Survival stress—also called fear-induced stress or combat stress—is a common physiological response to a perceived threat. The more extreme you perceive the threat to be, the more dramatically your body and mind will react, and the higher your anxiety will be. This may manifest itself in an elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, and changes in decision making and physical abilities. Higher levels of survival stress may lead to diminished or amplified hearing, distorted vision, the sensation of time and events seeming faster or slower, and other symptoms.
Of particular interest to police officers—and especially those of us who train them—is the impact of stress on motor skills. Typically, survival stress will all but obliterate fine motor skills such as operating small controls or unlocking handcuffs. Complex motor skills, like safely driving a car, may also be adversely affected. The extremely stressed body will instead rely almost entirely on gross motor skills. These are movements which require larger muscles, like running, punching or kicking. In the most stressful situations, a complete breakdown of motor skills may occur, resulting in freezing or submitting. It goes without saying that this one of the nightmare scenarios for public safety professionals.
The established natural reactions to survival stress are:
This spectrum of reactions is the same for both officer and subject. Some subjects may fight or flee, while others may submit. Indicators such as posturing, blading the body, or clenching the fists may indicate an intention to resist or fight. The officer, on the other hand, might posture by displaying a show of force without actually using any. He may choose to disengage from an overwhelming threat, or engage and take control.
Understanding how to manage stress before, during and after an event will help your body adapt and react better. Your experience, training and preparation can help you moderate anxiety levels. Being aware of your own stress triggers and signals can help you to you look out for yourself more effectively, and provide better coping mechanisms when faced with real scenarios. The better you know yourself, the more control you may have in managing your stress in a variety of situations; and the better you can adjust your behavior to ensure your effectiveness, health and safety.
It’s also important to understand the areas in your job and your life that need improvement, and focus on them. Train for the inevitable realities of the profession, under realistic conditions that are designed to mirror high-stress scenarios. Favor training which relies on gross motor skills (like proper baton use), and stay proficient in perishable skills (like firearm use). Training builds confidence and identifies limitations—if something doesn’t work in training, it’s certainly won’t work on the job in a high stress situation.
Finally, maintaining healthy behaviors such as proper diet, physical fitness and sufficient sleep will help you to better prepare for stressors, and to cope with past stressful experiences. Conversely, ignoring these basic lifestyle issues will typically increase your stress level. The simplest advice to everyone, but especially those in our profession, is to take care of yourself.
Remember that every encounter is different, and some situations—such as an officer-involved shooting—may be so stressful that they lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. In these situations, more active coping steps like counseling may be called for, and should be encouraged by family and peers.
Lieutenant, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office
ASP Trainer since 2015