General Adaptation Syndrome:
- Alarm equals arousal (cognitive, physical, emotional)
- Resistance equals behaviors to cope with the arousal
- Exhaustion equals the period when energy to maintain resistance is depleted
Concept developed by Dr. Hans Selye
GAS in General Public:
In the general public, the level of stress and arousal needed to attend to the job and perform is consistent.
While there may be periods of increased stress, and even the rare occasion of exposure to a critical or traumatic event, in this population, their stress response rises to the occasion, and when the occasion is over the stress level returns back to the base-line level.
GAS in PSP:
In PSP, the level of stress and arousal needed in order to attend their job is significantly higher, thus their base-line level of stress arousal (preparing to respond to critical incidents and trauma) begins at the start of their rotation and remains at high levels not only for their shift, but their entire tour. What this means is that in PSP their “fight and flight” activation is always on. Their “stress reaction” requires a level of hyper-vigilance “being on guard and ready to respond” – in anticipation.
This level of hyper-vigilance takes its toll on PSP in that they alternate between periods of increased arousal to exhaustion and fatigue. The restorative phase of recovery from this sustained hyper-vigilance takes more than 4 days to recover from.
The Reticular Activating System (RAS):
- The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is what determines a person’s level of alertness necessary to meet the demands of the environment.
- Whenever the brain interprets the potential for threats or risks, the RAS engages the higher functioning levels of the brain in order to attain a higher level of awareness and perceptiveness of the environment.
- This response is meant to increase survival by enabling the brain to perceive potential threats before they take place.
- The increased level of alertness and awareness of the surrounding environment needed for PSP to safely and effectively perform their operational duties is caused by a hypervigilance response and, in turn, produces an increased functioning of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS):
- The ANS controls the body’s internal organs and automatic functions such as pulse, respiration, body temperature, blood pressure and other functions.
- The level and pattern of responsiveness of the autonomic nervous system is an individual’s characteristic manner of emotional reactivity to risk, demand, or threat; i.e., their personal physical temperament.
- The autonomic nervous system has two main branches:
- The Sympathetic Branch: the part that reacts to and controls bodily functions in times of challenge or threat – this is what is involved in when PSP are “on-duty”
- The Parasympathetic Branch: the part that aids in digestion, relaxation, recovery, healing – this is what is involved in when PSP are “off-duty”
- During hypervigilance the sympathetic branch turns on bodily functions that are required for physical survival. This biological state of hypervigilance is the body’s way of increasing survival through heightened functions such as; increased peripheral vision, improved hearing, faster reaction time, increased blood sugar, elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, and an overall increase in energy to meet and over-come demands and threats.
- When on-duty, hypervigilant PSP operate above the normal range of risk.
- The on-duty PSP experience this objective biological state as a subjective state of increased alertness, increased awareness of the environment, elevated sense of attention, more rapid thinking, and increased capacity to make quick decisions and think on one’s feet.
- This state of hypervigilance makes people feel alive, quick witted and able to handle any problem – essentially at first it is very enjoyable, pleasurable, even addictive.
- Hypervigilance necessarily drives PSP behaviour and often can appear to others as rude, taking unnecessary pre-cautions, but to the PSP these behaviours are what saves lives.
- Hypervigilance becomes inseparable from the role of the PSP position.
- Hypervigilance is a biologically based action and every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
- When PSP go off-duty the sympathetic branch that controls on-duty reactions necessary for survival gives way to the parasympathetic branch, which controls off-duty reactions.
- The alert, alive, engaged, quick-witted, individual changes into a detached, withdrawn, tired, and apathetic individual in his or her personal life.
- Homeostasis is the mechanism for maintaining biological balance, turns the person who has been experiencing the hypervigilance reaction while on-duty into the person experiencing the direct opposite reaction while off-duty.
- Off-Duty PSP are often tired, detached, isolated, or apathetic.
The Hypervigilance Rollercoaster:
- What starts to happen is a vicious cycle of swinging back and forth from the two aspects of hypervigilance the On-Duty phase and the Off-Duty phase.
- This is called “The Hypervigilance Rollercoaster”.
- If not managed and addressed, it can destroy the lives of PSP and their families.
- Without awareness of the effects of “the hypervigilance rollercoaster” the life of the PSP can become controlled by this pendulous effect.
- If it is not understood then relationships fail, inappropriate behaviours increase, and lives can be irreparably broken.
- After a shift ends it takes 18-24 hours for PSP to return to a normal phase of social interaction, emotion, and perception – However, most PSP have to return to work within this timeframe.
- This creates a swing between the extremes of perceptual alertness caused by the necessity to be hypervigilant and the opposite reaction of extreme detachment and inactivity at home.
- This swing becomes the everyday life of the PSP.
- If PSP and their families are not aware of this destructive cycle, then it’s harder for them to take the appropriate corrective action and avoid the devastating effects on both their personal and professional lives.
- Magic Chair effect – off-duty phase, tune out, veg-out, detachment.
- Disengagement: off-duty activities can cease to exist as a significant aspect of one’s life.
- PSP become significantly under-invested emotionally in the personal aspects of their lives and conversely, they become over-invested emotionally in the PSP role phase of their lives.
Strategies to Combat “The Hypervigilance Rollercoaster”
- Train in aggressive personal time management: understanding the need to develop a sense of control of personal time – leads to a sense of personal empowerment.
- Spontaneity: Encourage opportunities to be spontaneous within one’s personal life.
- Proactive versus Reactive Orientations: PSP work innately develops a reactive orientation with necessity for intense observation and the need to react. The problem occurs when the reactive orientation becomes the PSP’s worldview even during personal time, often translates to “I use to… do this.” or “I used to … do that.”
- PSP need to appreciate the requirement of reactivity while on-duty, but balance this with proactivity while off-duty.
- PSP should frequently review their decision-making strategies to ensure that they are using a proactive time orientation in their personal lives as opposed to a reactive time orientation.
- Learn to appreciate the important need to take control of their personal life and become proactive.
- Train to recognize the feeling of being drained as a symptom of hypervigilance and train to overcome that feeling and not let it control their personnel life.
- Schedule the Time: strategize to make personal-time decisions before the symptoms of hypervigilance prevail.
- Maintain a preplanned, written personal calendar or agenda that list goals, requirements, and choices in their personal time that they will implement.
- Make the Time: use a Personal-Time Management Calendar.
- Time Management and Relationships: prioritize making time for important people in one’s life.
- Physical Fitness: The Hypervigilance Rollercoaster is physical in nature and therefore any treatment should include some aspect that is physiological in nature.
- The swings between the highs and lows of the rollercoaster is the body’s way of recalibrating or balancing the physical effects of hypervigilance.
- Physical fitness will accelerate recovery from the lower phase of the rollercoaster.
- The type of physical fitness necessary to initiate recovery is moderate aerobic exercise approximately 30-40 minutes four to five times a week.
- Aerobic exercise is any exercise that is rhythmic, repetitive, places emphasis on the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, focuses on the cardiovascular system and places the target heart-rate as a goal of exercise. – This does not have to be going to the gym, or even running around the block it could be vacuuming, cleaning equipment, moving boxes, doing laundry, or walking up and down stairs.
- 30-40 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise moves a person from the lower phase of the rollercoaster to back up within the normal limits.
- Physical exercise not only raises the behavioural level of PSP but has significant stress-reducing components that give PSP a sense of relaxation and generalized well-being.
- Control over Financial Well-Being: PSP that schedule and maintain their physical fitness have been shown to maintain more financial well-being as well.
- The Stress Related Consumerism Cycle: attempt to move from bottom of the rollercoaster to top by making consumer purchases can be an impractical and destructive way to feel better.
- Balancing Multiple Roles in one’s Life: instead of being singularly defined by their role as a PSP it is important to balance multiple significant emotional roles in one’s life.
(Excerpted and summarized from “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement” by Kevin Gilmartin)