Coping With Being Hypervigilant
By Nadia Khan
Updated December 19, 2018
Reviewer Chante’ Gamby, LCSW
Have you experienced one or more traumas, like a serious car accident, natural disaster, or the unexpected death of someone close to you? Since then, have you felt like you are always scanning for danger or that you need to be on guard constantly? It is possible that you may be experiencing hypervigilance, a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Individuals who suffer from conditions like PTSD can experience a range of symptoms. One set of common symptoms falls under the category of hyperarousal, or increased anxiety. Hypervigilance is one of the symptoms that is included in this category and is considered a primary symptom of PTSD. But what exactly is hypervigilance?
Definition Of Hypervigilance
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines hypervigilance as extreme or excessive vigilance or the state of being highly or abnormally alert to potential danger or threat. (Alternatively, the definition of hypervigilant is extremely or excessively vigilant or highly or abnormally alert to potential danger or threat.)
In other words, hypervigilance, which is sometimes known simply as being hypervigilant or even hypervigilant, is a state of being in which a person is always actively on guard. This can be particularly exhausting and significantly impact a person's life, both personally and professionally.
People who are hypervigilant feel that they need to be prepared for every possible situation. For example, if they have experienced a violent home invasion in the past, they might obsessively check to make sure that their front door is locked, their alarm system is on, and their children are safely tucked in their beds. Or, if they have experienced a serious car accident, they might drive excessively slow, constantly check the rear-view mirror, or avoid driving altogether.
These hypervigilant behaviors can be disruptive to one's normal life, to varying degrees, including one's relationships. However, there are ways for one to cope. But what are some specific ways in which people can cope with hypervigilance? What sort of skills are required to maintain a sense of normalcy?
When we experience a traumatic event or a series of traumatic events, we may or may not develop PTSD. However, if we do develop PTSD, we can become hypervigilant. We may feel like we need to do everything we possibly can to avoid a similar experience, or anything remotely like it, in the future. However, to maintain a healthy lifestyle, we would need to find ways to cope with this. Otherwise, it can prove to be disruptive in some areas of our lives.
There are good ways to cope, and there are not so good ways. An example of an unhealthy way to cope is by becoming a workaholic. According to The Atlantic, "The hypervigilant mind scans for potential threats in a repetitive, distressing way. Working extreme hours may help manage elevated fears or make people feel prepared for disaster (real or imagined)."
While working long hours may appear to be relatively normal, it is not necessarily a healthy approach to coping with PTSD, especially when done to excess. Because it can seem to be relatively normal, it can go unnoticed for far too long, resulting in a variety of issues including significant health problems.
On the other hand, an example of a positive way to cope with hypervigilant behavior is when one chooses to manage their symptoms by practicing mindfulness actively. According to the National Center for PTSD, "Mindfulness-based approaches have been shown to be useful for problems commonly seen in trauma survivors such as anxiety and hyperarousal."
One way to practice mindfulness is by focusing your attention on your breathing. This brings your attention to the present moment so that you are not obsessing about what happened in the past or worrying about what may or may not occur in the future. This sets you up to be able to choose the actions that follow instead of just allowing yourself to react. If coping skills are simply not enough, though, seeking the help of a therapist would be the next logical step to take. But, how can a therapist help?
Therapy For Hypervigilance
If you find that coping skills are helping, that is good news. But, maybe they are not helping as much as you would like, or maybe they are not helping at all. If this is the case, you may want to consider trying therapy.
Meeting with a therapist, like the ones that can be found at BetterHelp, can be helpful in some ways. It may be useful to think of a therapist as an expert who can lead you to better ways for you to cope with hypervigilance and PTSD than you might be able to find on your own. In fact, they can go beyond mere coping skills and provide you with treatments that are known to be especially helpful with PTSD and the symptoms that are commonly associated with it.
There are several treatments that your therapist can provide you with, some of which have been found to be particularly effective. For example, you may be interested in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is one of the most effective treatments for PTSD and its associated symptoms, like hypervigilance. What exactly is CBT?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, hypervigilance is one of the changes in arousal and reactivity that can signal PTSD. If you find that you are experiencing a sense of hypervigilance and think that you might have PTSD, you may want to consider talking to your therapist about how CBT can help you.
According to U.S. News & World Report, CBT can be used to treat PTSD and has been shown to improve symptoms, including hypervigilance. It may be useful to think of CBT as a way of retraining your brain to think more productive thoughts and allow yourself to choose more appropriate actions.
For example, if someone cuts you off on the highway, instead of reacting negatively and developing a lingering sense of road rage, you may be able to recognize that the other driver may be having a significantly bad day and they simply made a mistake as a result. Seeing the scenario in this light would be helpful in that it would allow you to feel better about what happened and focus on your driving, which is where your attention should be after an incident like that anyway.
Interestingly, CBT can be particularly effective when it is paired with mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness can help you with your awareness of common triggers so you can recognize them at the moment that they happen. This is like adding a built-in pause that gives you time to choose what happens next, instead of automatically reacting. This pause then allows you to see when you have an opportunity to practice CBT. And the more you practice, the more effective the treatment becomes.
Maintenance Of Therapy For Hypervigilance
Once you figure out what works for you, whether that is using your coping skills, seeing a therapist, or some combination of the two, it is important for you to stick with it. PTSD and its associated symptoms, like hypervigilance, can be long-lasting. It can be tempting to stop your new routine as soon as you feel better. However, this can lead to serious setbacks.
It is better to continue practicing your routine so that your symptoms do not return. Maintaining your practice of the set of coping skills that work best for you and continuing with therapy can help you to manage your symptoms for the long haul, indeed for the rest of your life. Still, there may be times when circumstances trigger your symptoms to return or temporarily worsen. If that should happen, it can be helpful to view this as an opportunity to renew your commitment.
If at any time you feel as though your methods of coping are no longer working, though, it is important to try something new or talk to a therapist. A therapist can be particularly helpful as they can recommend further actions that you can take to help you get to a better place and stay there.
If you have experienced some trauma or a series of traumas, you may find yourself in a constant state of high alert, which may be an indication of hypervigilance and, in turn, PTSD. Psychology Today describes hypervigilance as "a state of heightened awareness to guard against further harm." Of course, protecting yourself is normal. However, when it becomes obsessive or disruptive in some way, it may be time to do something about it.
While it's normal to take steps to protect yourself, it is not normal if it increases to the point of excess and interferes with your ability to live your life. Remaining in this state for too long is not healthy, so it is important to find ways to cope. You can learn to cope if you develop the right skills, like mindfulness. And choosing to work with a therapist, and participate in CBT or something like it, can help you to live a happier, healthier life.