To Cope or Not to Cope

That’s not really the question, is it?  The real questions are: Why is it that some individuals are better at handling life’s challenges than others?  What separates those who control stress from those who are controlled by stress? 

For some reason, it seems that bad habits are easy to pick up and hard to break, and good habits are just the opposite – hard to pick up and easy to break.  Just think New Year’s resolution.  The unhealthy coping mechanisms discussed here are common to everyone that is dealing in some ways with being “stressed out,” but they seem especially relevant to members of first responder professions.  Are you plagued by any of these unhealthy means of coping with stress:

  • Excessive caffeine consumption.  Caffeine itself is not bad but consuming too much can lead to such health problems as headaches, anxiety, trouble sleeping, irritability, respiratory issues, chest pain, thirst, and frequent urination, and even psychological or physical dependency (addiction). 
  • Smoking.  During times of stress, smoking a cigarette can feel almost necessary, and because of the physical addiction properties in addition to the social and lifestyle factors associated with smoking, it has been said that quitting smoking can be as difficult as quitting heroin!
  • Compulsive spending.  While buying yourself a nice gift once in a while can be a nice pick-me-up, and an effective self-care strategy, compulsively buying things to relieve stress or feel good about yourself, spending money you don’t have on things you don’t need, can only cause more financial stress in the long run, and cause feelings of shame, a cluttered home, and add to the stress you were trying to alleviate.
  • Emotional eating.  If eating the wrong things becomes the main coping mechanism for stress, it can lead to compromised health, excessive weight, and additional stress stemming from these effects.  A poor diet can cause additional stress also by leading to blood sugar imbalances that make stressful situations seem more overwhelming.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption.  The relationship between alcoholism and stress is not in dispute, and the relationship between police officers coping with extreme amounts of stress and attempting to find relief through alcohol consumption is not in dispute either.  It is no coincidence that in a study done regarding police suicide, data showed that the majority of the individuals completing a suicide had alcohol in their system at the time.  While a drink, sometimes two, can be okay, excessive drinking can cause a great deal of turmoil in other parts of the individual’s life and contributes to greater amounts of stress in the long run.  It is best to find other methods of coping with stress that do not actually exacerbate the problem. 

You may have seen or experienced some or all of these unhealthy coping mechanisms.  You may also have heard that there are better ways to cope with stress than the behaviors that were described.  As previously stated, people seem to find it difficult to begin and maintain a regimen of activities that actually help alleviate the symptoms of stress and also provide a defensive shield against their future onslaught.  Here are some of the simplest things that anyone can do to bring stress relief into everyday life:

  • Get moving.  Physical activity plays a key role in managing stress. Focused movement helps to get the nervous system back into balance.  Those who have been traumatized or have experienced the immobilization stress response (the “freeze” reaction) find that getting active can help them to become “unstuck.”
  • Eat a healthy diet.  Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress. Start your day with a healthy breakfast, reduce their caffeine and sugar intake, add plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and cut back on alcohol and nicotine.  Further, the more committed you become to eating in healthy ways the less likely you are to use unhealthy foods as a coping mechanism for stress.
  • Get plenty of sleep.  Sleep is the most important component of renewing our bodies on a daily basis.  It has become an issue in modern day America because of our fast-paced society.  Many first responders seem to wear their lack of sleep as a badge of honor, as if sleeping less means they must be stronger and better at what they do.  They justify it by saying, “I don’t need more than 5 hours of sleep,” which may be true if you also “need” to double your risk for cardiovascular disease and increase your risk of premature death by 24%, because that’s what the research says is going to happen!   The issue is that lack of sleep takes away the recovery time we need to bring our stress levels down.
  • Set aside relaxation time.  Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the fight or flight stress response.  There is plenty of evidence that taking time to relax actually boosts productivity, so there’s no need to view taking a break as being lazy or a waste of time.  A settled mind is a productive mind.
  • Engage socially.  Research tells us that the single most powerful factor in human resilience is interpersonal connection – social support.  The simple act of talking face to face with another human being can release hormones that reduce stress even when the you are unable to alter the stressful situation.  Knowing that others “have your back” is an extremely powerful motivator, so rather than avoiding people altogether when you’re stressed, seek out the company of those in your social network that can both cheer you up and cheer you on.

Let’s go back to the questions we asked at the beginning.  Why is it that some individuals are better at handling life’s challenges than others?  What separates those who control stress from those who are controlled by stress?  The choices we make.  The disciplines we adopt.  The decision be an overcomer versus being overcome. Meanwhile, if you are struggling with the stresses of the job or of life in general and are looking for some resources for help, please reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org and one of our peer support specialists will be happy to help.  If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, please text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor 24/7/365 – always free, always confidential.

Published by David R. Edwards, Ph.D., C.T.S.S.

David is a reserve police officer, chaplain, author, and educator, and a Certified Trauma Services Specialist. He is an approved instructor for the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation and member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association.

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