Anxiety can be described as persistent worry that something unpleasant or life-threatening is going to happen.
Some anxiety in our lives from time to time is normal and in certain situations, anxiety can help our performance in a stressful task. Anxiety also has a protective value in alerting us to a potential threat and preparing us to respond appropriately. It does this by mobilising our body to fight, flight (run away) or freeze in the face of danger.
Being a safe police employee often means seeing the world from a threat-based perspective, interpreting events quickly, and perceiving unknowns as potentially lethal until proven otherwise. This is necessary in an operational environment. However, the feeling of being under constant threat on the job can lead to the ‘anxiety switch’ becoming stuck in the on-position, unable to be turned off in life outside work.
What causes anxiety?
Anxiety is often a result of many factors. It comes from the combination of different individual vulnerabilities and stressors, including:
- Family history of mental health issues. There is research to suggest that some people learn anxiety from other family members modelling anxious behaviours
- Life-based stressors such as a relationship breakup, work-based conflict or financial difficulty
- Brain chemistry, where neurotransmitters responsible for regulating mood do not function properly
- Certain personality types may make some people more vulnerable to developing anxiety, such as people who are perfectionists or who have low self-esteem
- Alcohol or illicit drug use can trigger anxiety
- Exposure to traumatic incidents
Having one or several of these vulnerability factors does not necessarily mean that you will develop anxiety. Often it’s the interaction between certain stressors in the environment and these vulnerabilities that can create challenges. It’s important to build your awareness of early warning signs and access support as soon as possible.
Noticing symptoms of anxiety
Anxiety can become problematic when it is a frequent and dominant feature in your life and affects your daily living. There are several different types of anxiety, such as:
- Panic attacks – short, very intense bursts of anxiety with physiological symptoms
- Social anxiety –a fear of embarrassment or performance related anxiety
- Generalised anxiety – excessive worry about multiple everyday events that is persistent and uncontrollable
Anxiety can be unpleasant and sometimes frightening. You may feel that you are going mad or will have a heart attack.
- “I can’t get my mind to stop…it’s driving me crazy"
- “I just feel that something bad is going to happen”
- “I won’t be able to cope with…”
- “I’m weak to feel this way”
- “How do I get out of here?”
- irritation/ frustration
- feeling on edge physically
- muscle tension
- shortness of breath
- racing heart
- blurred/tunnel vision
- dry mouth
- temperature changes (feeling both hot and cold)
- changes to normal sleep patterns
- avoidance of feared situations or people
- lashing out at others
- checking behaviours/counting behaviours
- difficulties with concentration and making decisions
- social withdrawal
- Using alcohol, illicit drugs or improper use of medications as a way to cope with painful thoughts and feelings
- Work performance issues: difficulties with attending work, procrastination – putting things off because you feel overwhelmed or are afraid of not doing things perfectly
What can I do?
When we feel anxious our nervous system is charged up to prepare us for fight, flight or freeze. Our breathing speeds up and becomes shallower which can create feelings of hyperventilation and dizziness. This can make you feel even more anxious. Controlling your breath will help to calm your nervous system.
Controlled breathing example:
Breathe in for a count of 1, 2, 3
Hold for a count of 1, 2, 3
Breathe out for a count of 1, 2, 3 (repeat for approximately 5 rounds, then increase to 4 counts)
As you become more proficient at this, you can increase the count.
Practice controlled breathing while doing everyday tasks that don’t provoke anxiety like walking the dog, washing the dishes. Practising will make it easier for you to access the skill in stressful situations.
When we are anxious our muscles tense up in preparation for action. You might not even notice that you are clenching your jaw or tensing your shoulders until you start to experience pain in these areas. Learning where you experience tension in your body and how to release this tension can help to manage anxiety. A technique called progressive muscle relaxation can be very effective in helping with this:
Acknowledge that anxiety is your body’s way of trying to protect you from a perceived danger. Step back from feeling afraid or self-critical about being anxious and remind yourself that anxiety is a survival mechanism, and that many people experience this.
When we feel anxious we are often caught in worried thoughts about the future or about what has happened in the past. We lose track of what is going on in the here and now, and the resilience and resources we actually have. Mindfulness helps to bring you back into the moment and step away from the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are feeding anxiety. Use simple mindfulness techniques to produce feelings of calm and relaxation.
Anxiety distorts our thinking so that we see the world through the lens of danger. Learning how to identify and challenge these kinds of thoughts can help you see things from a more balanced perspective.
Anxiety can lead you to avoid situations that make you feel uncomfortable, including social events or travelling on busy public transport. This reinforces the idea that you won’t be able to cope in this environment. Facing the situation and riding out anxious feelings helps to challenge this view of yourself. A mental health professional can show you how to do this.
Healthy eating, exercise and a regular sleep routine create a stable foundation that increases your resilience to life stressors. Avoid overuse of alcohol and the use of illicit drugs, which can trigger or exacerbate anxiety symptoms.
Talk to the people in your life who care about you, plan activities with them to get out of the house, and share what is happening. Remember that anxiety is a common experience and it is likely that other people around you have gone through something similar. If you feel that your social network is not able to provide you with the support you need, or you require more intensive help, make contact with a health professional.
Sometimes when anxiety is particularly overwhelming or has been happening over an extended time period, medication can be helpful to reduce the intensity of symptoms. Talk to your GP if this is an option you would like to know more about.
There are many evidence-based treatment options that can help you to manage and overcome anxiety. For example, Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) teaches you skills to challenge anxious thoughts and calm your body down.
Your GP can be a good starting point to talk through what you are experiencing, and to rule out physical causes of symptoms. They can assist with a referral to an appropriate psychologist. You can also access free confidential counselling through the Police Psychology Unit The Police Association Victoria.