Brotherhood of Biochemistry

It comes as no surprise to those who love a police officer that the work changes them. Sometimes these changes are subtle and sometimes not. Officers themselves recognize the difference in the way they feel after they have been on the streets for a while. Excitement often only becomes associated with work. This animation turns zombie-like once they enter their front door. Families get frustrated by feeling shut-out and isolated. A perceptual and physiological reason exists for many of these issues. With awareness and understanding, officers and their loved ones can neutralize the negative of this brotherhood of biochemistry.

Taught to Survive

"The average citizen travels the streets of his community daily oblivious psychologically and neurologically to the events unfolding before him," Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D. explains. "Law enforcement officers, on the other hand, are trained and learn their very survival can depend on their interpreting most aspects of their environment as potentially lethal." From the academy on, officers are taught to view their environment as dangerous. This constant vigilance leads to always being in a state of fight or flight. Vigilance equals survival.

Although this change in perception can keep them alive, it soon becomes a constant in their lives. Gilmartin describes how both the perceptual and physiological effect become ingrained. Whether they are tracking a suspect down a dark alley in the dead of night or sitting around their dining room table with family, the physical and mental adaptation to police work is present.

Physiological Changes

Survival becomes an adaptation in the way an officer views and reacts to the world around him. Gilmartin explains how those outside the police role have the "capacity to be non-reactive to stimuli whose threshold of perceived potential danger is insufficient to warrant attention." Officers, on the other hand, process even the most harmless situations for threat. Reticular attentiveness occurs and the potential danger signal is experience by the officer physiologically. "Mild to moderate elevations of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system will be innervated," explains Gilmartin. "This will be interpreted by the officer as a feeling of energization, rapid thought pattern, and a general speeding up of the physical and cognitive reactions." These reactions become learned and the generated limbic arousal becomes common place. The good feelings created become associated only with the police role. This, along with the down-side of what Gilmartin calls the Hypervigilance Biological Rollercoaster, can prove troublesome to an officer's home life.

Home Life Effects

Many significant others lament how the work has changed their loved one. Sometimes it's hard to pin-point exactly when it happened or articulate the changes in behavior and attitude defining the differences. 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. It also explains much of those changes felt by family members who lament, He only seems to be happy at work, or why does she only get excited when she talks about work? "A state of social-physiological reaction that the rookie street cop learns as inseparable from the police role," Gilmartin explains. "This sets the stage for a career-long perceptual-attitudinal linkage. It is at this point that 'cop work gets in the blood'." This can cause significant family disruption.

Magic Chair

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.