Having just passed the anniversary of 9/11 and the terror brought to so many individuals and families, I thought it may be appropriate to discuss Hypervigilance. Hypervigilance can be a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or it can exist alone. It is typically related to anxiety and the expectation of something bad happening at any moment.
If you experience this condition you find it very difficult to relax. Not that you don’t want to, your brain just doesn’t allow it to happen.
This can be a normal reaction to chaos; either current chaos or lingering memories and expectations of chaos or trauma. It can result from something horrific such as 9/11 or it can come about from experiencing constant abuse as a child or even listening to your parents fight constantly and being afraid one of them may leave you. Maybe somebody did leave you, causing emotional scarring that your brain tries to prevent from happening again. It can develop in the face of physical or emotional threats to your wellbeing.
You are geared for survival. If your brain becomes hypervigilant, it means it is working properly if not overtime to ensure your survival. It is always on the lookout (hence the term boy scout) for potential danger so that you will be ready to react.
Picture a few soldiers on your forehead doing lookout if this helps. You may always be on the lookout for personal harm, threats to your love relationships, environmental disaster or threats to family members. Trust may be a big issue for you.
People who work in high-stress jobs, such as policemen, fireman, emergency crews and soldiers often chronically suffer from this as their jobs are disaster-based. Hypervigilance may or may not have developed in early life for them.
Often individuals with hypervigilant qualities become very controlling, as they feel they are then protecting themselves and/or loved ones from the potential disasters. They try to stay one step ahead of the next threat.
Whew!! What a job! Being on the lookout means you have to pay attention constantly, making it hard to relax or focus on other things. If your brain is consumed with physical or emotional survival it is hard to take in other things. For children especially, this poses a hindrance to learning. These children are often sent for evaluation for learning disabilities when the true culprit interfering with their learning is this chronic fear or nervousness.
Parents who are hypervigilant may warn their own children constantly not to do this or that for fear of the many dangers it may present, thereby instilling in the child a fear of the world in general. These children are often not allowed to participate in normal activities or with others their parents deem dangerous or outside of their control.
Hypervigilant individuals are typically the ones who favor the aisle seats in movies and like to face the doors in restaurants as opposed to having their backs to them. They don’t want to feel like there is no escape. It is not uncommon for them to back their cars into parking spaces in order to be able to get out quickly if need be.
Recognize that this isn’t somehow a disorder. Your brain is in good shape but working overtime. This overtime can cause you some problems if not controlled, so it is best not to ignore it. Even if you have been through something traumatic you can learn to calm your brain.
Your emotions are a product of your thoughts, and if your thoughts are terrifying then you will feel terrified or on high alert.
We all are aware that something terrible can happen at any moment to any of us. How we control our thoughts pertaining to this is the key to not letting the potential threats cause burnout in us. As our brains go into overdrive they develop thoughts or ideas that are not helpful to us, or are dysfunctional in nature.
Here are a few examples of these types of thoughts:
Crystal Ball or Fortune Telling-You get out your mental crystal ball and predict that things are going to have a bad ending. You feel convinced that your prediction is already an established fact. For example, you hear that it’s going to snow the day you have to go to the dentist. Your mind conjures up a ten-car pile up resulting in death and dismemberment. You get the idea.
Black or White Thinking- This is where you believe things are one way or the other with no in between. Leaving the house is either a terrifying experience or not. You can be careful without being extreme.
Mind Reading-Similar to having a crystal ball, this is where you read your partner’s or boss’s mind and decide the worst is coming when you have no real evidence.
Other things you can do to calm your brain:
- Utilize Biofeedback to calm your thoughts and brain. See my previous post on Biofeedback to learn details of how this helps.
- Learn Self Soothing techniques to calm and distract yourself when the thoughts are really intrusive.
- Do a lot of reality checking and what we call self-talk. Do you have any proof something is going to happen? If it does is there anything you can do about it? Won’t you suffer enough if something does happen, do you need to suffer it prematurely?
- Trust yourself that whatever does occur, you will deal with it effectively. You have come through other challenging circumstances, you also will deal with whatever happens when it happens.
At Psychskills.com you can get a free worksheet with the rest of the dysfunctional thought patterns and a tracking sheet to help you chart your progress as you work through them.
Psychology That Makes Sense!