After some thought, it seemed fitting to talk briefly about hypervigilance to keep with the theme over the previousmonths. So, what is hyper vigilance? Dr. Kevin Gilmartin defines it as the necessary manner of viewing the world from a threat-based perspective and having the mindset to see events unfolding as potentially hazardous. Captain Dan Willis adds it “being in a state of increased alertness to help first responders 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 without hesitation. In these situations, hyper vigilance helps protect first responders from potentially dangerous situations, but it is not a state that can be sustained for a long period of time.
So, what this means is it's related to the OODA Loop (Oberve-Orient-Decide-Act). I may talk about this in a later newsletter. The OODA Loop is a part of hypervigilance, the orienting, the assigning, taking action, and constantly surveying the environment. Hypervigilance is just constantly viewing the world as threat based and the idea that everything is a threat against me. And so, it becomes a way of thinking and there's a biological response that goes along with the hypervigilance. Do any of you have to sit with your back to the wall at a coffee shop or find yourself scanning every person that walks in the door and deciding if they are safe or not. Or always planning an exit strategy, know where the fire extinguisher is, or possibly wondering if the building up to code if a fire occurred? You know who you are. You may not know it, but your spouses will probably say you look like one of those bobble heads you stick on your car dash.
Now, most of us common folk don’t have to deal with hypervigilance. We typically go about our life with what we would call a normal range of self-awareness. We do experience times of being hypervigilant, but the difference is that there's a biological effect first responders go through when you are in a hypervigilant state. The biological response is called the reticular activating system, or RAS. “The RAS is a part of our brain that determines the level of alertness that is necessary at any given time” (Science Direct). If I were to use colors for stages (Green, Yellow, Orange, and Red), your brain is going to say, okay, I am feeling like green now (Ex: sitting by a lake drinking a coffee with no cell service and not a person in site to be seen as a threat). A red may be what you’re experiencingduring an OIS, running into a structure fire, or a 911 call from a child in danger, etc. You are essentially firing on all cylinders, your pupils are dilated, and the world is moving what seems to you in slow motion.
Eventually, hypervigilance becomes exhausting, overwhelming, and draining to the body and mind. If you have been a first responder for any period, you know what this is like. When in the hypervigilant state you will find your body exhibiting factors like increased heart rate, dilated pupils, and increased adrenaline (all needed not only to protect yourself, but others, so thank you for that!!!). 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 the understanding of it.
What some forget when talking about hypervigilance is the lower phase of the cycle which kicks in usually after you go off duty and this is the phase that can have the greatest impact on relationships. After being in the heightened state all day long, you can often slide into exhaustion, apathy, detachment, and isolation when at home. Easy decisions such as what do you want for dinner are almost impossible to make or being asked to take a walk with the kids seems like your being asked to climb Mount Everest. Over time it can be difficult as your careers move along to ever feel like our self-awareness is ever in the green stage. Your level of awareness even in your days off may be in the yellow or orange, which means your bodies tend to exist only in the two extremes of highly vigilant and indifferent.
If you allow yourself time to rest and interact with your loved ones, the symptoms of the counter effect of hypervigilance will be alleviated within a day or two (Dr. Kevin Gilmartin). Not only you (first responders), but your spouse, and family need to be aware of this and allow a healthy amount of time to recover. Things the family can do to help would be to understand that it’s not them!!! If communication is poor, it can be easy for the family to start feeling like it is something they are doing wrong. First responders, remember this also doesn’t give you a pass on not mowing the lawn on your day off or ignoring the family needs. Helping yourself and your families understand what hypervigilance is, can help all learn to navigate potentially hard situations and/or confrontations. A great skill to help overcome hypervigilance would be to become a time management expert. Make plans and activities ahead of time before you are too exhausted to do so. There are many other things you can do such as exercise, spend time with non-first responder friends, and more. I have touched on these things in past newsletters.
Take care of yourselves and your family and always be willing to listen and grow.
Chaplain David Green