Chronic Police Officer Stress: Managing Fight, Flight, and Freeze

Learn proactive and in-the-moment stress management strategies that will improve your quality of life on and off the job.

August 2, 2023

Article Highlights:

Officers are trained to be vigilant and alert. The job demands it. But these expectations mixed with chronic exposure to stress can make officers hypervigilant and hyperalert even during moments of calm. The stress of police officers doesn’t suddenly disappear when a shift ends.

A survey of 8,000 officers conducted by the Fraternal Order of Police revealed the following:

  • 62% of officers reported being exposed to traumatic events regularly
  • 69% reported stressful experiences on duty had caused lingering mental wellness issues
  • 79% reported they’d experienced critical levels of stress in law enforcement

If stress becomes chronic, your body can remain in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze, and significantly disrupt your health and personal life. In this article, we’ll explore what these stress responses are, the effect they have on your body, and strategies you can use to manage stress in law enforcement.

What is fight, flight, and freeze?

The fight, flight, and freeze responses are different ways your body reacts to perceived threats. They are automatic survival mechanisms. A fight, flight, or freeze response triggers involuntary physiological changes in your body and mind as reactions to feeling threatened. 

  • Fight: confront or take action to eliminate the danger
  • Flight: take action to escape the danger
  • Freeze: become immobile in the face of danger

These responses are ways for the body to protect itself. However, individuals in high-stress occupations can start activating a stress response whether the danger is real or not, creating long-term health implications.

What happens to your body? 

When the body experiences an acute stress response, it activates your autonomic nervous system (ANS). This system is responsible for managing involuntary responses like your reflexes.

With fight or flight, it’s common to experience rapid breathing, an increased heart rate, flushed or pale skin, tense muscles, and a dry mouth. Often, these bodily sensations are accompanied by feelings of extreme alertness, agitation, the desire to be confrontational, or the urge to move.

In contrast, the freeze response leaves you extremely alert yet immobilized. You will often experience muscle tension but see your heart rate drop. Despite the apparent inactivity, your body is not relaxed but in a state of attentive immobility.

Implications for police officers

The American Psychological Association (APA) states it usually takes 20-60 minutes for the body to return to its normal state after a stress response. However, stress in law enforcement is seen as just part of the job. Officers constantly jump from one stressful scenario to another, rarely achieving the necessary recovery period.

Police officer stress is so significant it can put officers in a constant state of hyper-alertness on and off the job. The combination of training, job expectations, and chronic exposure to stress can make it difficult for officers to disengage and relax. They can end up experiencing an acute stress response whether the danger is real or not. Even after a shift, your body and mind can remain locked in a heightened state of readiness and cause significant disruption to your personal life. Knowing this, stress management for police officers is a non-negotiable practice.

The health consequences

Part of police officer stress is the feeling of being constantly under attack, which keeps your acute stress response system turned on. Stress in law enforcement can provoke long-term activation of your stress response system and disrupt almost all your body's processes, increasing the risk for many health problems.

Some of these include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

For officers to remain healthy, happy, and productive throughout their careers, it’s important to have effective ways of dealing with stress.

Stress management for police officers

It’s important to have a proactive plan and exercises you can turn to in the moment to manage police officer stress. Proactive measures ensure officers build practices to sustain long careers, and in-the-moment exercises give them necessary breaks throughout a shift.

Proactive and preventative 
  • A healthy diet (this includes pre-purchasing healthy snacks so you’re prepared during a shift)
  • Regular exercise (choose a schedule that’s manageable with shift work)
  • Adequate sleep (developing a healthy routine )
  • Practice mindfulness (stretching, nature walks, meditation)
  • Relaxing with family and friends

While the benefits of a healthy diet, exercise, and adequate sleep are well-known to mitigate the stress of police officers, mindfulness and family time also contain science-backed benefits. A 2023 study published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology found that mindfulness-based interventions, such as meditation and yoga, reduced police officer stress and burnout symptoms. A decades-long Harvard study has revealed that maintaining close relationships helps reduce stress and significantly contributes to overall happiness. 

In the moment 

The following strategies can be helpful to interrupt a fight, flight, or freeze response. 

PowerDMS is proud to offer free, on-demand webinars that explore stress management for police officers in greater detail. For effective and easy-to-use CBT techniques, see here. To hear two former officers share tips and stress management programs for police officers, see here. 

How we can help

Police officer stress is a part of the job. But for offers to sustain long and healthy careers, they need effective stress management practices. 

There are various stress management programs for police officers available, but most aren’t comprehensive enough to truly support officer health. That’s where we can help. PowerLine is a mental wellness app that offers 24/7 anonymous access to resources for stress management, sleep, and fitness, among other wellness areas.

PowerLine provides officers with reliable support right in their pocket, ready to access anytime in or out of the field. Learn more about PowerLine or schedule a free consultation with a friendly PowerDMS team member to start your journey to enhanced officer wellness today.

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