Hypervigilance

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A Definition of Hypervigilance

For many, "hypervigilance" is a natural response following violent trauma, whereby your mind and body instinctively remain alert to any additional potential threats — real or imagined — to your wellbeing. Hypervigilance can be an outcome of the anxiety experienced as part of Acute Stress Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Feelings of hypervigilance can come and go at different times, often trigged by certain people or situations. During a time of heightened hypervigilance, many survivors experience strong bursts of nervous energy — a drive to keep "doing something". Often this energy is subconsciously aimed at managing the anguish, pain, and anger resulting from their violent experience.

Symptoms of hypervigilance can include sleeplessness, anxiety, panic attacks, and obsessive or obsessive- compulsive behavior. It is important to recognize hypervigilence and to try to channel that energy into constructive activities, and to find a way to rest and relax.

Understanding Hypervigilance

One of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD is hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is watchfulness or checking one's surroundings that is over and above what is normal or reasonable. Hypervigilance takes many forms. It is what makes some of us always choose an aisle seat or one where our back is to a wall. It's what makes some of us carry defensive weapons such as guns, knives, mace or pepper spray, a police whistle or a cell phone set to 911. It makes some of us cross the street to avoid suspicious people. Some of us have alarm systems, multiple locks, window locks, high fences, guard dogs, etc. Another form of hypervigilance is studying people very carefully in an attempt to look deeply into their soul to determine exactly what they are made of. Hypervigilance is included in the cluster of symptoms referred to as "increased arousal". This cluster also includes difficulty sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, and exaggerated startle response.

This increased arousal stems directly from our trauma and the form it takes is shaped directly by the nature of our trauma. If we have difficulty sleeping, it may be because we were afraid to go to sleep or stay asleep for fear of an attack of some sort while we were not conscious to repel it or avoid it. If we are irritable, it may be to warn people to keep their distance or to not behave in ways that might trigger us. If we can't concentrate it may be because we are too busy trying to monitor all inputs from possible dangers. If we startle easily it may be because we learned to jump quickly to get out of harm's way. And if we are hypervigilant it is probably because we saw our environment as having multiple and unpredictable dangers that we should be on constant alert for. In fact, much of the time our hypervigilance helps to keep us safe.

However, the "hyper" in hypervigilance suggests that we do more than is normal or reasonable. It is too much because it is an inconvenience or an encumbrance. While it is probably true that we with PTSD are indeed safer because of all the precautions that we take, it is probably also true that our hypervigilance does often get in the way. It may be that we deprive ourselves of going certain places and of partaking in certain events. For example, we don't go to an event because we can't get an aisle seat, or because we don't know what kind of people are going to be there. Sometimes we see people looking at us and we think that they are judging us or are hostile toward us. Sometimes we are afraid to eat certain foods because we are afraid of being poisoned or made ill. And, there are probably numerous other examples of ways in which hypervigilance inconveniences us.

Desired Outcome:

Gain an increased understanding of the sources of our hypervigilance, acknowledge its advantages and disadvantages and increase our ability to manage our unwanted behaviors that are driven by our hypervigilance.

Discussion Starters:

When, where and how have you been hypervigilant? How have you reacted to your own and others hypervigilance in the past and how do you tend to respond to it now? When do you feel that hypervigilance is bad and when do you feel that it is good? What have you done to try to manage unwanted hypervigilance and what has worked or not worked?


Article ©John C Flanagan, LCSW - www.johncflanaganlcsw.com

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