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  • Writer's pictureRachelle Zemlok, PsyD


Updated: Aug 30, 2021

When it comes to being married to a police or firefighter you might especially find yourself frustrated with them at times for what looks like “checking out.” There are a couple unique reasons why our first responders might be displaying this and your understanding can be helpful in figuring out how to support the change you’d like to see.

1. THE “HYPERVIGILANCE BIOLOGICAL ROLLERCOASTER”: This is a term explained by Dr. Kevin Gilmartain. He explains that when first responders are on shift they naturally have to be in a state of hyper-arousal in order to be “on” and more aware of their surroundings than the average person due to them responding to potentially life threatening calls. Our body is not made to remain in this state for so long, so naturally when they get off shift there can be a huge dip in energy levels in order for the body to try and recover back to normal. This dip can take 18-24 hours to get back to normal levels. They are likely to seem “checked out” during this time because the body is trying to disengage with as much stimuli as possible (even you) to restore energy.

2. PROCESSING INTENSE EXPERIENCES. Our brains process all experiences that we go through to really make sense of what happened and what we need to take from it. Significant events take even more time for our brains to process. Examples of these might be those that challenge our own morals and values, threaten the safety of us or others, or require us to make decisions that have lasting impacts on other people. Therefore the experiences our first responders have at work are going to require more time for their brain to process and pack it away than other things going on in daily life. When we are processing important information we can look pretty zoned out and as though we’re somewhere else because we pretty much are!

3. SWITCHING FROM WORK ROLE TO HOME ROLE: It can be hard mentally to go from responding to life threatening situations to suddenly responding to family situations. Obviously both are important, but sometimes on VERY different scales. It can take a little time to make that transition mentally to really be present for your loved ones and the day to day challenges that come up at home.

4. THEIR JOB REQUIRES THEM TO TURN OFF THEIR EMOTIONS: Their ability to detach makes them better at their job when it comes to situational awareness, decision making in emergencies, and moving from one hard call to the next. First responders can get so good at doing their job and spending so much time doing their job that they might naturally start overriding these things in other areas of their life as well (like any of our brains would do with new skills that effectively keep us safe).

So how can you support change to help you and your first responder at home? The first step is understanding that a lot of this can be linked to physical and mental processes. If their body needs to be in a certain physical or mental state in order to be “on” then it might take physical and mental decompression in order to get back to where you’d like them to be.

I recommend you start by having a discussion about how long it takes them to feel like they are “back” mentally and what’s helpful for them during that process. They may not be able to be present with loved ones immediately following a shift. I’ve heard first responders say, “It takes me like a day to feel like I can relate to my family again.” Which makes complete sense when you look at that 18-24 hour period of the hypervigilance biological roller coaster.

I understand you may not have a full day to give because family life moves fast, but having an intentional plan you both understand and follow through on is important. Where and how can they find space to recover, process, and decompress after shift? That’s different for every family. Can the transition from work role to family role include a quiet ride home for processing, a trip to the gym immediately after shift, a run around the neighborhood, a long hot shower, an hour of alone time before re-engaging in family activity… The possibilities are endless. The point is each couple should DISCUSS, PLAN, and EXPERIMENT with what works best for your family! If you need help with this process reach out to someone that understands and can help you navigate it!

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