Hypervigilance is one of the hallmark symptoms of trauma. It can look many different ways: military veterans who dive for cover when a car backfires, people who startle easily and always feel on edge, or folks who go into panic mode when experiencing certain triggers. I think it’s the same mechanism that makes it difficult for us to feel safe with other people after we’ve been attacked.
It makes sense as a survival strategy. After our brain has perceived a life-endangering situation and gone into fight or flight, then some people’s brains will be on the alert for more situations that could also be threatening. If the type of trauma you experienced was abuse or assault, then you were hurt by a person or people. That’s obviously different than being bitten by a snake or in a car accident. And when we know our abuser, there is a breach of trust and emotional harm inherent in the assault.
So now when we find we’re getting close to someone, we start getting anxious. We look for signs we’re about to be betrayed or hurt. We get paranoid about someone’s tone or interval in responding to our texts. We’re anticipating the worst and unconsciously looking for signs that we’re right.
How do we learn to trust others again? It can take some time and there’s no substitute for the feedback and support of a professional, but here are some rough steps for guidance.
Observe, observe, observe
Mindfulness is such a foundation. Noticing a response that we have is a huge portion of the work. If you can observe that your thoughts tend to go a certain direction, you have a valuable set of tools for the next steps
We’re not really hard-wired to do any evaluating, especially when we’re activated and our neo cortex is having quiet time. Think of the savannah and an antelope hears rustling. Danger is the feeling but it might as well be fact when responding—I’m guessing any antelopes with an instinct to investigate before deciding if the noise merits a response wasn’t around to contribute to the gene pool much longer.
So we just react to the feeling. But now that’s not so helpful when you’re about to fire off an angry text to someone who fell asleep with their phone on vibrate.
The next step is separating out fact from feeling. I’m a huge fan of this worksheet when someone is first learning to do this. With some practice, it becomes more automatic to assess. Basically the steps are:
- Name the situation
- What are the feelings? How strong are they?
- What are my beliefs related to the situation?
- What are facts that support this belief?
- Facts against?
- What are NEW beliefs that I could have that are more adaptive?
- Reassess feelings
Decide how you want to respond
Now that you’ve got a level head and clear perspective, you’re ready to decide how you want to respond. If the way isn’t obvious, here are some questions that may serve as a guide:
- Who do I want to be? What values do I want to express (patience? independence?)
- Which path expresses that?
- Which one would I be more proud of when I think of this in a year? 20 years?
- What would I tell a friend to do?