(Always) Thinking About Wellness
with Dawn-Elise Snipes
Introduction to Stress and How To Manage It
A number of studies have found that high stress levels are associated with physical, psychological and interpersonal problems in police officers (Bonifacio, 1991; Janik and Kravitz,1994; Schmidtke et al., 1999). This contributes to high rates of employee illness, turnover, burnout, addictions, suicide and divorce (DeLey, 1984; Ansen and Colon, 1995; Alexander and Walker, 1996; Paton and Violanti, 1997; Loo, 1999).
Illnesses such as diabetes, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and migraine headaches have been found to occur more frequently in law enforcement personnel than in the general population (Violanti and Vena., 1986). More than 70 percent of those who have remained on the force for more than 5 years display at least sub-clinical levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or generalized anxiety disorder (Anderson, 1998). The stress of police work also impacts officers’ families (Bonifacio, 1991; Alexander and Walker, 1996; Finn and Tomz, 1996). Law enforcement families report a 68 percent divorce rate, and a 24 percent greater incidence of domestic violence (Ansen and Colon, 1995; Finn and Tomz, 1996).
Statement of the Problem
In the past 30 years, the idea of the traditional masculine and feminine gender-roles has become somewhat antiquated as the needs of society have changed. Nevertheless, in those arenas where tradition is paramount, such as law enforcement, the change has occurred much more slowly.
Traditionally, men were expected to be aggressive, competitive, justice-orientated and unshaken by emotions. Women were expected to be the opposite, passive, cooperative, caring and very emotional. Law enforcement is still, in large part, dominated by men and characterized by strong, traditionally male gender-role behaviors and ideals (Berg and Budnick, 1986; Bannerman, 1996; Finn and Tomz, 1996).
It is becoming increasingly accepted for women to exhibit traditionally masculine gender-role behaviors, but male officers are still discouraged from showing more feminine gender-role behaviors such as emotion, empathy and a care-orientation (Gilligan, 1977; Ansen and Colon, 1995; Paton and Violanti, 1996; Patterson, 1998).
Although strong emotional defenses are necessary to do the job, many officers fail to ever cope with repressed emotions (Sewell, 1994; Volianti, 1996; Loo, 1999).
Many departments still attempt to address these sources of work stress as if they are a general pressure that is dealt with in a stereotypical way by all officers.
Although stress levels may be similar among officers and between genders, the types of stressors perceived as most intensely stressful and effective ways of coping with those events may be very different for different people (Barnett et al., 1987; Bruder-Mattson and Hovanitz, 1991; Keita and Sauter, 1994; Havlovic and Keenan, 1995).
Very generally, there are two main ways to cope with problems (Carver et al., 1989). The first is called emotion-focused coping. This is when people deal with their feelings about the problem, then set out to find a solution to the problem or change the way they think about the problem. The second is problem-focused coping which focuses on resolving the problem and the feelings associated with the problem dissipate after the problem is resolved. Another way of dealing with problems, albeit ineffective, is through the use of defenses such as avoidance and denial (Bonifacio, 1991; Alexander and Walker, 1994).
In law enforcement, problem-focused coping and the use of defenses are encouraged (Bonifacio, 1991; Alexander and Walker, 1994; Miller, 1995). There is no time for feelings. Unfortunately, many officers spend so many years blocking feelings that they reach a point that they are terrified to feel anything, because they fear becoming overwhelmed (Miller, 1995). People who tend to use emotion-focused coping are often not given the type of support they need on-scene and later in critical incident stress debriefings. This may impair the quality of their judgment and decisions on scene as well as compound the stress because they have few, if any, outlets to utilize immediately after the crime scene is processed (Moradi, Doost et al., 1999; Jenkins, Langlais et al., 2000).
If they are left with overwhelming emotions to contend with, many officers try to escape (Alexander and Walker, 1996; Paton and Violanti, 1997). They cannot bear to go home and sit still, because they will have to think about the tragedy they have witnessed. They often have difficulty sleeping and high levels of anxiety about whether they did and said all of the right things (Stratton et al., 1984; Finn and Tomz, 1996). They may relive the incident repeatedly in their mind in order to try to find the right answer. In many cases, officers never receive closure (Finn and Tomz, 1996). They turn in their paperwork, and, as far as their superiors are concerned, they are free of the case. Nevertheless, they were impacted and victimized by the scene (Kroes, 1976; Sewell, 1994; Mitchell, 1999). They also want to see the perpetrator brought to justice almost as badly as the primary victim.
This is the only way they can regain their control. Otherwise, they are plagued by thoughts of what they could have and should have been doing to prevent the crime (knowing full well they cannot be all places at all times) (Finn and Tomz, 1996).
In the following weeks and months, this column will publish a series of articles discussing stress and distress in law enforcement. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me or post a message in the wellness forum.