Tackling the extra stress, we all encountered in the pandemic year

2020…most of us were more than ready for our clocks to strike 12 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2021 and to leave 2020 in the past. Memes exploded across the internet about just how bad 2020 really was,’

(One of my favorite 2020 memes is posted below) and in the grand scheme of it all, 2020 was the worst.)

A pandemic on top of murder hornets and an overactive hurricane season combined with the political climate in our country had us all on edge. New words and phrases like “social distancing,” “mask up” and – everybody’s favorite – “Do you have your mask?” regularly entered into our discourse and we all have had to morph our lives into something new and very different.

Even if we think we are coping well or have had only minimal stress in the past year, all of us have been impacted in some way by the events of 2020, whether we like or not. So, what are the effects of being under high amounts of stress for long periods; not just a stressful day here and there but an entire year’s worth of stressful days?

What impact does that have on our physical, mental and emotional health?

Research shows high levels of stress affect virtually every system within our bodies. These systems are impacted by prolonged exposure to the hormones Cortisol and Adrenaline. When our brains and other organs are exposed to high levels of these hormones over extended periods, our brains show actual physical changes via MRI testing. These physical changes within the brain are the underlying neurological component of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Physically, high levels of stress impact our immune systems, our weight, sleep patterns and so many other areas. Chronic pain, headaches, gastric upsets, high blood pressure and damage to organs are just a few side effects of chronic stress. Simply put, we feel unwell and exhausted.

Emotionally, anxiety and worry increase. Our moods lower. Compulsive behaviors can emerge. We withdraw and our “fuse” becomes much shorter with our family and friends.

Mentally, it becomes harder to think and concentrate. We struggle with simple tasks at work. Motivation quits on us.

When you combine being a police officer during this past year of chronic stress, the impacts should have us all worried. So what can you do about it? How do we protect ourselves against long-term impacts?

Start with practicing good eating habits and work on getting enough sleep. And please bear in mind that, yes, that may mean being careful about how many extra jobs you hold!

If you enjoyed hunting or fishing or singing and dancing before you became an officer, find the joy in those activities again and engage in them regularly. Take your spouse or partner to dinner and catch up on non-work-related topics.

Socialize with friends outside of the police officer circle. Have community supports in place, whether that means joining a softball team, coaching your child’s Little League team or finding a church to attend.

Engage with others. If you are doing all these things and still are struggling, reach out; whether that is through Psychological Services, the city’s EAP program, Peer Support, the Union’s HOPA or a clinician through your health insurance. Talk to someone about what is going on with you.

I see way too many death announcements of retired officers passing away too soon and too young. Research shows that exposure to chronic stress and a lack of doing anything about it likely contributes to an early death.

Let’s not let that happen to any one of you. Self-care is vital and the key is simply getting started. No one must do everything mentioned above right away but pick one or two of these tidbits and just START!