When Tension Becomes Toxic

Does this sound like a typical day for a police officer?  You’re working your 12-hour shift, and you need an energy boost because you didn’t get enough rest last night.  You’re training the rookie, so you have to show up on every call, and it seems like they’re coming faster than you’re able to keep up with.  Your spouse texts you in the middle of something important to tell you that the dishwasher has leaked all over the kitchen.  Meanwhile, your kids are texting you about every one of their little spats, even though you’ve tried to teach them to work out their own issues.  Your phone rings, and you recognize the number of a bill collector that you know is just going to have to wait because you’re still trying to pay for the deductible on the emergency room visit from 3 months ago.  You walk into the station hoping to get a little time to breathe, and the lieutenant says, “Hey, can I see you for a minute.”  Oh boy.

We are living in unprecedented times when it comes to dealing with stress and anxiety.  From the workplace, to the roadways, to our homes, we are being bombarded with little cortisol and adrenaline squirts throughout the day for little things that are penny-worth issues that we are spending $5 or $10 worth of energy on, damaging our blood vessels, damaging our hearts, and setting us up for disease.  Far from being immune from the effects of this kind of toxic tension, first responders and their families seem to be especially vulnerable to its negative effects.

The pace of life has accelerated, and this certainly contributes to the constant exposure our bodies have to stressful situations that put us at risk.  One of the most significant issues facing people today is the lack of time to recover from the stresses of the day.  It’s hard for us to imagine now, but in 1949 only 2% of American households had a television set.  Now technology has us connected to something nearly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The difference with stress in modern times is that there is no time set aside to recover from the stresses of the day.  Because we live faster-paced lives, we are being pushed to the limits every day.  And this accelerated pace of life leads to accelerated wear and tear on our bodies.  It makes us look and feel older sooner, it makes us sicker more often, and it is responsible for the epidemic of depression that is sweeping the country.

To be honest, it is not possible to be completely free of stress.  And the fact is that if your body failed to produce any adrenaline, you would die!  And if you don’t have enough adrenaline in your system, you become extremely fatigued.  But the key is that you have to shorten the amount of time that you spend dealing with stress.  Our bodies were designed to handle “emergency” stress . . . acute stress.  The effects of the slow, insidious, aggravating kinds of stress we deal with – ongoing conflicts with the boss or an annoying neighbor, issues with the children, and so on, are what is killing us.

We are trapped by tension, and we must learn ways to break away from the trap.  Here are some helpful tips for responding to the pressures we deal with:

  • First, we need to pay attention to our adrenaline levels. Since we don’t have access to sophisticated lab equipment to monitor our actual blood adrenaline levels, just how do we do this?  For one thing, adrenaline pushes blood away from your extremities to support your fight-or-flight response during times of stress, so if your hands and feet feel cold, your adrenaline level is probably too high.  Having someone who knows you well let you know when your mood changes, keeping an eye on our blood pressure, and paying attention to when you get those “tension” headaches are also helpful strategies.
  • Second, we need to recognize that not everything is an “emergency.” Sitting at a red light that won’t change quickly enough to suit us is not an emergency, it is an aggravation.  For emergencies the body needs adrenaline.  For aggravations, it needs patience and calmness.
  • Third, we must learn to relax. The relaxation response in your body is a powerful antidote to adrenaline.  Use relaxation exercises, listen to relaxation music, listen to meditation recordings – any of these things can help make the switch in your nervous system that is required to lower adrenaline levels and allow you to recover.
  • Finally, we have to get enough sleep. Research indicates that being sleep-deprived contributes to a number of different health problems, including diabetes, depression, and even suicide.

You may be stressed at this point trying to come up with ways to find recovery time.  You are probably saying to yourself right now, “I can’t possibly drop anything I’m doing to even make recovery time a part of my day; this seems hopeless.”  Let me be the first to tell you that this is not a hopeless situation.  Simply being aware of how your body reacts to stress is the first step, and if you can become aware of when your body is stressed and how you need to respond, you are well on your way to living with less stress.

If you are struggling and needs to get help understanding how to manage your stress levels, feel free to reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org/ and one of our peer support specialists will be glad to chat with you.  If you are having suicidal thoughts that won’t go away, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255) or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to reach a trained crisis counselor for free, confidential help available 24/7.

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