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Why public safety professionals need to prevent, identify stress (and apply coping strategies)

07 Mar 2018 2:00 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Dr. Michael Pittaro, IPSA Fitness/Wellness Committee Member

After nearly 30 years of serving in a variety of public safety positions, one common theme always emerged, the importance of mental and physical health/fitness. Even today, mental and physical health/fitness is still under-addressed in 911 telecommunications, law enforcement, corrections, fire/EMS, emergency management, public works, public health and all related public safety professions. In 2011, I transitioned from the field to the classroom as a criminal justice professor. I’m presently teaching the next generation of public safety professionals about strategies to prevent and reduce stress.

Consistently, medical research illustrates that stress contributes to a host of mental and physical ailments stemming from the public safety profession. This is not surprising given that the public safety profession represents some of the most dangerous, demanding and physically/mentally exhausting occupations. Here are some examples.

  • According to the National Institute for Public Safety Health, the average age of a first heart attack in the United States is 66, whereas the average age of a first heart attack for a firefighter is 49.
  • In comparison with the general population, law enforcement officers have higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  • 40 percent of law enforcement officers have a sleep disorder, which places those officers at a higher risk for depression, stroke, obesity and on-duty related accidents.

A profession that has been mostly neglected, as far as stress-related research, is that of correctional officers. Correctional officers have a suicide rate that is twice that of the general population and some studies suggest that the suicide rate is even higher than that of other law enforcement officers. Even more disturbing is that, on average, correctional officers will not live to see their 59th birthday.

There is a need to provide information, education and awareness to public safety professionals. There is also a need to develop prevention and intervention strategies designed to address the physical and emotional wellbeing of all public safety professionals.

Below are some methods for coping with stress. This is not a complete list, and it is not a simple solution to a complex problem, but it is a good place to start.

Minimize unnecessary stress in your life: Stress is a part of life. There is truly no way to escape it, but everyone can minimize unnecessary stress. Unnecessary stress is often the stress that is created in our minds, whether real or perceived. For example, I would become so frustrated when I came home from work and my kids left the kitchen a mess. While I still get angry and frustrated, I have learned that teenagers are simply lazy and rebellious at times, so I do not allow it to upset me as much as it did in the past.

Change the way you react, respond to stress: This is along the same line of thinking as the above.  How we react and respond to stress can be controlled with some time, patience, effort and practice. Everyone needs to learn how to recognize the physical and emotional signs and triggers. Know and identify when you are becoming stressed and learn how to self-calm.

Accept the things that you cannot change and are beyond your control: As a former Executive Director of an outpatient substance abuse facility, this is a phrase that became part of our daily mantra. It is also a common saying in both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. It holds true here as well.

Adopt a healthier, happier lifestyle: Public safety professionals work with the public. This includes toxic individuals in toxic environments, which often leads to cynical and jaded thoughts. Given the reality and scope of the work environment, surround yourself (at least outside of work) with positive, supportive individuals. Engage in a hobby or do something that makes you happy. Make the time to exercise. Exercise helps reduce stress, depression and anxiety. It will help push negative thoughts aside.

Learn to say “No”: Several strong type-A personalities struggle with this one. Think before you commit to a new task. Take a day or two before giving an answer. Saying no helps keep your life in balance.

Take away something positive from a negative situation or event

Many individuals look at the glass as being half-empty as opposed to being half-full. However, if you sit down and evaluate your life, you will determine that the positive things in your life outweigh the negative. Redirect your negative thoughts to the positive.

Accept that there is both good and bad in the world

Despair, hate, bias and crime are world-wide problems. That’s a reality that will likely not change in the near-term. However, given that this won’t change, it is incumbent on us to focus on the positive achievements we perform every single day. Public safety professionals help people, save people and we protect people. That is what we do, we need to be proud and we need to focus on that.

Laugh more, criticize less: Humor and laughter helps to ward off stress. Avoid getting together with friends just to commiserate about your day. That is not healthy. Instead, hang out with friends and family members who enjoy a good laugh. Distance yourself from toxic friends and family.

Compartmentalize: One of the most helpful strategies that has worked well for me is to compartmentalize. Compartmentalizing is a psychological concept that can be used as a coping, defense strategy when dealing with conflicting internal events simultaneously. In other words, leave work at work and home at home. When the two carry over from one aspect of your life to the other, problems become compounded.

Change must be embraced: To change our thinking, behaving and acting, we must embrace change. Thinking about changing is not sufficient. Everyone must take daily action steps toward change. These steps often take us outside of our comfort zones. As the late Jim Rohn, an entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker, previously stated, "Your life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change."

About the Author

Dr. Michael Pittaro is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice in the School of Security and Global Studies (SSGC) with American Military University and an Adjunct Criminal Justice Professor at East Stroudsburg University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of institutional and non-institutional settings. Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration; has served as the Executive Director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility and as Executive Director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency. Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level (online and on-campus) for the past 15 years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a BS in Criminal Justice; an MPA in Public Administration; and a PhD in criminal justice.

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