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Stress is an unavoidable part of life for all of us. Over time we know that chronic stress can impact our mental and physical well-being in many negative ways. Left unaddressed, stress can also lead to burnout, which may limit our ability to work, maintain healthy relationships and even complete everyday tasks.

In certain high-stress professions, such as law enforcement, the risk of burnout is even more pronounced. A Canadian Police Association study from 2022 showed that 35 per cent of officers went to work when they felt mentally unwell, and 31 per cent did so when physically ill. These study responses point to a policing culture where officers may be reluctant to ask for help or say no to additional work even if they're feeling overloaded—and that comes at a very high cost.

On a positive note, once we become aware of the stressors in our lives, we can do something about them. Even when stress is unavoidable, we can take control of it rather than allowing it to wreak havoc on our health and wellbeing. There are longer-term strategies to tackle stress that include addressing workplace issues and seeking professional help as needed. But there are simple coping strategies that can help stave off stress in the short-term, too. Here are a few to consider:

Social support: Talk to a colleague, family member or friend about how you are feeling and tell them what you need. It may be a night out to do something fun and unrelated to work. Or it may be just a sounding board to unload your worries. If no one is available, consider doing something fun on your own, such as dancing to a YouTube video, or heading to your local coffeeshop with a good book where you can be amidst other people. Offering social support to others can also be a great way to alleviate stress. Volunteer for a cause you believe in or reach out to someone you have lost touch with to reconnect. Deliberately schedule regular meet-ups with people you enjoy spending time with so you have something to look forward to.

Get outside: Even 20 minutes in nature can have a big impact on reducing stress. Dress appropriately and get outside no matter the weather. Surround yourself with greenspace or visit a forest. Listen to the birds, place your hands on a tree trunk and, when weather permits, walk barefoot in the grass to set your senses ablaze.

Schedule flex time: Regularly scheduling some time to meditate, do yoga or do absolutely nothing can be especially effective when you’re feeling overwhelmed and out of control. Remember, finding space in our day or week to do less gives our brains time to recover from constant stimulation and stressful experiences.

Laugh about it: There is good reason that we say laughter is the best medicine. It increases our intake of oxygen, stimulates our heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by our brain. Give yourself permission to laugh often, whether that be by looking at funny dog pictures or watching a favourite comedy.

Finally, consider seeking professional support. Often, the potential benefits of seeking help far outweigh the risks. There are many myths and misconceptions about speaking to a professional. Remember that, at the end of the day, mental health professionals are just people who have specialized training in this area. As with other service providers, feeling comfortable with a mental health professional and finding the right fit is important, so you might have to try more than one person or resource.

Not sure where to start? Try Psychology Today if you are looking to speak to someone one-on-one, or call a 24-hour line (In Canada: 1-888-668-6810 for general mental health needs or 9-8-8 to get help for someone in crisis). You should always call 9-1-1 if there is immediate risk to someone’s life.

Though we can’t avoid stress, remember that there are effective and readily available ways to help cope with it every day. Even simple strategies can make a big difference.

About the Authors: Dr. Nina Fusco is chief psychologist and Dr. Jennifer Short is a psychologist at Calian. They work closely with law enforcement clients providing psychological services to address their unique needs from suitability assessments and candidate selection to resilience training and mental wellness. Click here to learn more about Calian Psychological Services.