Few would be surprised to hear that stress is common in police work. One study in Frontiers in Psychology notes that 85 percent of officers surveyed showed signs of high operational stress levels, and 28 percent of those were considered in distress.The researchers noted that this pressure comes from all directions, such as:
- Uncertainty and danger during calls
- Increase of violence with firearms in urban areas
- Limited resources
- Team or supervision difficulties
- Criticism from the public
- Lack of understanding from family or friends
When these factors combine, it can cause significant difficulty with physical and mental health. Although depression and anxiety tend to be the most prominent signs, there are many others that might be subtle, including long-term health changes that may become chronic if not addressed.
Decades of stress
In 1981, the Journal of Police Science and Administration released an article about how job stress manifests in the everyday lives of police officers. Those researchers noted that prevalent stress warning signs include sudden changes in behavior, erratic work habits, increased sick time due to minor problems, excessive worrying, and inability to maintain a train of thought.
Unfortunately, despite more awareness around the issue, many of the reoccurring signs of stress still arise in the profession, even decades later. Some research indicates the situation may even be worsening, due to the past few years of civil unrest, social upheaval, and COVID-related pressures.
As police officers try to cope and maintain resiliency, they may be struggling with health issues at the same time, often caused by or related to the stress they're attempting to reduce.
The connection between chronic stress and poor health is a well-researched and strong one. According to Mayo Clinic, long-term activation of the stress response system and overexposure to cortisol—the hormone responsible for the fight-or-flight response—can disrupt almost all of a body's processes. This can significantly increase the risk of health problems like:
- Digestive issues, including acid reflux
- Stomach ulcers
- Headaches and migraines
- Muscle tension and pain, including chronic lower back pain
- Heart disease, stroke, and heart attacks
- High blood pressure and high cholesterol
- Metabolic difficulties, which can lead to a higher risk of developing diabetes
- Sleep disorders
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration difficulties
One study noted that police officers have one of the poorest cardiovascular disease health profiles of any occupation. Those researchers also found that officers have nearly double the risk of depression compared to the general population.
Steps toward change
Although there are individual strategies that can help reduce short-term stress, the fact is that there's no yoga class or deep-breathing exercise that can magically solve the effects of stress in police officers and other first responders. Because it's a multi-factor problem, it will require a multi-layered solution.
That includes comprehensive programs from police departments to address the social and occupational pressures felt by officers in each jurisdiction, as well as more robust resources and support. Another major need is addressing the stigma around asking for help when it comes to mental health.
What officers can do in the meantime is to stay on top of their health screenings, talk honestly with their doctors about stress effects, and consider getting a referral for a counselor who is well versed in traumatic stress and its symptoms. Many officers may not even be aware of how deeply stress is affecting them, even if they have chronic back pain, migraines, high blood pressure, and acid reflux.
That's why having the right health insurance is crucial. This type of protection gives you peace of mind that if issues related to stress begin to affect your quality of life, you're covered, and can keep those challenges from becoming chronic difficulties.
To learn more about protecting all the areas of health and wellness, download our free eBook.