Exercise comes first because it is by far the most popular strategy choice. Our Crisis Intervention Team Training classes in Huntington Beach, CA have now trained well over 3,000 seasoned law enforcement officers. For the portion that I instruct, a stress management segment, almost every officer questioned has eagerly stated that their ‘go-to-strategy’ for stress is exercise. Digging deeper though, the crickets in the room corners really start to chirp when we try to identify other strategies being relied upon, beyond just exercise.
How it works:
When a brain senses a threat, it calls upon our sympathetic reaction to reach a state of preparedness known casually as ‘Fight or Flight’. To get there a number of systems in our bodies are called up to ‘the line of scrimmage’. Other systems are held back at the sideline because efficiency dictates the use of specialty players only for any given threat. Being as it is Fall at the moment – a football illustration seemed most appropriate.
The brain saw the threat and then quickly set the stage for a survival showdown that will entail vigorous fighting or fleeing just to survive. The brain will sense when we are exerting ourselves and our reward is the parasympathetic reaction, bringing all systems back down to their normal rested, healthy states. That’s what episodic stress looks like.
Chronic Stress – The Toxic Mix:
Emergency First Responders have led the way for years through experiencing the effects of long-term Chronic Stress. Systemic breakdowns of the circulatory system, the thyroid gland, diabetes, obesity, depression, suicidality, divorce, lower than average life-expectancy, alcoholism and addictions all form a part of the gauntlet that first responders have been challenged by. Oh, how I long for the good old days of episodic stress exposures. The problem with today’s world is that the stressors are not episodic – they are chronically non-stop, fast-paced annoyances. We actually lose track of the fact that we are living full time in a state of high alert, so we typically don’t know that we really must take the time to bring ourselves down from that high.
This forced deceleration makes sense not only for the well-being of the systems that have been energized to meet the original threat, but it is also necessary to re-activate the systems that have been side-lined and subdued for efficiency’s sake. Too long in an accelerated state invites burn-out. Too long on the side-lines will invite systemic atrophy (wasting away). Think about what systems you possess that are not needed in an emergency fight/flight situation – those are the ones sitting it out on the sidelines.
You might notice there are two kinds of stress at play in the above picture. Understandably, Mr. Patches the cat should be avoiding the ‘distress’ being caused by this chronic array of seemingly well-behaved police dogs. We can also see a number of the dogs are being distracted by the pleasurable excitement and anticipation of ‘eustress’…almost daring to say, “Make your move, Cat!”
Everyone in this picture is supercharged to a fight/flight. When the stressor has passed – it is important to do a ‘reset’ and exercise is an excellent way to accomplish that re-balance. About 20 minutes x 3 per week where you can break a sweat will accomplish the goal. The only tricky part is to find some form of exercise that you like doing! Then Do It!!