Hypervigilance and its Effects on First Responders - By Rachel Koontz

Updated: Dec 23, 2020



“If you don’t take time to consistently practice relaxation and stress-reduction techniques, you’ll find it difficult to overcome the hypervigilance cycle. To promote the nervous system’s relaxation response, you’ll need to engage in a mentally active process that leaves the body relaxed, calm, centered, and focused.” - Captain Dan Willis, Bulletproof Spirit

Hypervigilance is an important tool for survival for first responders.


Being in a state of increased alertness helps firefighters, police, paramedics and EMTs, and other emergency personnel, do their jobs. During a high-intensity situation, a first responder must be aware of the many details and factors involved, make decisions quickly and accurately, and take action without hesitation. In these situations, hypervigilance helps protect first responders from potentially dangerous situations, but it is not a state that can be sustained for long periods of time. Eventually, hypervigilance becomes exhausting, overwhelming, and draining to the body and mind.


What is Hypervigilance?

Below are a few of the noticeable factors when someone is in a state of hypervigilance, or hyperarousal, and the body is in stress response.


Physical

  • Increased adrenaline, heart rate, and blood pressure

  • Faster breathing

  • Sweating

  • Dilated pupils


Emotional

  • Mood swings

  • Overreactions ranging from irritability to sudden outbursts

  • Panic or fear

  • Anger as a response to trauma

  • Increased worrying


What are the negative effects of Extended hypervigilance?

  • Difficulty sleeping and fatigue

  • Anxiety

  • Sensitivity to surroundings and jumpy reflexes and reactions

  • Overworking as an attempt to avoid difficult emotions

  • Substance abuse to manage fear and anxiety

  • Avoidance of social situations leading to isolation and lack of support


Because the brain is on high alert rather than in a state of calm, hypervigilance can result in an inappropriate or aggressive response to a situation that is nonthreatening. This state of mind can make individuals feel suspicious of others, overly concerned with the behavior of others, negative, doubtful, angry and overwhelmed. These effects can take a toll on interpersonal relationships over time.


My Experience with Hypervigilance


“It is exhausting to view the entire world as a potential threat. It takes a great deal of energy to remain vigilant and 'on guard.'” PTSD UK

During my recent ridealong with Butte County Sherriff’s Office, I experienced a brief glimpse into what it is like to spend time on shift in a state of hypervigilance.


First sitting with dispatch, I observed the intensity and feeling of being ‘on edge’ with each call that came through. While many calls ended up being simply informational or even repetitive, every time the sound of ringing came through, there was a rush of anticipation wondering what the call would be, how urgent or dangerous the situation was, and what the best method of response would entail.


Once I stepped into the police car of the deputy, I realized that dispatch was only a preview of the level of intensity that officers on duty experience while on patrol. Even common interactions with a straightforward protocol – interviewing citizens about their experience and following up on interview calls about a case, for example – held some element of hypervigilance. With every move a deputy makes, there is a potential threat waiting to unfold. Throughout the day I found myself wondering, What’s going to happen next?


At one point, we were knocking on the door of a house where the deputies knew a suspect with a warrant for his arrest was staying. Although the woman inside the house did not agree to open the door, and we couldn’t see the suspect, the officers suspected that he was just inside, hiding out.

“Don’t stand in front of this door,” one deputy told me, motioning for me to move to the side. “In case they come out shooting.”


I immediately moved away, all the hairs on my body standing up, a rush of adrenaline moving through my system.


In a matter of seconds, I became aware of the potential danger around me, and suddenly felt a little like I was moving in slow motion, noticing the sounds of the people inside the house, my eyes tracing potential exit pathways, my brain calculating options for what to do should the situation become dangerous. After returning to the car and leaving the scene, I could feel it took a minute for my heartbeat to slow down to its normal pace. The other deputies didn’t seem to experience as much hypervigilance, but I was certainly feeling its effects.


Later in the day, the experience was even more intense when an arrest was made of a man who was high on drugs and being combative.


Four deputies restrained him as he was handcuffed and moved into the back of the car—after he had been resisting being restrained, was yelling profanities, and even managed to thrash his body forward and hit his head on the hood of the car. In that situation, I could feel my entire body move into stress response—my heartbeat quickened, my breath became more shallow, I could feel a wave of butterflies in my stomach, and I felt the urge to flee. It would take a solid 10 minutes to come back down to a normal state.


While none of the experiences of the day felt ‘traumatic,’ when I returned home, I realized how cumulatively the stress of the day and the ups and downs moving in and out of hypervigilance had affected my body and mind. I felt exhausted, both physically and mentally, my body heavy and my mind busy and distracted, playing over the memories of the different interactions and arrests that had been made during the day.


I was surprised at how even one day—less than one shift—of a ridealong felt so draining. I had a new understanding of hypervigilance and its effects, both positive and negative.


I was thankful to put to use a short yoga practice and 10 minutes of breathing exercises to help bring my system back into a state of calm.


The thing about hypervigilance is that it isn’t an experience we can readily ‘turn off.’


There is no switch for telling our bodies and brains to ignore the stimulus around us and simply stop anticipating the next move of the potentially dangerous person who has a warrant for their arrest, could be armed, or is on drugs or struggling with mental illness. In those moments, officers must remain alert, and should— for their own personal safety, the safety of their colleagues, and for the safety of other citizens involved.


But after they get home and need to decompress, it’s important that the body return to a state of regulation, and the stress response be mitigated.


After a stressful shift, a first responder needs to rest, recover, nourish with good food, exercise to burn off anxious energy, and sleep peacefully. A practice like yoga is powerful in helping the body and mind return to a state of regulation and cope with hypervigilance.


While in the moment, the phenomenon of hypervigilance can prove useful, but it is not a state of mind that can be sustained. I am grateful I had the chance to experience this firsthand, as it has given me a new appreciation for hypervigilance and its effects on first responders, and what tools are helpful to minimize the negative impact it can have.


Written by Rachel Koontz, YFFR Certified Instructor 2

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