Brotherhood of Biochemistry

When asked why they do what they do, many officers make the statement, the work gets into your blood. With the affects of hypervigilance, this statement is accurate.

One of the main tenets of science is for every action there is an equal reaction. For police hypervigilance this reaction often occurs where the officer feels the least threatened. "The pendulum of homeostasis swings into a parasympathetic state of tiredness, numbness, and an almost detached exhaustion when interacting with the less threatening and more mundane tasks of after work home-life," Gilmartin explains. "The hypervigilance and consequent 'street-high' of the work place leads to the 'off-duty depression' of the parasympathetic swing in an attempt to homeostatically revitalize the body." Police families frequently experience this as an apathetic reaction. He or she comes home and flops down onto the couch or, as Gilmartin describes it, the magic chair and checks out. Any attempt at conversation will be met with grunts or incoherent answers.

Social Isolation

Another expression of hypervigilance is the narrowing of an officer's social world. "The seeing the world through the eyes of a police officer becomes the one style of social interaction that is practiced daily," says Gilmartin. "The perceptual set of hypervigilance and consequently perceived hyper-vulnerability has the officer narrowing his/her social circles. And also narrowing his/her comfort zone of where she/he is able to interact without feelings of vulnerability and reactiveness." Distrust of others and the camaraderie felt only with their colleagues cause police to associate only with other officers. The high they experience when talking about work to those who understand becomes the ruler for which all relationships are measured. Soon any interaction with those outside the police role become obsolete. Police families experience this by constant begging-off of social engagements involving non-police parties. Soon, loved ones are going to most engagements alone or not at all and resentment is felt for the animation viewed only when their officer is with other officers.

Neutralizing the Negative

Like most things in the police world, you have to take the bad with the good. It's hard to argue with the necessity of adapted hypervigilance. It keeps you loved one alive. Also, like most things, awareness and counter-adaption can neutralize the effects. Understanding the perceptual and physiological foundation of hypervigilance is the first step. The second is to make life-style changes to off-set the negatives.


Exercise is a natural outlet for the intensified symptoms caused by an overactive sympathetic nervous system. When an officer's body is not allowed to move fast when faced with the fight or flight mode, adrenaline remains trapped inside causing an intense feeling of tension. Exercise quickly releases the tension. "Once you show cops how to break that rollercoaster, they break it very quickly," states Gilmartin. "Once you get on that treadmill, you break out of it very quickly. The hardest step on any journey is the first." To optimize exercise, make sure it contains regularity, intensity and duration.

Curb Novelty Buying

"Financially, families trapped into the sympathetic/parasympathetic pendulum can find themselves using pathological buying as a means to induce sympathetic arousal into the family role," explains Gilmartin. "Officers will 'novelty buy' guns, cars, trucks, boats, etc. as a means of short-term excitement in the desperate attempt to feel good at home and get away from the cop work." This spending is reaction to police hypervigilance and awareness can help curb it. Gilmartin says succinctly why this is important, "The financial affairs of many police families can be devastated by the financial effects of attempting to buy out of the physiological depression secondary to hypervigilance."

Limited alcohol use, eating well and socializing outside the police world also help neutralize these effects and can make home life a lot happier.

"The perceptual set that leads to indifference and exhaustion and only feeling a sense of energy and aliveness when the occupational role is brought about can prove an unmanageable burden to an already strained police marriage," explains Gilmartin. But, like many things, as long as the officer and his or her loved ones are cognizant of the behaviors and attitudes created by police work and are willing to work to neutralize them, individuals and families can remain healthy and strong. Talk to each other about what you are experiencing and feeling. Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Seek help if it becomes too much to handle. Most of all, invest in each other and your relationship.

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