What is Hypervigilance?
It makes sense that a person who’s been through a traumatic event might be extra sensitive to their surroundings. The state of being constantly on guard and highly aware is called hypervigilance.
It functions as a mechanism of self-defense, a way of spotting potential dangers from people or the environment. This may make a person who has experienced trauma feel as though they’re alert and prepared to respond.
However, it puts the brain and body on constant high alert. This can impact a person’s mental and physical health, lifestyle, and relationships in a negative way.
Hypervigilance is often a sign of mental health conditions, which can include a range of anxiety disorders, personality disorders like schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Identifying hypervigilance can help diagnose PTSD.
And once you’ve identified the problem, it’s a lot easier to start working through it.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is disorder that often appears after a traumatic event, as the mind and body attempt to deal with the experience. It’s surprisingly common. According to a 2012 study published in an international journal, it affects over 14 million adult Americans.
Some of the signs are feelings of distress, fear, guilt, shame, helplessness, and even anger. While these are emotions a lot of us experience regularly, what makes this different is that the feelings are overwhelming and don’t go away.
If someone has experienced these symptoms for over a month and has been through a traumatic event in the past, it’s possible they have PTSD.
The disorder doesn’t always appear immediately after an event. It can sometimes take years for symptoms to manifest. This means a person could have experienced something traumatic previously but not necessarily link it to the way they feel now, making it more difficult to diagnose.
It’s possible for someone who’s experienced almost any kind of trauma to get PTSD. There are no age restrictions either. Some more common examples are:
- Survivors of violence, including rape, sexual abuse, physical attacks, mental abuse, and domestic violence.
- Someone who’s experienced or witnessed a life-threatening situation or been exposed to dangerous and unexpected events, such as a car crash, violent robbery, or a natural disaster.
- Those who have been exposed to war.
- Someone who has suddenly and unexpectedly lost a close friend or relative.
Hypervigilance is one of the hyperarousal symptoms that can come with post-traumatic stress disorder.
A similar symptom is dysphoric hyperarousal, but with this kind of hyperarousal a person loses touch with reality and relives their experience as if it’s literally happening again (more commonly known as a “flashback”). A hypervigilant person remains aware and conscious of their surroundings.
PTSD symptoms include:
Feelings of intense fear that completely overwhelm. It’s often accompanied by dizziness, sweating, a fast pulse, and shortness of breath.
A belief that the world is dangerous, and a mistrust of even the closest of friends.
Including headaches, stomach aches, chronic pain, diarrhea, tightness in the chest, and muscle cramping.
Problems in day-to-day life
Daily activities that should be easy or routine become difficult, including situations at work, school, or in social contexts.
Feelings of detachment from close friends and family, or problems with intimacy.
Using alcohol or drugs as way to avoid emotional pain.
Sadness, anxiety, and low moods that persist, along with a loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable. In extreme situations this can go as far as suicidal thoughts. If it gets to this extreme, help should be sought immediately.
Behavior can be the easiest symptom for others to observe. Someone with hypervigilance is likely to have jumpy reflexes and react quickly (often to the extreme). For example, a slamming door may make someone shout or prepare to defend themselves. Reactions are often fast, automatic, and although they’re done from a place of defense they can be hostile or violent.
Physically, someone may have a fast heart rate, rapid and shallow breathing, and sweat a lot. This is due to the relentless state of alertness. Over time it becomes tiring and can cause fatigue or exhaustion.
A hypervigilant person can experience extreme emotions.
Increased anxiety, fear, panic, and pervasive worrying can take over. Their desire to defend themselves from perceived dangerous situations can lead to a black-and-white view of the world. They might experience extreme mood swings, going from emotional withdrawal to outbursts at the apparent drop of a hat.
It can be difficult for people on the outside to understand why their friend is behaving this way.
When it becomes extreme, the emotional problems can turn into paranoia and other deep-seated and longer-lasting mental issues. Difficulty sleeping is another common experience.
This can also lead to more serious symptoms, as habits and ways of thinking and behaving become ingrained. It can lead to even more extreme approaches for counteracting perceived threats.
For example, someone worried about assault might carry a concealed weapon. Someone with social anxiety may withdraw from all social activities.
What is Paranoia?
Paranoia is a pervasive feeling of anxiety and fear, with thoughts often linked to persecution, danger or some kind of conspiracy.
These fears are often disassociated from reality and may have little to no evidence outside of the sufferer’s mind. It can lead to delusions, where these irrational thoughts and feelings become so embedded in a person’s mind that nothing can persuade them their thoughts aren’t reality.
Paranoia is common in a range of mental disorders. It breaks down mental and emotional functions linked to reasoning and assigning meaning.
As you can imagine, it can be very difficult to connect with someone with paranoia. A paranoid person won’t believe they’re paranoid. Supporting them can be a big challenge.
Coping with Hypervigilance
It’s not easy for the human mind and body to be constantly looking for danger and preparing to defend itself. We simply weren’t designed, evolutionary or socially, to live that way.
Hypervigilant people often come up with their own strategies for coping. Unfortunately, many of them are unhelpful and can simply reinforce their fears.
We mentioned one unhelpful strategy above – carrying a weapon for self-defense, which could be pepper spray or something more serious like a gun or knife. This can create problems with law enforcement as well as in social circles, let alone if they do feel threatened by someone.
Coping mechanisms can also lead to obsessive-compulsive behaviors, especially if the sufferer has PTSD. If they were attacked in a stairwell, for example, they may avoid stairs altogether, or if they survived an attack while wearing particular jewelry, they may never want to take that jewelry off.
There are some more helpful strategies that a hypervigilant person can use to manage their emotions and responses. They’re ones that friends and family can gently encourage and support, too.
The following can be helpful to someone who’s hypervigilant:
- Take slow, deep breaths and keep yourself still. This will lower your heart rate, reduce the fight-or-flight response, and give you time to think.
- Force yourself to pause before reacting. Often your immediate response isn’t going to be helpful for the situation, or your own mental state.
- Look for an objective perspective. Your immediate response is likely coming from an unbalanced place influenced by anxiety (even paranoia) so it’s good to look for evidence before acting on your feelings.
- Acknowledge how you feel, but don’t give in. Fear, anxiety, anger, and other strong emotions are all legitimate but at the end of the day they’re just feelings. They aren’t the sum total of who you are. You have a choice in how you behave.
- Set boundaries with other people and also yourself. It’s important that those around you know where you’re coming from. Not only will they understand you better, it might help avoid damage to your close relationships. But you also need to create reasonable boundaries for yourself so that irrational or damaging behaviors don’t take over your life.
It’s helpful to seek treatment, especially if things are starting to get in the way of living an ordinary life. If a sufferer might have PTSD, it’s even more important to seek help as soon as possible.
Because so many symptoms are about a state of mind, therapy is often the most useful way to work towards recovery. Depending on what the underlying cause is, the following therapies may be useful:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy, aimed at managing anxiety. A good therapist will guide conversations about your past experiences, identify the causes of hypervigilance, and find ways to manage it.
- Exposure therapy can be helpful for someone with PTSD. It creates a safe environment to face memories of trauma. It’s an opportunity to develop ways for dealing with flashbacks and managing fears.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR) combines exposure therapy with eye movements, changing the way someone reacts to memories of trauma.
Medication can also be useful for managing extreme cases of anxiety and PTSD, although it isn’t the ultimate solution. The kind of medication will depend on whether hypervigilance is a symptom of another condition.
How You Feel isn’t Who You Are
It doesn’t always feel like we’re in control of our lives and that can be scary – even if you’re not hypervigilant. But if you are oversensitive to your environment, especially if it’s the result of trauma, it can truly feel like the world is against you.
It’s important to remember that it’s actually not. Your emotional responses to the world are just emotions, and you have always have control over who you are.