Battling job stress: How correctional officers can strengthen their resilience

One of the most important factors necessary for good mental health is resilience


The treatment of anxiety and depressive disorders is sometimes thought of strictly in terms of medical intervention to treat chemical imbalances or, as researchers are learning, impaired processing of those chemicals (serotonin and norepinephrine, generally) at cellular receptor sites. Certainly, while medication therapy can be a literal lifesaver, giving relief and a new lease to those previously paralyzed by stress and hopelessness, seeing anxiety and depression as simply a function of biology is seeing only part of a larger whole. 

Multiple factors contribute to our state and quality of mental health at any given time. Many we have little immediate control over, such as biology, genetics or physical health, although self-awareness and proactive habits can mitigate or avoid potential problems stemming from these generally beyond our control elements. Others are predominantly environmental or circumstantial, centering on outside stressors acting on and negatively impacting our psychological wellness. Even these latter influences have a large biological impact. For instance, under duress the stress hormone known as cortisol, produced in the adrenal glands and released into the body in response to threats, readies us for fight or flight. Cortisol is necessary for survival but comes at a cost; chronically elevated cortisol levels turn on us to attack both physical and emotional health as the delicate biochemistry of body and mind is altered by outside forces.

Resilience defined

One of the most important factors necessary for good mental health is resilience. Resilience is that human quality that allows one to be buffeted by life, disappointed, knocked down and defeated again and again, yet pick themselves up to take on new challenges, try a new approaches or refuse to accept failure as a final outcome. It is the ability to recover from difficulties, to learn and grow from adversity and develop behavioral flexibility and emotional toughness.  

Take care of yourself physically by exercising, minding your health, eating well and getting proper rest.
Take care of yourself physically by exercising, minding your health, eating well and getting proper rest.

Resilience is normal among humans, being necessary for personal and professional success. Research indicates most of us are well-equipped with a trove of strengths, skills and attitudes that allow us to confront difficulties and work around and learn from failures. It is this natural resilience, a product of our highly-evolved stress response system, which has served as the necessary driver of further evolutionary adaptation and individual and collective human advancement. Still, as in every aspect of humanness, not all possess the trait in equal measure and individual levels of resilience fall along a continuum, ranging from extreme fragility to nearly immutable. Nor is resilience a constant; it can be both learned and lost. And it is this fact that should concern all of us, especially those of you working in law enforcement. Research also indicates we all have a breaking point. Experience informs us policing can push you to it. 

Resilience and corrections

Successful law enforcement requires men and women with the mental and emotional toughness to think quickly and flexibly under pressure, face uncertainty and danger with confidence and courage and to chase monsters without either becoming one themselves or shrinking from the horror. To this end, most professionally-oriented correctional facilities put significant effort into carefully recruiting and hiring the best, most psychologically sound officers possible and then training them to confront and overcome the myriad challenges they’ll face behind the walls. In other words, they seek smart, well-balanced, adaptive – resilient – COs who can think of their feet and not be overcome by the worst of what they will see, train them well and set them loose trusting any breaking points they might have are far in the distance and never to be reached.  

Yet, somehow, we still see COs crushed by depression, wracked with anxieties, burned out and disengaged. Some COs turn hard to the bottle or drugs and others withdraw from even close family and friends. Many are haunted by trauma or hardened by cynicism, their emotional defenses and sense of perspective overwhelmed. Those breaking points weren’t so far off, after all, and their resilience is spent. Sadly, this is far from uncommon in policing, and most of us attached to the world of law enforcement can readily tick off the names of colleagues you suspect or know suffer from depression and anxiety, are burned-out and disengaged professionally, have extended that disengagement to include even family and friends or who you know have become rigid and unyielding to the point of near paralysis. 

Law enforcement is particularly hard on personal resilience for a number of reasons. One of the most obvious, of course, is what COs see and know. Repeated exposure to stressful, often dangerous, situations and constant attention to the fact that even the mundane can turn deadly in a heartbeat increases cortisol production, with all its physical and psychological side effects. Trauma, whether experienced firsthand or vicariously, leaves officers vulnerable to the symptoms and effects of PTSD; whether experiencing (or responding to) a single, overwhelming event or the cumulative effect of many potentially traumatic experiences that overwhelm over time, trauma can wreak havoc on our resilience. 

The loss of idealism that accompanies the evolution from eager rookie to pragmatic veteran is especially rough on a lot of officers. The realization of how little any one CO can do to change behavior or make the world a better place can be disheartening. Professional disappointments – often experienced as a lack of administrative/supervisory support, denial of opportunities or promotion within their organization and the sense of low or nonexistent support from bosses and peers – are another common complaint of COs, and factor into the loss of resilience.

Repeated exposure to each of these contributing factors leave officers susceptible to phenomena known as learned helplessness. The development of learned helplessness, research has shown, is directly connected to diminished resilience; what good is being resilient, after all, if nothing you ever do is adequate or capable of making a difference to yourself or anyone else?

And isn’t that question really at the root of the most fatalistic of cynicism?

Building (or restoring) resilience

Dr Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist considered the “Father of Positive Psychology,” has spent years studying success and failure, including how some learn helplessness while others remain resilient, and has determined the key trait behind positivity and resilience is optimism.  Resilient people view setbacks as disappointing but temporary, refuse to be defined by their failures and understand each as opportunities to learn, grow, and recalibrate. They maintain a realistic and healthy perspective and know not to generalize draw broad conclusions from specific events. This does not mean resilient people don’t experience setbacks, disappointments or failure; they do, and experience all the attendant anger, frustration, depression and even PTSD in certain circumstances. Nor are they exempt from forming initial judgments or stereotypes based on specific incidents or repetitive experience. The difference lies in how the more optimistic among us are able to quickly step back to reframe the experience(s), work through their emotions, and envision a path forward. They refuse to become stuck in the morass of hopelessness and helplessness. 

Encouragingly, the researchers such as Seligman and his peers shows that, even if you are less resilient than before, or feeling helpless/hopeless either personally or professionally or both, resilience can be restored and strengthened. There are actually many things you can do, and an internet search of “building resilience” will provide a wealth of suggestions about how to build resilience, but we suggest the following as the most simple and direct for law enforcement officers and their families.

Maintain healthy relationships

One of the strongest predictors of emotional health and long-term happiness is the quality and strength of relationships. This is true regardless of other factors that can otherwise negatively impact happiness mental health, demonstrating how powerful our connections with others are and how important it is to nurture them. But law enforcement has a reputation for being tough on family and friends, leading to weakened or broken bonds and leaving COs feeling disconnected or connected primarily to other COs.  There is nothing wrong with forming strong bonds with fellow officers, of course, but we need to stay vigilant; when our relationships are limited those whose worldview and experiences are largely similar to our own we lose sight of outside points-of-view and have our prejudices and fears reinforced. 

By forcing yourself to expand your social circle beyond the corrections world, to include family, old friends, and even regularly forming new relationships, you will begin to see the world with fresh perspective and be able to see and emulate the behavior of resilient acquaintances. Your own perspectives can be challenged and refined. And cognitively stepping outside the corrections world and into another freshens the perspective and energy you will bring to the job.

Focus on perspective

Train your brain to look for and test other perspectives about why things happen, their meaning and how it affects you emotionally. This is, in a nutshell, the heart of cognitive-behavioral therapy that many modern mental health professionals rely on to treat depression, anxiety and other disorders in their offices with great success. 

We tend to lean heavily on gut instinct when considering why something happened or the motivations that drive others that is informed by past experience and overconfidence in our own ability to correctly judge and understand others. We lose sight of the big picture. Instead, learn to be skeptical of your own conclusions, beliefs and understandings, not because they are automatically wrong but because skepticism forces you to zoom out and consider different perspectives, which leads to growth.

Learn to seek broader perspectives on everything, as a matter of habit, and see how much doing so will brighten your outlook and sense of resilience.

Take care of yourself

Take care of yourself physically by exercising, minding your health, eating well and getting proper rest. This seems obvious, but emotional resilience dips we tend to neglect other areas of health, as well. Good physical health and rest are important to meet challenges with resilience.

Be more than a corrections officer

This doesn’t diminish your corrections role, it enhances it. It is also what we have been preaching and practicing for years. In other words, the job will bring you down, will disappoint, will skew your perspective, and will break your heart. Not always, but at times, so have other identities, too, from which you can draw strength, success, and resilience. It is when we base all our identity and self-esteem into one role that the inevitable failures, disappointments and setbacks sure to come are more likely to whittle away at our natural resilience. Diversification is one of the best ways to you can stay resilient, and to be the best CO you can be.

About the author

Althea Olson, LCSW, and Mike Wasilewski, MSW, have been married since 1994. Mike works full time as a police officer for a large suburban Chicago agency while Althea is a social worker in private practice at Fox Bend Counseling in Oswego (Illinois). They write on a wide range of topics to include officer wellness, relationships, mental health, morale, and ethics. Their writing led to them developing More Than A Cop, and they have traveled the country as police trainers teaching “survival skills off the street.”

You can keep up with them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter, or check out their website at www.MoreThanACop.com.

Contact Althea Olson and Mike Wasilewski

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

logo for print