A Guide to Effective Stress Management

By Volpe, J. F. | Law & Order, October 2000 | Go to article overview

A Guide to Effective Stress Management


Volpe, J. F., Law & Order


Stress is defined as "a physical, chemical or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existing equilibrium."

From the moment we are born to the second before we die, our bodies and minds react to surrounding stimulus and change in some way to adapt. Stress takes us out of our "comfort zone" and forces us to change and adapt.

While stress is a factor in every job, law enforcement officers must handle an above-average level of stress. Those who assume a leadership role take on an even greater burden. Leaders often choose to be the problem-solver, buck-stops-here individual, and they get pushed out of their "comfort zone" unpredictably and, many times, over an extended period of time.

Although the term "stress" usually has a negative connotation, not all stress is bad. In fact, without some stress, we would not be challenged as leaders to develop intellectually, emotionally or physically. But stress that is not managed can have a serious negative impact on a person's physical and psychological well-being.

To a psychologist, stress is "anxiety produced when events and responsibilities exceed an individual's coping abilities." Conversely, stress to the physiologist is "the response of the body to any demand placed upon it to adapt."

To Dr. Hans Seyle, who began studying stress in the 1930s, stress is simply a "single, nonspecific reaction of the body to a demand made upon it."

It is important to understand the psychological and physiological aspects of stress to manage it successfully and, in turn, create a positive impact on our physical and psychological well-being. Further, proper stress management plays a critical role in a law enforcement leader's ability to make sound, principle-- based decisions.

Causes of stress are known as "stressors." A large variety of physical and emotional stimuli cause stress. From major life events, such as a divorce or the purchase of a new home, to minor things, such as being stuck in traffic, stressors affect each of us in different ways. A person's genetic make-up, diet and coping strategies are just a few controlling factors. Also, the amount of time we subject ourselves to certain stressors is a critical consideration in stress management. With this in mind, psychologists classify stress as either Acute or Chronic.

Acute stress is temporary stress that creates peak performance. Strategically directing officers to an armed robbery-in-progress and high-risk emergency driving are examples of acute leadership-induced stress.

Acute stress can be good for leaders in small doses. It keeps us alert, challenged and assured all of our systems are responding. It can actually improve our leadership performance as it takes us out of our "comfort zone" and forces us to adapt to the new stimulus. Physically, blood rushes to the brain, breathing increases, blood pressure goes up and our senses become finely tuned to the surrounding environment. The body releases large amounts of Adrenaline and Cortisone, the body's primary "stress fighting" hormones, and we are poised to "fight or flee."

Psychologically, we focus on specific problems better and think more clearly because the brain gets more blood and oxygen. The detrimental effects of stress are of no great concern if the stressors are temporary, as they are in the acute stress mode.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, can have a critical impact on the ability to make competent, principle-based decisions. In this mode, our bodies are in a "continuous state of siege." A serious lawsuit, a lengthy internal disciplinary investigation, or supervising a problem officer over a long period of time may cause a chronic stress reaction in a leader.

One problem with chronic stress is that we tend to adapt to it. While battling chronic stress, a strong leader will compensate, both physically and mentally, for such a long time their mind and body may actually become comfortable. …

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