Fueled by COVID-19: Hypervigilance on steroids

Hypervigilance may help save lives when an actual threat materializes, but it wears us down if it becomes a chronic state of being


This article is reprinted with permission from the Correctional Oasis, the monthly ezine of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach.

By Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC

One of the outcomes of post-traumatic stress is the symptom of hypervigilance – an excessive and continual state of alertness, anticipating danger and being on the lookout for it to the extreme.

In this April 16, 2020, photo Christopher Lumpkin, a custody assistant, poses for a picture at the hospital ward of the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
In this April 16, 2020, photo Christopher Lumpkin, a custody assistant, poses for a picture at the hospital ward of the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

By definition, hypervigilance prevents people from letting go and relaxing, as they remain on guard, watching and preparing for danger, ever ready to defend themselves and others.

Hypervigilance helps maintain the fight-or-flight stress response active in our brain and in the rest of our body. It may help save lives when an actual threat materializes, but it wears us down and wears us out emotionally and physically if it becomes a chronic state of being.

Corrections staff in general, and corrections officers in particular, have grown accustomed to anticipating and preparing to face dangers related to their profession. They have rehearsed both mentally and literally ways to confront and neutralize threats that stem from human manipulation and violence, physical plant failures, fires and adverse natural events. They know what to do in the face of such threats, and they are good at overcoming them.

Now, in addition to those familiar threats, corrections staff (and the public) are now told that they have to reckon with an invisible enemy that may be waiting to be inhaled by us, hiding in droplets of sputum in the air, due to an infected person coughing or sneezing. Or this new enemy may be resting on cardboard, wood, plastic or stainless steel surfaces, perhaps for days, waiting for someone to touch that area and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth. Or, we are told by the experts, there may be other, even more obscure methods of transmission of the infection, such as infected people spreading the virus before they begin to experience symptoms themselves. And we keep hearing about how highly damaging and highly lethal this virus is. Of course, this type of news can inject massive amounts of fear into people. This invisible kind of threat is a game-changer as most people cannot go into total and complete social isolation for any significant length of time.

Naturally, such information jars the already-stressed and often sleep-deprived and traumatized population of corrections staff, causing some of you to cross over into a mode of overwhelming anxiety and even panic. You, corrections workers, are used to being protectors and in control. Yet during this season, which is unlike anything we’ve experienced before in the U.S., events drive home to us how little we really are in control regarding this new and elusive enemy.

While employees of other types of industries can work from home, as essential staff, most corrections personnel cannot do that. They have to show up on the job site – at the jail, the prison, or their parole or probation office, and face whatever they encounter there. And corrections work entails being in enclosed areas, in close proximity with many other people, often with poor ventilation, and sometimes with essential hygiene items, like soap and paper towels, and appropriate protective gear in short supply. Medical facilities in most correctional institutions are not designed to handle this type of threat.

So the work environment can quickly become a potent trigger for dread and even paranoia for staff and for the incarcerated population. These understandable health concerns may lead to a sharp increase in staff calling in sick, which means that those who do come in will have to work overtime, and so double their risk of infection.

And at the end of their workday, corrections staff leave their institutions or offices and return to their communities and to their homes. I can imagine that most are fretting as to how to prevent any unintentional, unknowing transmission from their worksites to their families, neighbors and friends. These are truly huge challenges that staff have not dealt with before, challenges that invade their home life and disrupt their personal routine on a daily basis, turning their world upside down, and confronting them with a continual and relentless sense of danger – feeding their already well-established brain circuits of hypervigilance.

I do not know if corrections agencies have ever faced a foe as stealthy and as sneaky and as sly as COVID-19. That’s why this is a time when genuinely caring and encouraging leadership, team support, and the teaching of anxiety management and anger management skills for staff are of paramount importance – in addition to draconian hygienic practices, and dealing promptly with those who show symptoms of infection according to CDC protocols.

What do I mean by supportive leadership? Here are some examples:

  • Making sure staff have all the equipment and supplies they need to be as safe as possible.
  • Adopting policy changes to protect staff and inmate health.
  • Connecting with staff (even if only by phone, video or email) regularly, thanking them or otherwise expressing appreciation for what they do and the extra burdens they carry during this season of the COVID-19 threat.
  • Providing the staff with opportunities to offer their feedback about how the agency’s handling the COVID-19 threat is playing out in reality, and provide suggestions for improvement of work conditions in relation to it.
  • Keeping staff informed about resources, policy developments, or relevant news items, as an expression of respect and to stay connected as a team.
  • Increasing the number of EAP sessions with behavioral health providers.
  • Ensuring telehealth-based EAP services are available to staff.
  • Negotiating for employee health plans that have low deductibles and low co-pays.

Research has shown that positive relationships with other staff are critical for staff morale, pride in the job and job satisfaction, and these, in turn, have a strong impact on staff mental and physical health and home life. Many lives and many correctional careers are on the line.


About the author

Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC, is the founding director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach (DWCO), and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado. Dr. Spinaris has been treating and training correctional employees and their families since the year 2000. She also develops wellness-related educational materials and conducts research on subjects related to correctional employee wellness. Dr. Spinaris is the 2014 recipient of the Colorado Criminal Justice Association's Harry Tinsley award, and the author of the books "Staying Well: Strategies for Corrections Staff," now in its third edition, and "More on Staying Well: More Strategies for Corrections Staff." One of the courses she authored, From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment™ (CF2F) received the 2016 Commercial Product of the Year Award of Excellence by the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel.

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