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Letter to a Civilian - Risk of Hypervigilance in First Responders

Updated: August 6th, 2021

Imagine having a job where your life, the life of your colleagues and those in your community depend on you being alert at all times to avoid danger and possible life-threatening situations.

In a split second, several lives could be changed forever because for just one moment, you had let your guard down.

As a civilian, that may be very challenging to understand, as your perception of the world is very different. A person on the street stops you to ask for directions. They quickly reach their hand into their pocket and pull out a piece of paper with the address of their destination. Would you have noticed their hand going into their pocket? Even if you were aware, you likely would not view their actions as a threat. Your own life experiences would have demonstrated that when someone is putting their hand in their pocket, they are reaching for their wallet, phone or money. As a police officer, you will have been more likely to have exposure to incidents where a person putting their hand into their pocket is actually reaching for a weapon. For a first responder, being vigilant of a person’s movements could mean the difference between life and death.

“In the military, service members are taught: "Stay alert, stay alive!" But once, home that feeling of being on high alert is hard to turn off.“ (Holcombe, Lt. Col. Philip).

How many times have you been driving on the highway talking with passengers, listening to your favourite podcast or belting out the lyrics to the AC/DC song on the radio? Suddenly you realize that you were not paying any attention to where you were. What if there was an emergency? Would you be able to tell the 911 dispatcher where you were?

As civilians, we may find ourselves in occasional moments of hypervigilance, such as walking down the street late at night in an unfamiliar neighbourhood or driving to work in bad weather and road conditions. Mostly, we tend to sit back and enjoy every day events, oblivious to our surroundings. Meanwhile, first responders are constantly watching, waiting, protecting. But what effect does chronic hypervigilance have on them?

Hypervigilant : extremely or excessively vigilant; highly or abnormally alert to potential danger or threat

Being vigilant can be very beneficial; lifesaving, in some cases. Being in a state of extreme alertness creates stress in your body designed to help you handle a potentially threatening situation. A vigilant person might notice the vehicle several cars ahead swerving in and out of lanes and recognize it as a possible threat. Once the situation is perceived as a threat, their fight or flight response is activated which will create changes in their body and brain that will help them recognize the danger and give them the opportunity to remove themselves from the situation. This is an example of a short-term stressor which is very different from the chronic state of stress and hypervigilance that a first responder will experience which could have damaging effects on their body and brain.

Your response to a situation that may threaten your survival depends in part on your autonomic nervous system (ANS) which is comprised of your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is your fight or flight response, and your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is your rest and digest response.

Autonomic Nervous System

Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) fight or flight

Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) rest and digest

When you perceive a situation as a threat your brain triggers your sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, to assist your body in the ability to respond appropriately to the threat (fight or flight). Once the threat no longer exists, it is the responsibility of your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) to bring your body back to homeostasis. “The balance between these two systems is essential for regulating the body’s energy and directing resources to where they are needed.” (From Emerson, David and Hopper, Elizabeth. “Overcoming Trauma through Yoga”. North Atlantic Books, 2011.)

Without this balance, you could find yourself stuck in the fight response with your body continuing to release stress hormones.

This ongoing state of stress can weaken your immune system, making you vulnerable to illnesses and disease. It can cause fatigue which may lead to injuries and affect your decision-making and judgement. Other effects of chronic stress may include increased inflammation, gastrointestinal disorders, difficulty concentrating, irritability and/or depression.

While the list of negative effects of chronic stress can seem overwhelming, it is not a life sentence for a first responder that depends on being hypervigilant while on duty. There are ways to reverse the effects of stress hormones and bring your body back to a state of homeostasis. Activities that involve deep breathing such as exercise, yoga and meditation, help to regulate your nervous system and bring it back into balance.

Deep breathing increases oxygen to your brain which stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). The biggest advantage of deep breathing techniques is that they are easy and accessible, whether you are at home, sitting at your desk, or on the truck heading to a call. It only takes a couple of minutes of deep breathing through your nose to have a calming effect on your nervous system which will result in a positive impact on your body. “Consistently practicing relaxation techniques reduces stress symptoms by lowering your blood pressure, slowing your breathing rate, increasing blood flow to major muscles, reducing muscle tension and chronic pain, improving your concentration, reducing anger and frustration and boosting your confidence in handling problems.” (From Willis, Dan. “Bulletproof Spirit”. New World Library, revised edition 2019)

There are benefits of giving first responders these tools, such as deep breathing techniques, to help them reduce chronic stress and regulate their nervous system. These include a decreased number of sick days, fewer mistakes/accidents on the job leading to fewer disability claims, career longevity and improvement in relationships at work, home, and within the community.

First responders have unique jobs that expose them to traumatic events and stress on a daily basis.

The stress may become chronic, it may be cumulative and without intervention, it will likely take a toll on their physical and mental health. “The diminished health and wellness of first responders is extremely disheartening. The number one cause of death for police officers is suicide.”(From Willis, Dan. “Bulletproof Spirit”. New World Library, revised edition 2019).

By taking a proactive approach and teaching first responders how to process job-related stress and build resilience we can avoid a mass exodus of skilled and dedicated firefighters, police officers and paramedics suffering from burn out, illness, and mental health struggles. But the clock is ticking as we continue to lose our first responders. This is our opportunity to step up and protect the protectors.

Written by YogaShield® Instructor Susie DeBaie Class 0010 S2