Von Luft: Daily stress of policing takes a toll


Unfortunately, there are hidden costs that police officers pay because of their jobs.

These costs can be to their physical health in the form of early heart disease, their mental health in the form of post-traumatic stress syndrome or their personal lives in the form of divorce.

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There can be multiple reasons why officers pay these costs, and a significant contributing factor is something that is built into their daily experience.

Police officers use the process in the brain known as the flight, fight, or freeze response multiple times a shift.

In comparison, a person who is not a first responder may only experience this a couple times in his or her life. The flight, fight, or freeze response is our brain’s way of responding to an emergency.

It prepares us to handle that emergency by releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and oxytocin.

These stress hormones do things to our bodies like tighten our muscles and increase our heart and respiratory rates, preparing us to respond to whatever emergency is in front of us.

Remember the old urban legends of people lifting cars to free trapped people? If that did happen, it would be these stress hormones that made it possible.

So how does this all relate to a police officer’s health?

Police officers respond to multiple emergencies every shift: injury car accidents, heart attacks, or maybe in-progress crimes where someone is injured or dead.

Each time they respond their body releases these stress hormones so they can handle the emergency. Because it is happening so often on a daily basis their bodies do not have time to properly process and use them.

One of the significant side effects of excess cortisol and adrenaline in their system is retaining body fat, typically in the mid-section, to protect vital organs the brain thinks are in constant danger.

Excess stress hormones over time can also lead to early heart disease, diabetes, insomnia and irritability. These side effects can domino into an officer’s personal life causing relationship problems and multiple health-related issues. Working with officers as a marriage and family therapist on these challenges, I typically recommend daily cardiovascular exercise to help burn off these excess stress hormones.

Thankfully, there has been a greater focus and more resources dedicated to helping educate officers on these topics in recent years. And as more research is done, we can offer new and more effective ways to combat these hidden costs.

Kevin Von Luft is a 16-year law enforcement officer in Orange County and also holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology. Kevin works with first responders and their families as a registered Marriage and Family Therapist at Prepare to Change in Tustin, CA. Kevin can be reached at kevinvonluft@preparetochange.com or www.kevinvonluft.com.