Why police officers fall off the ‘hypervigilance cliff’ and how to avoid it

It’s no secret that the stress of police work can bleed into your off-duty life. But it doesn’t have to be debilitating


By Mark Walton

Every day you go to work and feel the rush of energy that comes with walking in the back door of the department, briefly hearing the BOLOs and heading to your zone. The day will be filled with the routine of the non-routine. And then you go home, secure your gun and badge, and find your favorite chair.

When your partner asks what you want to do for dinner you reply, “Whatever you want is fine.” You’ve made decisions for people all day, you don’t want to make anymore. You’re experiencing the tail end of a biological process, and it might be killing you.

Adrenaline and cortisol

Officers often suffer from adrenal exhaustion and fatigue, a byproduct of daily hypervigilance, which can create dysregulation of cortisol – the stress hormone. This cortisol and adrenaline dysregulation causes officers to “come alive” during their shift and causes them to crash with fatigue and hormonal dumps at the end of their shift.

Over time, this hormonal dysregulation can predispose officers to many physical and mental ailments including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, depression, anti-social and thrill-seeking behaviors, suicidal thoughts and other PTSD-like symptoms. [1]

This can lead to maladaptive coping strategies like heavy alcohol consumption, and it can also strain personal relationships.

I call this “falling off the hypervigilance cliff.”

Falling off the hypervigilance cliff

In reviewing studies, my personal observance, interviews with former local officers and considering shortened lifespan of retirees [2], I believe separation from the job results in falling off a hypervigilance “cliff.” But the height from which you fall and the severity of the crash depends on how high officers have climbed on the hypervigilance continuum.

An officer in a small community with low crime is lower on the continuum but still significantly higher than the average person. An officer in a high-crime zone with repeated exposure to unknown situations or hostile public is much higher on the continuum. Similarly, a 30-year retiree will have further to fall than a young officer who changes careers.

In my personal experience teaching recruits for federal agencies, recruits who were former law enforcement officers all affirmed the above findings, particularly the growing disconnect from family. Notably, recruits who engaged in more frequent “high-risk” enforcement activities such as drug enforcement, high call volume and arrests, or sustained public interaction, showed more acute symptoms of maladaptive coping and reported higher instances of familial discord.

Former local officers who were becoming agents reported symptoms such as depression, anger, confusion and frustration for a significant period following the transition. I also experienced these symptoms for two years following the switch from local to federal law enforcement.

On the other end of the hypervigilance continuum, most officers know someone who retired and passed shortly thereafter. That retiree fell from their hypervigilance cliff without the benefit of slowly transitioning down.

Newer officers leaving the profession early to become agents were not on the cliff for as long, nor do they fall all the way down. They fall to a much lower level of hypervigilance given the intermittent nature of high-stress stimuli for federal agents. They still feel a significant mental, emotional and physical impact from the fall, but they didn’t fall nearly as far as a 20-to-30-year retiree. Additionally, federal crossovers are younger and forced into a fitness regimen for their new position, which mitigates the detoxification from continual adrenal gland dysregulation.

Easing the fall

So how do we get off the hypervigilance cliff? Unfortunately, the job requires we climb it, but we can maintain a lower altitude on the continuum and employ better ways to transition down when the time comes while focusing on maintaining personal relationships that underpin so much of our health.

Here are five ways to slow a fall from the hypervigilance cliff:

  1. Awareness: Programs that teach officers about the causes of stress and the effects stress has on their health are vital. Teaching officers about relaxation, resilience and self-regulation has shown positive effects on officer well-being and provides a platform to institute the recommendations listed below. [3]
  2. Exercise: Routine exercise allows officers to disrupt the adrenaline cortisol cycle that results in listlessness, indecisiveness and the shadow self that so often leads to failed interpersonal relationships and decreased job performance. Exercise as simple as walking can be both beneficial and allow officers to reconnect with loved ones by sharing the activity. [4]
  3. Coping: Both officers and supervisors must be trained extensively in approach coping. This is defined as emotionally and openly addressing stressors, such as after-action debriefs, versus the common response, particularly in law enforcement, of avoidance coping, which is somewhat enabled by the job wherein you’re moving from call to call. Approach coping allows for post-traumatic growth as a result of confronting the stressors, discussing and resolving the stressors on a regular basis, and negates the need for avoidance coping, which often leads to substance use and abuse. [5]
  4. Rotate out of “hot zones”: Since World War I, it has long been acknowledged that military personnel should be rotated through hot zones to prevent “shell shock,” or PTSD, to maintain operational readiness. [6]

    While the nature of police work requires ongoing response, there are assignments within many mid-size to large cities that are more exposed to highly traumatic events. These include high crime zones, narcotics and street crime units, etc. Officers in these posts experience higher instances of cortisol blunting in response to more and worse stimuli, leading to overall psychological and physical health risks. [7]

    Officers should be reassigned regularly to balance high crime exposure with zones of low criminal activity to allow decompression, reflection and a return to normal conditioning. Officers should particularly be transitioned to lower stress and interactional impact positions for the few years leading to retirement.
  5. Encourage officers to disconnect off duty: Teach officers resilience measures to alleviate stress, engage outside the job and disconnect off duty. This may include measures such as meditation, self-assessment profiling, encouraging family engagement, and encouraging hobbies and outside interests. This encouragement may even be conducted weekly at a front-line supervisory level. In other words, detach the officer from the bonds of his law enforcement persona when off duty.

For agencies, this means a happier, more mentally, emotionally, and physically fit officer which should yield numerous benefits including better cognitive function, better public interaction and more resilient officers.

NEXT: Dr. John Violanti on building healthy, resilient police officers

References

1. Premier Health. Beware High Levels of Cortisol, the Stress Hormone.

2. Violanti J, et al. (November 2017). Police stressors and health: a state-of-the-art review. Policing 40(4): 642-656.

3. Rineer J. (May 2018). Stress reduction programs for police officers: What needs to change. Research Triangle Institute International Press.

4. Kulbarsh P. (August 2014). Cortisol: Law enforcement obesity, chronic stress, death. Officer.com.

5. Arble E, Daugherty A, Arnetz B. (December 2017). Models of first responder coping: Police officers as a unique population. Stress Health, 34(5):612–621.

6. Hix WM, Polich JM, Lippiatt T. (2003). Army stationing and rotation policy. Rand.org.

7. Violanti J, et al. (February 2017). For cops, exposure to stressful situations dysregulates cortisol pattern. Science Daily.


About the author

Mark Walton is a 25-year law enforcement veteran with 10 years of experience as a local officer and detective and 15 years of experience as a federal special agent. He is currently an agent with the U.S. Secret Service, assigned as an instructor at the James J Rowley Training Center. 

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