stress that is kept unchecked can result in many health problems.

What is stress?


The World Health Organization has described stress as “global epidemic” (WHO, 2003 p.7).

Dr. Hans Selye (1974) was the first to define “Stress”, which in his words is the “non-specific response of the body to any demands made upon it” (p. 14).

Shafer (1996) explains stress as the arousal of the mind and body in response to demands made on them.

Stress is a reaction to a stressor (stimulus or demand) that produces an elevated state of readiness or arousal. The greater the stimulus the greater the stress reaction.

Stress can be a physical, psychological, social, biological, or chemical factor or force that puts real or perceived demands on the body, emotions, mind, or spirit of an individual,

Types of stress

There are three types of stress response to a stressor.


With the kind of stress, the mind and body are aroused but the stress is neither harmful nor helpful (Morse & First, 1979). An example is observing that traffic is slowing down in front of you, but you aren’t in a hurry.

Good stress (Eustress)

This kind of stress is caused by factors that initiate emotional and psychological growth. Eustress provides pleasure, adds meaning to life and foster an attitude that tries to find positive solutions to problems. An example is competing with classmates to win a race.

Eustress is related to self-efficacy. High self-efficacy (optimistic, proactive and confident) increases one’s ability to set their goals higher and be motivated to achieve them.

Bad stress

This kind of stress results in negative responses both in a person’s career and in life. Unchecked negative stress can interfere with the physiological and psychological functioning of the body and may ultimately give rise to a hypokinetic disease or disability ( Selye, 1974).

An example would be being faced with a challenge you cannot or have difficulty accomplishing or being faced with an adversity i.e. not having enough money to pay for next month’s rent


The Stress Response


Hans Selye concluded that the body reacts to good and bad stress in the same way. He labeled the stress response — the body’s reaction to stress — the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). It includes three stages:

  1. The fight -or- flight response
  2. The stage of resistance
  3. The stage of exhaustion


The fight-or-flight response (or alarm stage)

It is the stage when the body prepares itself to cope with a stressor. The response is a warning signal that a stressor is present (whether real or imagined). The body prepares for a fight or flight by releasing cortisol and adrenaline.

The stage of resistance 

The body actively resists and attempts to cope with the stressor. If you are able to channel that energy, your body returns to normal. However, being aroused for too long and too often might lead to fatigue

The stage of exhaustion:

is the phase in which the body is subjected to continual stress and fatigue for days and weeks and the body begins to shut down, usually resulting in illness, i.e. Cold or Flu after an examination.



Like I made mention earlier, stressors are any physical, psychological or environmental event or condition that initiates the stress response.

Stressors in daily life can be:-

  • School stressors
  • Physical changes stressors
  • Mental changes stressors
  • emotional issues
  • Feelings of being overloaded
  • Money problems
  • Loss of self-esteem


Stress in Law Enforcement


The stressors faced by law enforcement officers in their line of duty are given as follows:

Stressors faced by law enforcement officers

Evidence shows that law enforcement officers such as police officers, correctional officers, customs officers, and Canadian military are at least twice as likely as the general population to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), due to the risk of routine exposure to traumatic stressors (Ontario Ministry of Labour, 2016).

Stressors from workplace health and safety hazards

Law enforcement officers encounter many occupational health and safety risks on a daily basis or at some point in their career. these are grouped into five categories i.e.

  • Physical hazards
  • Chemical hazards
  • Biological hazards
  • Ergonomic hazards
  • Psycho-social hazards

Impact of stress on family


Stress can cause major difficulties within the family. Shifts work, conflict with personality and family roles (wanting to keep their family safe) can all take their toll on the family (Karaffa et al., 2015).


The effect of stress


Most people look after their cars better than their bodies. They fill their gas tank with proper fuel, get regular oil changes, check the air pressure and rotate their tires, but can the same be said for looking after themselves?

Stress has the ability to wear your body down. Stress can have short or long term effects on your body. When your body responds negatively to stress, such responses often manifest as psychosomatic symptoms (physical symptoms resulting from mental conflict)
Short and long term effects of stress


Long-Term Effects


  • Muscle tension
  • Rapid breathing
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Reduced digestive activity and urine output
  • Increased mental alertness
  • Bronchiole dilation
  • Increased metabolic rate
  • Headaches, fatigue
  • Help create new memories, improves mood, and encourages creative thinking


Short term effects


  • Increased blood pressure (retention of water and sodium by kidneys)
  • Suppresses immune system
  • Severe headaches, depression, anxiety, and fatigue
  • Weight control problems
  • Digestive issues like constipation, diarrhea, inflammation of the intestines
  • Sleep issues
  • Impairs memory formation
  • Interferes with Performance, impairs efforts to be physically active, makes us uncomfortable
  • Increased risk of metabolic syndrome


It is important to understand these symptoms, determine what stressors are impacting you, and find a healthy coping technique to deal with your circumstances, whether it be your lifestyle, thoughts and /or emotions.

Some individuals will turn to drugs, alcohol, caffeine or supplements to cope with their symptoms of fatigue, depression, and weight gain, instead of consulting with a professional and they may wind up with even more health issues due to the effects of those substances on the body.


Critical Incidents


Critical incidents ( traumatic events) is a situation faced by an individual that causes unusually strong emotional reactions, which may interfere with their ability to function at the scene (current stress) or later (residual stress).

In law enforcement, it is inevitable that you will be exposed to various critical incidents, traumatic events. For individuals who are used to being in control of their emotions and their surroundings, the debilitation caused by a critical incident may be surprising, embarrassing, frustrating or overwhelming.


Types of critical incidents


Law enforcement personnel are often faced with critical incidents related to life and death. the following are some examples and the kind of feelings they may cause:

  • Death/Injury/shooting in the line of duty
  • Suicidal of co-worker
  • Death of a child
  • Prolonged but failed rescue attempt
  • Mass-casualty incidents
  • Officer’s safety is usually jeopardize
  • The responding officer knows the victim
  • Officer responding to an abused individual
  • Events with excessive media coverage


Factors affecting responses to critical incidents


Some officers are better than others in coping with the stress of critical incidents. The following are some factors that affect coping (Connor & Butterfield, 2003).

  • Nature of the event
  • Degree of warning
  • Ego strength/coping style
  • Proximity
  • The amount of stress in the officer’s life at the time
  • The nature and degree of social support available to the officer after the critical incident


Symptoms of stress arising out of critical incidents

The symptoms of stress exhibited after a critical incident can be divided into four types

  • Physical (aches, substances abuse, sexual dysfunction, chronic fatigue)
  • Cognitive (contemplation of suicide, detachment and withdrawal, memory loss)
  • Emotional (grief, anxiety, panic attacks, feeling detached from reality, flashbacks)
  • Behavioral (decreased job performance, body tremors, obsession with death, low morale)


Coping with stress


In the aftermath of critical incidents, it is important that everyone involved (victims, first responders, and bystanders) receives proper support and coping strategies.

In law enforcement, this is done through debriefing — which is the provision of assistance from a qualified mental health professional after a traumatic incident.

Resiliency and mindfulness

You have to be resilience to life unending challenges. Otherwise, life will knock you down for good. The sooner you realize that what doesn’t kill should only make you stronger, the better your life will be.


Strategies for coping with stress


Remember that is is important to stay away from unhealthy and unproductive coping strategies.

Examples including smoking, binge eating, drinking too much, using pills or drugs to try to relax, withdrawing from friends and family, taking the stress out on others, sleeping too much, zoning out for hours on the smartphone, avoiding the problem by being busy and procrastination.


The four A’s when dealing with stress


1. Avoid unnecessary stress

  • Learn to say no, avoid people who stress you out, control your environment, and pare down your to-do list.
  • Decide which battles are worth fighting. Don’t stress over issues that are relatively unimportant. Learn to take a stand, or learn to decline—and stick by it.
  • Keep away from poor nutrition habits and substance abuse.

2. Alter the situation

  • Manage self-talk (how you perceive and express yourself) by avoiding self-blame and guilt. Reframe your point of view and accentuate the positive with effective communication skills.
  • Engage in hobbies like reading, writing, drawing, or playing a musical instrument; watching a funny show, being in nature, or playing with pets can also have a significant impact on stress management.
  • Develop satisfying relationships and friendships outside of work to get a different perspective and support.
  • Exercise to lower blood pressure, improve sleep, and prepare yourself for emergency situations. Seek professional help if needed from a social worker, grief counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, mentor, or clergy. 32% of people say exercise is an effective way to overcome stress.

3. Adapt to the stressor

Change your expectations and attitude by reframing the problem, looking at the big picture, adjusting your standards, and appreciating what you have.

Manage your situations as opportunities rather than setbacks, taking things less seriously, finding humour where you can, and learning to laugh at yourself. • Set realistic goals and work on your time management skills to balance work and play.

4. Accept the things you can’t change

  • Learn that you cannot control everything (e,g, illness, injury, or critical incident).
  • Find the positive under the circumstances, learn from mistakes, learn to forgive and move on, and share your feelings.


Relaxation techniques


The following are relaxation techniques that can be used to control stress responses :

  • Breathing
  • Meditation
  • Progressive muscular relaxation ( tensing and relaxing the muscles systematically)
  • Visualization
  • Hypnosis /Self Hypnosis
  • Biofeedback
  • Music
  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi Ch’ uan
  • Massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Hydrotherapy


Final thoughts


Evidently, stress in law enforcement is inevitable — acknowledging this is the first step to coping with stress (preparedness).

That being said, knowing the stressors of law enforcement, the effects of stress, critical incidents and their symptoms, is key to managing stress for law enforcement officers.


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