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How the hypervigilance cycle effects first responders

22 Feb 2022 6:11 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Sarah Guenette, IPSA Mental Health and Wellness Committee Member and IPSA Mental Health Section Member

Being constantly aware of surroundings can save a first responder’s life. When going in to stressful and often dangerous situations it’s necessary in order to protect themselves and others from harm and to enable them to quickly assess a situation so that they can respond to it quickly. This ability is reinforced through regular training and recertifications and by first responder culture. It is imbedded in the minds of responders that one mistake, one misperception could mean the difference between life and death for them and others.

While this ability can be integral to a responder’s safety, it can also have negative effects over time, particularly if the first responder finds themselves in a continued heightened state even when not on duty. Hypervigilance in and of itself can be lifesaving, but can also have negative consequences to health and quality of life through the continual stress its cycles impose on the mind and the body.

Hypervigilance is “the necessary manner of viewing the world from a threat-based perspective, having the mindset to see the events unfolding as potentially hazardous”. When any first responder steps from their vehicle into an unknown situation they must approach it with this mindset and they must go through their own safety protocols in their minds. Most experienced responders will automatically shift into this mode and don’t even have to consciously think about it anymore, they automatically stand in a certain place, take a certain stance or keep equipment close that they think they may need. Every situation is dangerous, potentially lethal, until proven otherwise.

Hypervigilance is rooted in biology

Every living being is driven to fight for its own survival. The brain is never more tuned in than when it perceives a threat and has to respond. It sends out signals to the body to prepare it for possible fight, flight or freeze. This process is completed subconsciously and faster than any of us can recognize, the brain takes care of it for us. In times of threat the brain will send signals to the body triggering certain physical reactions including changes in pulse, breathing rate, temperature and various other functions such as blood pressure. Most people have felt this when something scares them, even if it’s just a scene that makes you jump in a scary movie. These physical changes allow the body to access heightened survival techniques such as increased vision, increased hearing, faster reaction time and energy to be used to fight for survival if necessary. 

Most people have experienced this reaction to something that is frightening, but first responders not only experience this during times of danger, but, through their training, they consciously trigger this when entering an unknown situation in order to be alert to threats. Given the fact that this heightened state has such a big impact on biological functioning, it is easy to see how it could have an effect on the psychological and physical health of first responders over time as they enter this state daily, if not multiple times a day. Sometimes the body loses the ability to return to the state it was in before the appearance of the possible threat, the flight/fight/freeze state and its inherent biological side effects remain. This can lead to post traumatic stress disorder which requires more in-depth treatment. This article is in relation to the day to day managing of hypervigilance that is not at the level of PTSD.

Managing hypervigilance   

The challenge with addressing hypervigilance in first responders is that it cannot be eliminated, nor should it be. It is necessary not only for them to protect themselves, but also for them to protect others. Agencies can’t simply stop emphasizing hypervigilance in training exercises, it needs to be so embedded in the first responder’s reaction process that they don’t even have to think about. However, prolonged hypervigilance and its accompanying side effects can affect health and relationships. It becomes the lens through which first responders view the world, they are trained to see potential threat in every situation and can’t just “switch that off”. Since this cannot be eliminated, the key to combatting the effects of long-term hypervigilance is for first responders, agencies and first responder families to increase understanding of it.

There is a “lower phase” of the hypervigilance cycle which kicks in usually after the first responder goes off duty and this is the phase that has the most impact on relationships. After being in a heightened state while on duty, the first responder can often slip into exhaustion, apathy, detachment and isolation when at home. Over time the body can find it challenging to return to a healthy median level of arousal when off duty and tends to exist only in the two extremes of highly vigilant and indifferent.

If left alone the body will return to a state of balance. If the first responder allows themselves time to rest and interact with their loved ones, the symptoms of the counter effect of hyper vigilance will be alleviated within about 18 to 24 hours. The first responder needs to be aware of this and allow themselves a healthy amount of time in order to recover.

However, some are either uncomfortable staying in that part of the recovery process or are eager to get back into the excitement and energized world that they experience at work. This is something that junior first responders are particularly prone to as the job roles are very exciting when you are new to them. But it is important to set a healthy recovery routine early in a career so that it can be maintained. If not, it can lead to broken relationships and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Dr Kevin Gilmartin has identified the following symptoms that first responders and their loved ones should be aware of as they indicate that hyper vigilance is not being managed well:

  • The desire for social isolation at home
  • Unwillingness to engage in conversations/activities that aren’t work related
  • Reduced interaction with non-work friends
  • Procrastination in decision making that is not related to work
  • Infidelity
  • Non-involvement in children's needs and activities
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or recreational activities

These can all lead to the first responder eliminating anything not job related from their lives and that is not healthy. It is important for them to have balanced interests and social circles in order to manage hyper vigilance in a healthy way.

Agencies should ensure that they are training first responders not only in how to be hypervigilant, but also how to return to a healthy state afterwards. They should also strive to ensure that responders have an adequate time to recover prior to having to return to work. This can of course be a challenge with issues such as staffing, but will promote longer term health and morale for members. This should not just be a focus for new members, but training and awareness should be promoted throughout a responder’s career so that hypervigilance doesn’t wear them down over time.

Families and loved ones also need to be educated on what is going on and what the officer needs as support during that time after work when their body is returning to a healthy state. Loved ones can be supportive and encouraging in promoting balanced interests and hobbies.

Tips to overcome the negative effects of hypervigilance:

  • Exercise can relax the body and the mind and can counteract the effects of the adrenalin rush brought about by hypervigilance.
  • Maintain non work social circles. This allows for the first responder to enter into conversations and activities that are not directly related to their work and allows them to detach.
  • Stay involved in a variety of activities and hobbies that are relaxing and generate positive energy. This can help alleviate hypervigilance and can also help balance out the cynicism about the world that long serving first responders can sometimes develop.
  • Practice good time management and book beneficial activities ahead of time and stick to that schedule even if the first responder doesn’t feel like it or have the energy. It will be beneficial in the long term.

About the Author

Sarah Guenette, MA, spent over 16 years working in the public safety field. Sarah has a background in   9-1-1 and dispatch spending over 10 years working in these roles in the city of Calgary. She ended her career there overseeing the Learning and Development section for 9-1-1 and Bylaw Services. This included training, health and safety and quality improvement.  She implemented and oversaw the Peer Support team for these groups for over 8 years. Sarah is passionate about creating and maintaining a healthy workplace for public safety members. She is also the proud wife of a Calgary Police Service officer so is focused on what loved ones and family can do to support first responders.

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