Although post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be commonly associated with war veterans, assault, and other intense experiences, trauma can affect anyone, regardless of their background or identity. The symptoms of PTSD tend to be varied and complex, but one of the most common signs can be hypervigilance, which can be defined as a near-constant state of high alert. When you’re constantly scanning your environment for possible dangers, it can take a toll on your mental and physical health. A few ways to cope can include noticing and writing down your thoughts, exercising regularly, practicing positive self-talk, and building a support system. Working with a therapist, whether online or in person, can also be immensely helpful.
What Are The Symptoms Of Hypervigilance?
Generally, people experiencing hypervigilance report feeling on guard, hyper-aware, and always on the lookout for danger. That said, hypervigilant behaviors can look slightly different for every person, and may include the following:
- Overreacting to loud or unexpected sounds or smells
- Constantly scanning the environment, which may look like “darting eyes”
- Appearing jumpy and jittery
- Constant concern about others’ actions
- Obsessive avoidance of perceived threats, which may include certain places or people
- Physical symptoms, including dilated pupils, increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and poor sleep
These behaviors and symptoms can vary widely in their severity. In general, people with hypervigilance tend to recognize their symptoms, but they may not always acknowledge the intensity of their reactions and behaviors. They may defend their actions and argue they’re necessary to ensure their safety.
While hypervigilance can be a primary symptom of PTSD, these behaviors may also occur in people with other anxiety disorders, including panic disorder and social phobia. Many researchers believe that anxiety can naturally boost hypervigilance, which may increase a person’s level of threat detection. This can result in a distressing feedback loop of anxiety, threat detection, and over-alertness.
Hypervigilance Vs. Paranoia
The terms “paranoia” and “hypervigilance” are sometimes used interchangeably, but there can be some important distinctions between the two terms.
Whereas people with hypervigilance are usually aware of their symptoms, a person with paranoia tends to express beliefs that are not based in reality, and their symptoms can sometimes be associated with schizophrenia. Left untreated, paranoia may escalate to delusions, coupled with a deep suspicion of others’ intentions and motivations.
While these behaviors may differ in terms of a person’s awareness of their symptoms, both paranoia and hypervigilance can be characterized by feelings of fear and distrust.
What Are The Other Symptoms Of PTSD?
Hypervigilance can be one of the most common symptoms of PTSD, but not everyone with this diagnosis may experience this symptom. Other common signs of PTSD are typically divided into four categories, according to the APA:
- Intrusion, which can include intrusive thoughts, upsetting dreams, and flashbacks to the traumatic event
- Avoidance of people, places, activities, objects, and situations that trigger traumatic memories
- Changes in cognition and mood, potentially including an inability to remember important aspects of the trauma and distorted thoughts about the causes or consequences of the event
- Changes in arousal and reactivity, which can include hypervigilance, angry outbursts, and reckless behavior
Strategies To Cope With Hypervigilance
If you’re experiencing hypervigilance, it can be likely that you’re also living with other PTSD symptoms. To support a full recovery, it’s often important to treat all symptoms of PTSD. A licensed mental health professional can provide you with the knowledge and tools you deserve to begin the journey.
The following coping strategies for hypervigilance are generally recommended by medical doctors as well as mental health professionals. Feel free to adapt these ideas to meet your specific needs, and always consult with your medical team for a personalized treatment plan.
1. Notice And Write Down Your Thoughts
In the moment, it can be difficult to stop yourself from entering the spiral of hypervigilant thought patterns, but whenever possible, make an effort to “catch yourself” before these thoughts escalate.
To recognize and prevent the spiral, it may help to write down recurring thought patterns as they arise, or to confide in a trusted loved one about your thoughts and feelings. By recording your thoughts in a visual form – in a notepad, an online document, or even your phone notes – you can develop a better sense of when and why those thoughts occur.
Regardless of mental health status, we all tend to experience some negative or distressing thoughts on occasion. Writing them down can help you question whether those thoughts are rational and redirect your thoughts and energy toward more enriching, life-giving activities.
2. Get Active
For many people, physical activity has a positive impact on their mental health, regardless of their specific diagnosis. Among people with PTSD, research suggests that aerobic exercise can reduce the feeling ofhyper arousal often associated with hypervigilance and other PTSD symptoms. In terms of exercise, any movement can count. You can dance, do yoga, run around the park with your dog, or walk with a friend.
3. Practice Positive Self-Talk
At first, positive self-talk may feel awkward or uncomfortable, but it can have significant benefits for your mental health, whether you’re struggling with hypervigilance, paranoia, or another challenge.
Your inner critic may have a powerful microphone, but if you imagine talking to yourself like you would with a friend, positive self-talk often becomes easier and more natural over time.
To improve your self-talk, consider trying some of the following tips:
- Challenge yourself and ask whether your thoughts are true (often, they’re not – especially in the context of hypervigilance!). Try to find another explanation or way to look at the current situation.
- Stop the thought or negative self-talk with the “thought-stopping” technique. Try to imagine yourself literally stopping, squashing, or “zapping” a negative thought away.
- Focus on your strengths. If you notice you’ve said two unkind things to yourself, try to replace those comments with two kind expressions that highlight your unique strengths and abilities.
4. Build Your Support System
Hypervigilance and other PTSD symptoms can often create isolation fromloved ones and acquaintances. Yet, during this challenging time, people often benefit from all the social support, love, and compassion they can get.
Some people find that in-person or online support groups can provide a sense of community and solidarity with people whose symptoms mirror their own. Other people may confide in close friends, family, and other loved ones.
In any case, it’s usually helpful to lean on a variety of people. When you build a healthy, sustainable support system, you don’t usually have to ask one person for more support than they’re able or willing to provide.
5. Connect With A Therapist
A licensed therapist can become a foundational part of your support system. They’re typically trained to provide a mix of compassion and research-backed insights, and they can help you manage the effects of hypervigilance and other PTSD symptoms.
Benefits Of Online Therapy
Today, a growing number of people use online therapy to invest in their mental health while balancing active lifestyles. If you’re struggling to find the time or finances to begin therapy, an online platform like BetterHelp may offer a solution. BetterHelp features thousands of therapists licensed by their state boards, and each one generally has at least three years of professional experience. Many specialize in helping people with PTSD and other anxiety disorders, and they can offer the tools and reassurance you deserve to overcome your symptoms.
Effectiveness Of Online Therapy
Research suggests that online therapy can be just as effective as face-to-face options. A 2019 review of 10 studies found that internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (iCBT) can be a valuable intervention for adults with PTSD. While more research may be needed, the researchers cite several other studies that describe iCBT as a flexible, affordable, and clinically effective treatment for PTSD and other mental health conditions.
“Erin is the best counselor I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. She works with me on things I’ve turned over and over in my head and reframes them so that they seem much less daunting. She understands PTSD and trauma better than anyone I’ve spoken to and is really helping me unpack some of it. Thank you, Erin!”
How can hypervigilance be improved?
For individuals who experience hypervigilance symptoms as a result of traumatic events, or of a mental health condition GAD, social anxiety, or schizophrenia, there is treatment available. Several types of therapy have been found to be effective to treat hypervigilance, including exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and eye movement desensitization therapy. A healthcare professional may prescribe medications such as beta-blockers or antidepressants to supplement therapy in some cases.
What are coping skills for hypervigilance?
Mindfulness practices are effective at managing hypervigilance. This can include focusing on taking deep breaths, taking a purposeful pause before reacting, observing for evidence in a situation before reacting, and acknowledging your fears from an objective place.
What is hypervigilance most commonly associated with?
Hypervigilance is a common symptom of certain mental health disorders such as anxiety disorders, PTSD, and schizophrenia.
How do you assess hypervigilance?
Hypervigilance is a stress adaptation in which your nervous system reacts by being hyper aware of your surroundings, and on alert even when the situation doesn’t demand it. There are some signs to look out for:
- Persistent worrying
- Hair trigger stress response to unexpected noises
- Difficulty sleeping
Some common triggers for this type of response are perceived criticism from others, loud noises and other sensory triggers, conflicts, and rejection.
What are the best techniques for helping people to overcome maladaptive behaviors?
Changing maladaptive behaviors is best done by establishing a forward feedback loop of positive thoughts and behaviors. The most effective way to do this is with the help of a licensed therapist, but some things you can try on your own include:
- Distraction through mindfulness practices like meditation, journaling, or breathing exercises
- Interrupting your thought flow with a predetermined word or phrase like “stop” or “rethink this”
- Practicing self-compassion
- Using positive coping statements
- Replacing negative inner dialogue statements with positive words
What kind of response to threat is hypervigilance?
Hypervigilance is a stress response that can cause behavioral symptoms, emotional symptoms, and even physical symptoms.
Is hypervigilance a coping mechanism?
It can be. In many cases of hypervigilance, the underlying cause is an unstable home environment in childhood, during which this response emerges as a coping mechanism. The individual may constantly scan situations, demonstrate an increased startle reflex to loud noises, and always look for hidden dangers in their environment.
Is hypervigilance treatable?
Yes, hypervigilance is treatable. Once your healthcare provider identifies the underlying condition that is the cause of hypervigilance, they will likely refer you to a psychiatrist or therapist. The treatment will differ depending on the underlying conditions, but will probably involve cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR, or exposure therapy. In some cases, you might be prescribed medication to help manage symptoms.
What are the long term effects of hypervigilance?
Those who live with hypervigilance long term may develop maladaptive behaviors as coping mechanisms to deal with the effects. These can include substance misuse, non-participation in events, reliance on daydreaming, or carrying weapons for protection.
These types of maladaptive behaviors can interfere with social interactions and day-to-day living. However, the conditions underlying hypervigilance are treatable. They are often a result of PTSD or anxiety, and there are resources you can visit for more information. Some of these include:
- PTSD UK
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
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