COLUMBIA, Mo. – Dust off your fishing tackle box in 2014.
That’s the advice attendees at a recent University of Missouri Extension Law Enforcement Training Institute session heard from Kevin Gilmartin, a behavioral scientist specializing in issues related to law enforcement.
Gilmartin, who was one of Parade magazine’s 10 best police officers of the year in 1982, is the author of the 2002 book “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement.”
While Gilmartin directed his advice at police officers, it can be adapted to anyone in a high-stress profession.
Data he has collected on the careers and personal lives of police officers shows it is important to stay active and have interests away from work.
Gilmartin encourages police officers to list the things they “usta” do and ask themselves why they gave up such a huge chunk of their identity. He warns that “I usta” syndrome dismantles the personal lives, health and happiness of many law enforcement professionals.
“The biggest failure we have is keeping a sense of identity,” he said. “The more you let your personal life deteriorate, the more your life becomes irrelevant.”
Gilmartin cited studies that show exercise and church attendance drop by half in the first 10 years of a police officer’s career. A police officer eats 50 percent of his meals in front of the television, and relationships often diminish, he said.
“Cortisol is your deferred compensation program and a heart attack is considered an industrial disease,” he said. Gilmartin recommends 20-40 minutes of exercise five days a week to ward off depression and cut the risk of diabetes.
What makes you good at your job also will kill you, he said. Most police officers live in a state of hypervigilance. Elevated alertness is critical to officer safety, but it’s difficult to turn it off when the shift is over.
Gilmartin described police work as a “biological roller coaster.” Hypervigilance produces a neurological change that allows quick thinking, heightened awareness, high energy and involvement. But once officers go off the clock, they often become detached, tired, isolated and apathetic. Within 24 hours, the pendulum swings back to a state of peak hypervigilance.
This often causes officers to avoid home, where that “high” does not exist, he said. Officers need to recognize the signs of overinvestment in work and take action. “Take the reins of your life fully in hand and develop a personal life,” he said. Put a master calendar on the refrigerator and plan activities with your family and friends.
“Proactive goal-setting, an active aerobic exercise program, and nurturing and developing other roles in life besides the hypervigilant police role should enable officers to manage their lifestyle more effectively,” he said. “To survive police stress, officers need to know what they can control and to surrender what they cannot control.
“Their emotional and physical well-being requires them to take a realistic review of their day-to-day lifestyle and to make whatever changes necessary for a well-balanced, healthy personal life.”
About the MU Extension Law Enforcement Training Institute
The University of Missouri Extension Law Enforcement Training Institute provides basic and advanced law enforcement training as well as animal cruelty investigation programs. Graduates from all 50 states and Canada serve public safety agencies at the local, state and national levels. For more information, visit leti.missouri.edu.