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Helping First Responders Overcome the Effects of Stress

Ask any new first responder who participates in his first shooting call, a traumatic incident involving a child fighting for her life, a multi-vehicle accident, or other horrific event, and he is likely to tell you that during the event he experienced tunnel vision, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate.

Understanding why these physiological events occur can help first responders control them or effectively mitigate them.

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When the human body is exposed to an immediate threat or traumatic incident, the sympathetic nervous system responds by releasing adrenaline into the bloodstream. The amygdala in the brain sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which controls involuntary activities such as breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, and the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels.

Under stress, the hypothalamus instructs the pituitary gland to release chemicals in the body such as cortisol. Also known as the stress hormone, cortisol triggers a flood of glucose that provides an immediate energy source to the muscles. Cortisol inhibits insulin production so that glucose is not stored in the body but is instead available for immediate use. This is why a first responder’s heart rate and energy level will accelerate.

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On the surface, cortisol releases can help first responders by providing additional energy and an increased focus on the traumatic event. Over time, however, cortisol can have an adverse effect. For example, continuous releases of cortisol can result in weight gain, digestive problems, and cardiovascular disease. Each of these is commonly associated with health problems among first responders.

Mitigating the Physiological Effects of Stress

While it may not be possible to control the physiological effects of experiencing traumatic events and stress, there are several steps that can be taken to mitigate and counter them.

Stress hormones can cause increased rapid breathing, which must be addressed because rapid breathing can result in hyperventilation. Hyperventilation can lead to decreased levels of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, lightheadedness, and numbing in the hands or feet.

The good news is that the rapid releases of cortisol can be counteracted by applying patterned breathing, taking deep and controlled breaths through the nose, which delivers oxygen to the lungs and diaphragm. Patterned breathing under stress is important because it can quickly counter cortisol releases and help first responders maintain their focus on the situation.

Auditory Exclusion Can Also Occur when First Responders Are under an Immediate Threat

A condition known as auditory exclusion can also occur when first responders are under an immediate threat or such stress that they do not hear radio traffic or others on the scene because their full attention is on the event.

Auditory exclusion occurs when the heart rate is above 175 bpm. With blood rushing through the eardrums at that speed it “actually creates noise that cancels out what the person is hearing. That noise may come off as static, a hiss, or ringing in the ears.”

Patterned breathing can control auditory exclusion and the heart rate. In addition, take time to process what is occurring. This process often can begin before arrival on scene by applying critical thinking and analysis to what is known about the situation.

Taking the few seconds necessary before and while on the scene to process the situation may reduce the release of cortisol and help first responders increase their focus without losing situational awareness.

Recognizing and Mitigating Tunnel Vision Is also Important

Recognizing and mitigating tunnel vision is also important because it reduces peripheral vision, which makes it difficult to maintain situational awareness. Mentally rehearsing the response to an emergency as first responders approach the scene can help to avoid tunnel vision. While on scene, first responders must frequently scan their environment and take steps to remain calm. Remaining calm lessens cortisol releases and helps first responders maintain patterned breathing and lowers their heart rate.

Effectively managing the physiological effects of acute stress and traumatic events will help first responders react better to a potentially traumatic situation and increase their safety. Proper diet, rest, and exercise are also essential in helping first responders manage stress.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor at American Military University and has over two decades in the field of homeland security. His expertise includes human trafficking, maritime security and narcotics trafficking trends. Jarrod recently conducted in-country research in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in human and narcotics trafficking. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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