The Many Facets of Stress

Psychological stress is a general term that refers to experiences that threaten our ability to cope.  We know, of course, that first responders are exposed to experiences on a daily basis that do just that, and often times are even affected by major critical incidents that tend to overwhelm their normal coping mechanisms.  As this article points out, there are a number of different words we use to describe what the stresses of those experiences have done to us, and how our emotions and behaviors have been affected by them.

There are two important points that must be made here.  First, any of the reactions as described here in the context of being a first responder are absolutely normal.  Second, when we realize that all of these conditions are connected in one way or another to our natural stress response system, the path to finding solutions to help us manage these reactions becomes much clearer.

Here are some of the more common ways in which our psychological stresses show up:

  1. Fear or apprehension: These words described the stress experienced by a person who is facing a situation that is dangerous or potentially dangerous. No real explanation is needed here as far as first responders are concerned, because that describes the expectation of essentially every shift that is worked.  Like a soldier going into battle, the first responders in our communities anticipate the possibility of a dangerous situation occuring every time they are called upon.
  2. Anxiety: Many of the disorders that plague first responders are recognizable as anxiety disorders, including Acute Stress Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Anxiety causes sufferes to have unrealistic fears about the future, or disturbing memories from their past.  Many first responders especially have a difficult time filing away their memories of traumatic experiences so that they aren’t constantly troubled by them.
  3. Depression: This describes the stress experienced by someone who has suffered a significant loss such as the death of a loved or the dissolution of a relationship, someone who is suffering from a debilitating illness or injury, or someone who generally seems to feel helpless and who has lost hope in the future. First responders who have been injured on the job, for example, may be more at risk for depression to set in.
  4. Frustration: Sometimes stress is experienced when there is an obstacle or obstacles that prevent the achievement of a goal. In emergency services professions, the frustration that is described here is the result of having to deal with the bureaucracy surrounding those professions, including the various levels of government, the citizenry, or the administration of the agency itself.
  5. Conflict: This is the type of stress that comes from having to choose between alternatives. Sometimes those alternatives might be somewhat equally attractive, such as deciding whether to accept a position with a local agency or to take an offer with a department out of state.  Often the alternate choices we are faced with create more serious dilemmas, such as having a spouse demand that we choose life with her/him over the career as a first responder.
  6. Guilt: As one matures in his or her career as a first responder, the likelihood of developing feelings of guilt increases, resulting in thoughts or behaviors that are inconsistent with one’s self-image. Whether it is guilt over the perceived failure on a particularly difficult call, or the guilt felt by those surviving after burying a colleague lost in the line of duty, every first responder will deal with this stressful emotion at some point.

Whether or not you need professional help to overcome any of the manifestations of psychological stress discussed here, there is little doubt that following some relatively simple stress management strategies will help you feel at least somewhat better.  If you’d like to have a confidential conversation with someone about any of the effects of job-related stress that are bothering you, please reach out to us at and one of our peer support specialists will be happy to chat with you.

The “other” line of duty death . . .

It is commonly reported that in the United States a police officer dies in the line of duty every 58 hours.  So far in 2018 the total has reached 93 – a 7% increase over this same time last year.  Firearms-related deaths are up by 28%, while traffic-related deaths and deaths from other causes (like training accidents, etc.) remain relatively unchanged.  All of these statistics are readily available on websites for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund ( or the Officer Down Memorial Page (  But you’ll almost never see any statistics reported on the “other” line of duty death – police suicide.

Uh-oh . . . we’re not supposed to talk about this!  For better or worse, police officers need to maintain the appearance of “having it all together.”  The sad reality, of course, is that many police officers are not only struggling with the same life stressess that non-officers struggle with, but they are also trying to process the ugly side of human life that they are beset with during every shift.  Depending on the source, you will find that the suicide rate among active duty police officers is as much as 50% greater than the rate in the general population, and that anywhere from 200 to 450 active duty police officers complete suicide every year!  And 85% of them use their service weapon to complete the act.

A common myth about suicide is that it usually occurs without warning.  The truth is that most suicidal people plan their self-destruction in advance and then present clues indicating that they have become suicidal.  Among the many warning signs to watch for:  the individual shows lack of interest and motivation and stops confiding in anyone; is turning more and more toward alcohol or other substances; suffers from frequent injuries or is “accident prone”; has written letters to close friends outlining their wishes “if something were to ever happen”; is no longer concerned about physical appearance.

Another common myth about suicide is that asking people if they are suicidal might plant the idea in their heads.  If you see warning signs like the ones mentioned above, there’s no reason (and perhaps no time) to be subtle.  You should ask the person you are concerned about:  “Have you thought about hurting or killing yourself?”  If the answer is “yes” or if you believe the individual is being intentionally vague in answering, you should address whether the individual has the “means, motive, and opportunity” to complete the act of suicide.  And offer to stay while encouraging the individual to seek professional help.

What if you have heard an officer jokingly talking about suicide?  Another myth is that if people talk about killing themselves, they won’t really do it.  Talking about suicide (even jokingly) is often a clue or warning about a person’s intention.  Every mention of suicide ought to be taken seriously!

Why are police officers at such a high risk for suicide?  Because of the effects of different kinds of stress association with the profession:

  • Internal (departmental) stress (poor supervision, lack of communication, etc.)
  • External (community) stress (adversarial relationship between police and community)
  • Critical incident stress (events that overwhelm normal coping mechanisms such as a line of duty death, serious injury of an officer, horrific crime scene, etc.)
  • Cumulative stress (suffered by veteran officers due to an accumulation of unresolved issues)
  • Family stress (officers develop dysfunctional skills to survive the law enforcement profession, and the family suffers stress because of it)

When the effects of these kinds of stress become too much for an officer to bear, he or she may view suicide as the only means of getting relief.  That is why I refer to police suicide as the “other” line of duty death.

Help for officers is available from many sources, including one’s own spiritual support system or faith community, the department chaplain, a peer support group trained in critical incident stress management, or an employee assistance plan (EAP) if the department has one.  Officers or even their family members may reach out to Call for Backup by sending a message to  In the case of an impending suicide attempt, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: (800)-273-TALK (8255), or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.  These services are available 24/7, are free, and always confidential.

Questions to ask a suicidal person . . .

Many people reacted very quickly and very strongly to our last article regarding what NOT to say to a suicidal person.  Some disagreed with some (or all) of the statements in that list . . . but most just wanted to know how to be better prepared to intervene with someone having suicidal thoughts.  What we are including here is a list of questions that you can ask instead of saying some of the things that you should not say.

Although many of these questions would likely lead to answers that would require the help of a mental health professional to explore, they at least give friends and loved ones a place to start with a suicidal individual who has hit bottom, especially when it comes to the “big three” emotions of helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness.

  1. What would your life look like without the present pain you’re going through?
  2. Who are the most important people in your life, and how would they feel about losing you?
  3. What is one thing that someone could do for you today that would make you feel better?
  4. If you are brave enough to die, what makes you think you can’t be brave enough to live?
  5. Do you really want to die, or do you just want to change the way you live?
  6. What are some goals you had for your life that you haven’t yet fulfilled?
  7. Are things as bad as they have ever been for you, or are you just having a harder time coping with what’s going on right now?
  8. If you could name one thing in your life that you are grateful for today, what would it be?
  9. Is there anything or anyone that could stop you from killing yourself today?
  10. Do you have any spiritual beliefs or practices that may influence how you feel about suicide?

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please reach out to us at  If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK, or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.  Whether you are considering suicide, or trying to help someone who is considering suicide, it’s time to call for backup.

What NOT to say to a suicidal person . . .

Perhaps a friend or loved one has just told you about a desire to die, or perhaps you suspect that they are having trouble with suicidal thoughts because of other warning signs that you’ve seen.  Rather than shrink away from the challenge, your instinct is probably to want to help in some way, right?  Knowing what to say is important, and we’ve talked about how to help someone with suicidal thoughts in another post but knowing what NOT to say is extremely important as well.

Here are 10 common statements that may tend to make things worse instead of better as you try to intervene with someone considering suicide:

  1. “Surely your life is not that bad.” You may not believe this person has such a bad life, but their perception, not yours, is their reality.  It’s not always about the things we see taking place on the outside, but the intractable inward pain that people deal with that will drive them to consider suicide as an option.  Telling them “it’s not that bad” shows a lack of empathy and understanding, and worse, may convey a sense of disbelief and judgment.
  2. “How could you think of hurting me like that?” Suicidal thinking comes from a short-circuit of the normal thinking processes.  In other words, a person considering suicide does not think he or she is going to hurt others; rather, the thought is that his or her suicide will actually make things better for the people left behind.
  3. “Why would you be so selfish?” When one is in pain, it is a natural response to want to find a way to escape that pain.  Asking this question only changes the conversation to make it about you – and a suicidal person needs for you to listen and make it about them.
  4. “Suicide is such a cowardly act!” That statement would certainly inspire shame in the person considering suicide.  Overcoming the fear of death actually doesn’t seem cowardly at all.  That doesn’t make completing the act something we should endorse, but it does mean that we should pause before making such a statement.
  5. “You don’t mean it; you don’t really want to die.” Dismissing the feelings of a suicidal person may only increase the intentions that have been expressed.  Every person should be taken seriously.  If he or she doesn’t really want to die, you can find that out in the course of conversation with them.  Even then, they likely still need help.
  6. You have so much to live for.” Saying this means you have not yet listened to the person who is having suicidal thoughts, and you have conveyed a lack of understanding about how he or she perceives the situation.  This may be an appropriate comment later in a suicide intervention conversation but should not be one of the first things you would say.
  7. “Come on, things could be worse.” Perhaps they could, but saying that does nothing to inspire a sense of hope; in fact, it may reinforce the idea that escaping the pain now is better than waiting until things get worse.
  8. “Other people have problems worse than yours, and they don’t want to die.” People who are considering suicide have probably already given some thought to the way others seem to be more capable of handling their problems.  That awareness has simply caused them to view themselves as too weak, and in their self-condemnation they have determined that suicide may be the only option.
  9. “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” This is another statement that comes across as dismissive.  It could very well be that the problem that has brought your friend or loved one to this place of darkness is not something that will go away.  We should not say anything that would leave the impression that suicide is a solution at all.
  10. “If you commit suicide, you will go to hell.” Perhaps the person has already considered that possibility, especially if their religion teaches that suicide is unforgiveable.  Perhaps they do not believe in hell at all, or perhaps their religious belief leaves room for hope that forgiveness for the act is possible.  Either way, the wish to die still remains, and alienating the person with this statement may very well compromise your ability to help them when they need it most.

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please reach out to us at  If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK, or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.  Whether you are considering suicide, or trying to help someone who is considering suicide, it’s time to call for backup.

“I Know I Have PTSD!”

Oh, really?  I like hearing that from police officers about as much as police officers like to hear someone say, “I know my rights!” on a traffic stop.  And just like you may be tempted to ask, “And exactly which law school did you graduate from?”, I am likely to wonder where you obtained your medical or psychological degree.  The difference between your frustration and mine, though, is that your self-diagnosis could actually cost you your career, or your life.

The good news is that you are not as likely to have PTSD as you may think.  The bad news is that you may be suffering from a condition that is much more insidious and common than PTSD.  Want to hear more?

Even though I may use a big word or two, I don’t really want to be too “clinical” in this brief article, so let’s just get to the point – every police officer experiences and/or sees trauma regularly.  Every police officer, at some point, will experience post-traumatic stress.  At any given moment, though, only about 12-15% of those experiencing stress symptoms actually meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD.  In other words, you are 7-8 times more likely NOT to have PTSD even when you are experiencing signs of post-traumatic stress.

There are plenty of signs to look for when it comes to symptoms of stress:

  • Cognitive: poor attention, poor concentration, poor memory
  • Emotional: fear, guilt, anger, anxiety, depression
  • Physical: aches and pains, fatigue, gastrointestinal issues
  • Behavioral: social withdrawal, strained relationships, disruptive behavior
  • Spiritual: questioning beliefs, anger at God, cessation of spiritual activities

This is certainly not an all-inclusive list, but most of these things are pretty common and quite often have a direct connection to the effects of stress, whether as a result of a particular trigger event or even as a result of the buildup of chronic stress.

If the symptoms you’re experiencing are not an indicator of PTSD, then what could they possibly be?  Simply put, a whole bunch of different things!  For example, if you’ve recently experienced some type of trigger event that became the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back,” you could have what is known as Acute Stress Disorder.  The bad news is that the symptoms can be very intense.  The good news is that they usually only last 2 to 4 weeks and then you are better.

The most likely culprit is what is called Stress Response Syndrome (it used to be called Adjustment Disorder).  This is a stress-related malady in which symptoms appear gradually as a result of chronic stress, or more suddenly a few weeks to a few months after some type of trigger event.  For this one, I’ll give you the bad news first . . . because there really isn’t much good news to give.  Chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.

It’s the suicide link that concerns me, and should concern everyone in law enforcement.  Research shows that people suffering from stress response syndrome were 19 times more likely to complete suicide than individuals without that previous diagnosis.  For the past 5 years, an average of 14-18 active police officers each month have died by their own hand, and that can likely be attributed to the effects of chronic stress or some trigger event that has resulted in those officers suffering from stress response syndrome.

Call for Backup wants to encourage you to reach out if you are experiencing any of the stress-related symptoms mentioned in this article.  We can talk about it, and we can offer guidance to help you stay healthy throughout your career.  Just reach out to us by message on our Facebook page at  And, of course, if you are in crisis right now and need immediate help, please call a trusted family member or friend to be with you, and then call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected with a trained crisis counselor.  It’s time to call for backup!