Let’s talk about an often overlooked police psychology concept – shot-peening.
The scientific ideas behind shot peening can be used to help explain mental health in stressful professions.
Now, I know shot peening isn’t a top 10 on anyone’s choice of psychological technique, but before you click on that little “x” button, hear me out. We’ve been discussing how scientific theories can extend to your head, and the practice of shot-peening is another example. Shot-peening is a process in which metal is hit with small bits of material, called “shot,” in order to prevent microcracks from turning into fissures. In the process, the metal becomes much stronger because the compressed fibers are now pushed tightly together. However, just like candy, ice cream, and the worm from a bottle of tequila, the benefits from shot-peening must be tempered by moderation. There is real truth to that favorite saying of dentists, doctors, and parents, “too much of a good thing is a bad thing.” If the welded metal is hit too many times, it can either bend or break—and neither of those outcomes is a good idea. In fact, the last thing you want to hear when you are on an airplane is, “It appears we are suffering from some technical difficulties. It seems the wings of the plane are…bending….” That’s worse than, “I’m sorry sir, but we seem to be out of peanuts on this flight.”
Emergency room physicians, nurses, cops, even business people in strenuous times, are shot-peened. The exposure to pain and human suffering can strengthen them in a way that nothing else can. You can swing a bat all you want, but until you actually step up to the plate, look the pitcher in the eye, and play in a real game, you are not ready to face a 97-mile an hour pitch coming at you. Sure, the training you do can help prepare you, but it is your participation in many actual baseball games that strengthens your skills and gives you the experience to be a ball player. With cops, training is necessary and important, but the actual work they do is what strengthens them, consolidates their abilities and makes them calm and cool under pressure, able to tune out negative voices and trust in their own abilities.
The results of too much stress
Don’t let the stress in your life overwhelm you until you break.
But, shot-peening has a flip side too. Too much exposure to suffering, threats, and high-risks can be detrimental to the head of a cop. Too much crisis in business makes a person unable to react effectively. We call this operational stress (as opposed to institutional stress, lifestyle stress and traumatic stress). And just like with metal, there are two possible consequences for a man or woman — they can bend or they can break. If they break, they may experience a mental or emotional breakdown, or just decide to quit. If they bend, they can get too comfortable with suffering and problems, and develop an indifference to it. Neither of these possibilities seems good. As in metals, no two people are identical, and thus everyone can handle a different amount of stress before they break or bend.
How to deal with Stress
Engineers have developed a formula to determine exactly how much strain a piece of metal can handle before it cracks. You don’t hear engineers going around yelling, “You stupid piece of metal! Why can you handle less shot-peening than that other piece of metal?!” Rather, they reinforce the metal with other pieces in order to give it back its formerly solid grounding.
No one has a “people” formula. That’s why psychologists exist. Be aware of the shot-peeing you have been under, then read a good blog or talk it out, evaluate how you want to manage your time, and help create simplicity in life before you feel like you’ve been hit with a ball “peen” hammer. Same principle, but the indentation it causes are bigger.
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Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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