Coping With Being Hypervigilant
By Alisen Boada
Updated November 07, 2019
Reviewer Chante’ Gamby, LCSW
When you struggle with hypervigilance, your mind is constantly telling you to look out for danger. You enter a room and always make sure to notice the exits. A slight change in someone's tone puts you on edge, sudden movements and noises get your heart racing, you're constantly checking to see if anyone's behind you. Going through a traumatic event can leave us feeling like we can never let our guard down again. But you deserve to be able to enjoy life without the exhaustion of feeling you always need to protect yourself. Exploring new coping strategies can help you manage your fears in ways that support your long-term health and wellbeing.
What Causes Hypervigilance?
Hypervigilance is a state of being on high alert for any threats in your environment. Though this is a way our body protects us in potentially dangerous situations, like walking through a dark alley alone at night, anxiety and trauma can keep alertness in overdrive even in our day-to-day lives. Chronic hypervigilance is often caused by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after going through an intensely painful experience. Severe accidents, military combat, sexual assault, and ongoing abuse can trigger and maintain our body's "flight or fight" response to guard against a repeat of the trauma.
Unfortunately, this leaves us overreacting to threats that aren't always there. The ongoing surveillance and sensitivity to everything around you can take a toll on your physical and emotional health. Anxiety disorders can also cause us to be overly prepared for disaster at any moment. But coping strategies like mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help us care for our needs while teaching our mind to feel safe again.
How Hypervigilance Affects Our Lives
When living in a hostile or abusive environment, noticing the slightest cue can be all the difference in giving you enough time to get out of harm's way. But our minds may not totally realize we're free from hazards, so a state of hypervigilance ensues. This can look like preparing for all worst-case scenarios, reading into signs that actually don't mean danger, or experiencing constant jumpiness.
The ongoing overestimation of threats can make us feel as though we need to avoid any situation or place that can possibly put us at risk again. For example, a serious car accident can lead you to drive excessively slow, constantly check your mirrors, or even stop driving altogether. Whether it's making escape plans or closely reading people's body language, hypervigilance keeps us ready for a threat that may not exist.
Hypervigilance may have been unfairly brought on by circumstances beyond your control, but the fatigue and isolation of always being on guard is a burden you shouldn't have to continue carrying. Instead, you can retrain your mind to manage fear in ways that let you enjoy life again. There are many proven successful treatments for helping relieve the PTSD or anxiety that may be behind your hypervigilance. And you don't need to go through this alone. Finding support groups that can relate to your experience can put you in touch with the best resources for your needs.
Is Hypervigilance Behind Your Decisions?
The distress of nonstop alertness can affect our decisions without us realizing. Knowing the physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms caused by hypervigilance can help us see how it influences our life choices.
Our body produces adrenaline whenever we believe we are in danger. Hypervigilance often causes increased heart rate, dilated pupils, faster breathing, sweating, and elevated blood pressure. This ongoing "flight or fight" reflex makes us easily startled by unexpected sounds and movements, like feeling a knee jerk reaction at an expected knock at the door. Being in an environment with too much going on can feel overwhelming and interfere with our ability to focus on what we're doing. Hypervigilance can also cause difficulty sleeping, making us more vulnerable to fatigue and anxiety.
We're not always aware of the emotions that lie behind our need to be hypervigilant. Trauma can take a drastic toll on our ability to recognize and regulate our feelings. In addition to fear, anxiety, and panic, the chronic stress caused by hypervigilance can lead to mood swings and overreactions, from irritability to sudden outburst of anger. Anger is a common emotional response to trauma and the threat of potential danger because it helps focus our attention on survival.
The constant tension of hypervigilance can turn us toward unhealthy ways of drowning out our fears to give us a sense of control. But turning to the wrong coping habits can reinforce the anxiety that causes hypervigilance.
Overworking is thought to be a coping strategy for hypervigilance and PTSD. While working long hours seems productive, an obsessive impulse to work can cause us to neglect our relationships, sleep, and health. In this case, overworking isn't done out of enjoyment but to avoid the difficult emotions caused by trauma or to feel prepared for potential disasters.
Substance abuse is another unhealthy way we attempt to manage the fear and anxiety behind hypervigilance. Up to 50-66% of people who experience PTSD also struggle with addiction. Alcohol and other drugs can temporarily restore the relaxing chemicals in our brains that trauma has depleted, giving us a sense of relief from the ongoing adrenaline rush of hypervigilance. Chronic anxiety can lower our impulse control, making it easier to self-medicate when we feel distress.
The overstimulation caused by hypervigilance can also cause us to avoid social situations, isolating us from loved ones and other sources of support. When we're left on our own with troubling thoughts, negative emotions and perception of threats can seem even more powerful. Isolation can also make you feel like you're alone in your struggle. But according to the National Center for PTSD, 7 or 8 out of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Reaching out to others who know what you are going through, whether through support groups or group therapy, can help you navigate the way to recovery.
Coping Strategies for Hypervigilance
There are skills and habits to help manage the impulse to constantly be on guard and reduce the impact hypervigilance has on our lives.
Recovering from trauma and anxiety disorders can take time, patience, and practice. One of the best ways to support ourselves through this process is to practice a bit of self-care. Tending to our basic needs, like eating, sleep, and exercise, can seem challenging, but will do wonders for your resilience and sense of wellbeing. If you're thinking, "How can a complex issue like hypervigilance require such simple solutions?" It's important to realize that at the end of the day, we're human, biological beings who rely on energy to sustain ourselves-energy that comes in the form of proper food, sleep, and exercise. Of course, we do need other things in life (like shelter and social interaction) but you would be surprised at how much of our wellbeing depends on energy (food, sleep, and exercise). Don't just brush aside this information, if it seems obvious-try to push yourself to prioritize these three things, and you'll notice a shift.
If hypervigilance is affecting your sleep, try setting a regular bedtime and exercise at some point (enough to sweat) during the day. If you find yourself lying awake worrying, turn to something calming like a favorite book or herbal tea.
Eating regularly maintains a steady blood sugar level, which can help us manage how hypervigilance affects our moods. Try starting off the day with a solid breakfast, eating small portions of slow-release energy foods (like whole grains and nuts) spaced throughout the day, and avoid foods that can spike your blood sugar (like candy and soda).
Studies have shown that exercise can help relieve the symptoms of PTSD and support recovery. Even gentle physical activities (like yoga, walking, or tai chi) release soothing endorphins and keep us focused on the present.
Practicing mindfulness teaches us how to become aware of what's happening in the moment. This involves noticing thoughts, emotions, and sensations without judging them or pushing them away. Mindfulness can help untangle our expectations of danger from what is actually going on around us. It also reveals how the overwhelming emotions that drive us to be hypervigilant cannot harm us, even though they are painful and upsetting.
One of the first steps toward practicing mindfulness is to just notice your breathing. This can help put you in touch with what's happening in your body and guide you to how anxiety might be affecting your mindset. Are you breathing quickly? Can you slow this down? Are you holding tension anywhere else in your body? Where is that strain coming from? Can you sit with the unease without pushing it away?
While there are many healthy things you can do for yourself to cope with hypervigilance, it can be challenging to face its underlying causes alone. PTSD and anxiety disorders are tied to painful experiences that our mind has tried to protect us from. Revisiting them can feel safer with the guidance and support of someone dedicated to your recovery. BetterHelp can connect you with licensed mental health experts who specialize in techniques that will help you work through trauma and how it affects your experience of the world.
A therapist is a valuable resource for helping you toward the goal of feeling safe again. Working with someone who is remote and affordable creates one less barrier to taking the daunting first step toward recovery. Consider the following reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"I can not express how much Cindi has helped me in the past few weeks that I have had her as my counsellor. She's helped me understand more about my conditions, helped me settle some things from my past, and has given me brilliant coping techniques that I will use in the future. I've been to many many psychiatrists but no one has ever been as wise, caring or considerate as Cindi. She's helped me realise things about myself that I have never known. Cindi, if you ever read this, thank you so much for everything you do. You're amazing."
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You Deserve to Feel Safe
Hypervigilance can trick us into thinking the world is against us, even when the dangers we've escaped in our past are long gone. Rediscovering a sense of calm with therapy, healthy coping strategies, and support from those who understand our experience can make the road to recovery seem less perilous. Take the first step.