PTSD and Hypervigilance in First Responders

PTSD and Hypervigilance in First Responders

Do you find yourself constantly surveying your surroundings to the point that it’s difficult to focus on conversations or tasks? Are you easily startled and reactive to sounds around you? Perhaps you overreact in situations where the environment overwhelms your senses because you feel there’s a potential threat to your own or someone else’s safety. For first responders, these indicators of hypervigilance may sound extremely familiar. Find out how to stop hypervigilance and seek treatment for this and related conditions.

What’s Hypervigilance?

Hypervigilance is described as the feeling of being constantly on edge while experiencing an increased level of sensitivity and reactivity to the world around you. People with hypervigilance live in an elevated state of awareness in which they’re always scanning their surroundings to identify potential threats. Although hypervigilance isn’t an official diagnosis, it can present as a symptom of other mental health conditions such as anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How Does It Develop?

Hypervigilance typically develops as a result of trauma. It’s common in survivors of abuse and those who’ve been in combat or have a diagnosis of PTSD. Around 6% of Americans will have PTSD at some point in their lives. In contrast, an estimated 30% of first responders develop PTSD due to their line of work.

When you’re a first responder, living in a state of hypervigilance is understandable given the traumatic scenes and events you experience on the job. However, when your subconscious is on constant high alert for signs of danger, it can have a negative effect on both your mental health and your relationships with others.

Environmental factors or experiences can also trigger the symptoms of hypervigilance, including:

  • Feeling abandoned
  • Hearing loud, sudden noises
  • Seeing reminders of traumatic experiences
  • Being around someone who’s exhibiting chaotic behavior
  • Feeling emotional distress
  • Experiencing physical pain

These are just a few of the things that might trigger someone with hypervigilance to start exhibiting symptoms when they otherwise appeared to be managing well.

Symptoms of Hypervigilance

There are a number of symptoms you may experience as part of hypervigilance. These can be emotional, behavioral or physical. There are also some long-term effects of hypervigilance to be aware of.

The behavioral symptoms of hypervigilance may be more obvious to those around you. These include:

  • Having overreactions to changes in your physical environment
  • Reacting uncharacteristically to something said to you
  • Being jumpy or visibly on edge
  • Suddenly becoming hostile when you hear or see something you perceive as a threat

You can also experience physical symptoms as a result of hypervigilance, such as:

  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Increased adrenaline
  • Quick, shallow breathing
  • Dilated pupils
  • Sweating unexplained by other causes

Emotional symptoms that affect your quality of life and ability to maintain relationships can also result from hypervigilance, including:

  • Fearing judgment from people around you
  • Being emotionally distant or withdrawn
  • Unexplained outbursts
  • Severe mood swings
  • Persistent worrying
  • Anger as a response to trauma
  • Severe anxiety
  • Constant fear

Potential Long-Term Effects of Hypervigilance

Hypervigilance can have long-term negative effects, such as feeling fatigued and exhausted due to the heightened state of awareness your body lives in. Other potential long-term consequences of hypervigilance include:

  • Social isolation
  • Damage to personal relationships
  • Inability to continue working
  • Using work as an escape for dealing with challenging emotions
  • Substance use as a way to cope with stress/panic/fear
  • Difficulty sleeping

If you believe you’re experiencing hypervigilance, it’s vital to identify the root cause. It may stem from an undiagnosed mental health disorder such as PTSD, anxiety or schizophrenia. If you don’t feel ready to seek professional treatment, start by talking to a loved one, confiding in a coworker or having a conversation with your supervisor about work-related emotional and physical challenges you’re experiencing.

How to Stop Hypervigilance in First Responders

If you’re a first responder dealing with hypervigilance due to work-related experiences, help is available. There are a number of ways to improve your quality of life and manage hypervigilance. It starts with carving out time in your day to actively practice relaxation and stress-reduction techniques to counter the high-stress aspects of your job.

Hypervigilance can be valuable while you’re on the job, since it helps you react quickly and think fast in emergency situations. But as soon as you’re off the clock, you need to shift your mindset to prioritize decompressing. How you use your downtime is critical to preventing exhaustion and burnout, because a hypervigilant state of alert isn’t sustainable for very long.

Here are some ways to unwind when you’re not on the job to help you make stress management a part of your life.

Practice Yoga or Meditation

Taking up yoga, practicing meditation, learning some breathing exercises or simply spending time at the gym can help relax your body and mind after a stressful day.

Try Journaling

Writing in a journal on a daily basis is a therapeutic way to express your thoughts without fear of judgment. It’s a safe space to work through anything that’s troubling you and help get specific events out of your head.

Take up a Hobby

Having something you enjoy doing and look forward to outside of work can help you de-stress when a shift ends. An activity such as painting, fishing, knitting or horseback riding can be a fun way to occupy your mind and take your focus off work.

Take Time off When You Need To

First responders have a challenging job that requires 110% of their energy at all times. So when you start feeling stressed, burned out or fatigued, take time off to regroup. Doing so can benefit others, too, because you can’t help them if you don’t take care of yourself first.

Talk to a Counselor or Therapist

If trying stress-reduction techniques on your own isn’t helping your symptoms of hypervigilance, it’s time to think about speaking to a professional. A therapist can offer you techniques for coping with these feelings or help you investigate whether a mental health condition is causing your hypervigilance.

We’re Here to Help

At Restore Mental Health, our team can work with you to develop a treatment plan to address your hypervigilance symptoms and the underlying cause. We offer anxiety and PTSD treatment programs that include cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy and more. Contact us today for more information or to get started.