You may have heard the word “hypervigilance” before, most likely in the context of trauma or anxiety. But what exactly is hypervigilance, and how does it relate to trauma? Why’s it so tough to shake this unsettled feeling, and what steps can you take to tone down the impulse?
Hypervigilance definition, examples, and causes
Being hypervigilant means that you experience intense, disproportionate awareness of your surroundings.
When you’re hypervigilant, you are on high alert. You may feel extremely aware of the world around you, or you might feel so overwhelmed by this awareness that it all blends together. Those in a hypervigilant state often feel adrenaline coursing through their body, and may struggle to reduce their alertness enough to eat, sleep, or relax.
Hypervigilance makes sure that if genuine or perceived danger shows up, you’re ready to go.
In other words, hypervigilance is a protective mechanism. While it’s involuntary and has less-than-ideal consequences, it’s a symptom that shows up to protect us.
It makes sense, then, that hypervigilance is a common symptom seen in those who survive trauma. Although it’s a possible symptom of conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder, too, hypervigilance is often affiliated with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
Not all of those who experience trauma go on to meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, but trauma can impact you, your life, and the way you relate to your surroundings even if you do not meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD or have access to diagnosis.
That said, you don’t have to have a trauma history or PTSD diagnosis to experience hypervigilance. And some people live in a hypervigilant state despite a lack of trauma history.
What symptoms are examples of hypervigilance?
Hypervigilance may pair with fight, flight, or freeze responses and often does. If you experience hypervigilance, you may notice that:
- You’re highly aware of sounds and other stimuli (e.g. you hear fireworks, the ice maker turn on unexpectedly, or something else that is likely non-threatening, and feel your body go into fight-or-flight mode).
- You’re easily startled (e.g. a friend taps your shoulder, and while another person might be a tiny bit startled, you scream and are prepared for an attack).
- Your muscles are always tense all over.
- You have trouble falling or staying asleep.
- You get irritable or anxious when it doesn’t fit the situation.
- You are fixated on possible threats.
- You feel frequently nauseous.
- When presented with new people, surroundings, or information, you notice that your heart rate is faster, or you experience anxiety that are disproportionate to the actual situation (e.g. your heart and thoughts start to race when you hear a knock at the door).
Most likely, you can see the ways in which this response could be helpful. However, it’s not helpful when you’re in a safe situation. Additionally, if you experience hypervigilance, you know that it can come with exhaustion and a host of other consequences.
While this symptom exists for a good reason, our bodies aren’t meant to be ready for battle all of the time. Hypervigilance keeps your mind and body in overdrive, which inevitably causes physical and emotional stress. This exhausting readiness to protect yourself may be partially why trauma is affiliated with chronic pain, muscle tension, and other physical responses.
Why does hypervigilance happen in the first place, if it harms us?
The short answer? Your mind and body are trying to protect you–and they don’t care if you feel miserable in the process of staying alive.
We see in all kinds of mind-body processes that our mind and body will do anything to keep us alive. Hypervigilance occurs for the same reason why you might gasp for air after holding your breath, or why you might sweat in Summer.
But just like you can sweat so much that you suffer dehydration and heatstroke, hypervigilance can take a toll on your body and mental health. It’s not always self-protective as intended.
You’re not broken for feeling jumpy and unsettled.
Hypervigilance is such a natural response to trauma, that we even share it with plants. So if you tend to be hypervigilant, there’s no use shaming yourself for it. It’s a natural reaction–a rational response to a traumatic event, which has simply stuck with you longer than you needed it.
Your body decided at some point that you weren’t being careful enough, and that if you just paid better attention, bad things wouldn’t have happened to you. But now, you can’t stop paying attention–even when you’re in a safe place, with safe people, or when you’re trying to fall asleep.
Trauma wires us to believe, sometimes subconsciously, that there’s something to fear. Hypervigilance and other symptoms, like the aforementioned fight, flight, or freeze response, are there to keep us safe. If our brain understands that danger is ahead, it makes sense that it’d do everything possible to keep us safe, which includes being hyper-aware and ready to spring into action.
How can you become less hypervigilant?
It is possible to become less hypervigilant, by acknowledging the beliefs and motivations behind your hypervigilance. No need to delve deep into the trauma, itself.
Here are some steps you can take:
1. Say “thank you” to your hypervigilance.
When you notice that you feel hypervigilant, say, “Thank you. I understand that you’re here to protect me.” Remember how we talked about the function of hypervigilance? When you acknowledge and appreciate hypervigilance as a protective response, a couple of things happen:
First, you remember you’re not broken. This state is here for a reason. The way that your nervous system feels like it’s on steroids? That has a name. It is not “just you,” and you aren’t “freaking out for no reason.” You are a strong person who survived something tough. Your body and mind want to protect you.
Also, you stop fighting yourself. If you struggle with thoughts like, “why am I like this?” “I’m sick of this,” or “why does this happen?” it can be incredibly helpful to take a moment to appreciate hypervigilance instead of fighting it, which can feel a lot like (or turn into) fighting yourself. Many people find it effective to welcome anxiety for the same reason. “I understand why you’re here, and it’s not your fault. Thank you for trying to protect me.”
By looking at the plus-sides to your hypervigilance, you may find that the power of the symptom dissipates a little bit. Although it can take time, making friends with your brain and the way it works, so to speak, can make a big difference.
2. Remind yourself that you are safe.
In the past, you were in an unsafe situation. Now, you are safe, but you feel as though you’re in danger. With this in mind, you can expand on the self-talk mentioned above: “Thank you. I understand that you’re here to protect me. However, I am safe and do not need you to protect me right now.” Talk to the hypervigilance, and consider talking to yourself, too, using an affirmation like: “I am safe, I am whole, I am protected.”
3. Find healthy ways to self-soothe.
Give yourself permission to do “nothing.” You don’t have to be productive when your nervous system is in overdrive. You can play a game, draw, make some tea, read, watch a movie, ask a partner or friend to spend time with you, or do something else. These can all be healthy coping or self-soothing mechanisms.
It is very common for those who survive trauma to struggle with rest, but rest is something we all need and deserve. If you’re home, you can also take a shower or a bath, to metaphorically “wash off” tough feelings. If you’re not home, you might step outside of the situation (e.g. dismiss yourself from a group and head to a quiet spot), call a friend, use some breathing exercises (known to alleviate stress), or just zone out for a minute.
4. Reach out for healing.
One last thing that you can do to support yourself through this process, and perhaps one of the most vital, is to seek support in the healing process.
Hypervigilance is only one possible symptom of trauma. While you can address it at home, professional guidance can help you address the full spectrum of trauma-related struggles. These may include but aren’t limited to feelings of depression and anxiety, trouble making decisions, and difficulty with personal identity or sense of self. Chronic pain and other physical health outcomes are even affiliated with trauma.
The good news is that research shows symptom reduction is possible for those who survive de-stabilizing events. Healing can feel like a lonely process, but it doesn’t have to be one. You have a support system that’s just waiting to expand, and opening up can make a world of difference.