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Am I Too Hypervigilant?

By: Danielle Bertini, LCPC

Let’s consider this: Samantha admits that she is always on alert. Her head floods with worst-case scenarios if she wakes up at 3 am. She is always looking ahead to what might happen, what might go wrong — whether it is potential traffic, a talk she needs to have with someone at work, or what the cashier might say if she tries to return a shirt she bought last week.

Samantha is what is called hypervigilant. Her brain is wired to always be looking ahead, to always look around corners, and to brace herself for the worst — which can be exhausting, to say the least. This probably keeps her from living in the moment and appreciating what is happening in front of her because her mind is always 50 steps ahead.

Do you relate to Samantha? If you do, you probably understand that this constant state of being on guard can be frustrating, as you never feel calm and there is always something you’re obsessing about. So where does this usually stem from?

How Does Hypervigilance Develop? 

Hypervigilance can often come from growing up in a chaotic family where things were never emotionally stable. Perhaps the mother struggled with an addiction, the father struggled with bipolar disorder, or the parents were always arguing. Or it could be more environmental — an unsafe neighborhood, a war zone, or the trauma of a natural disaster. It could also have been caused by a slow, ongoing trauma and/or sudden specific trauma. The results are often the same as a child. 

In these situations, you needed to figure out how to cope, and being a child, your options were limited. For some, they learned to cope by withdrawing and pulling back — they would shut down and hide in their rooms. Others learned to walk on eggshells — be the good kid who reads the signs and accommodates the best they can to not cause trouble or rock the boat. Or maybe they get angry and lash out to try and get something to change. 

Regardless of whichever it might be, the driving force, that constantly running anxiety wired you to be hyperalert. Is mom drinking? Is dad in another bad mood? Because as discussed earlier, children have limited resources, so this is one of the only things that works and makes sense. You hide in your room when mom is drinking, or you accommodate and be the best you can be when dad is depressed.  The issue is that like many adult problems, what you learned as a child doesn’t work as well in the adult world.  With that, Taibbi (2021) offers three steps for overcoming the habit of hypervigilance, which I’ve outlined below.

Get Closure.

Old wiring in our brains often lingers because you keep firing those same circuits as well as because you psychologically don’t have closure with your past. There might be unfinished business, old childhood regrets, or resentments.

It’s important to work to put them to rest. This can especially be done with the help of a therapist, where you can finally get things off your chest and say now what you couldn’t say back then. You might even consider having conversations with your parents or previous partners. It’s not about expecting them to radically change, but rather having them finally understand how you felt. You are doing now what you couldn’t do back then. And the experience of simply doing that, being heard, as well as proactively approaching your anxiety, will help you feel more grounded as an adult.

Know Your Triggers.

Hypervigilance can often be paired with generalized anxiety disorder in adulthood. Your brain is constantly scanning for what-ifs and possible trouble. The key here is learning to know in advance what can trigger you and then recognize when you are getting ramped up. You want to catch it before it gets too high and more difficult to rein in. You can practice checking in with yourself regularly throughout the day and see where your anxiety is, maybe even keeping a log of it to notice any patterns. 

Change Your Self-Talk.

Through a cognitive-behavioral approach, you can learn to calm yourself down when your anxiety increases. Again, this is about doing for yourself what you didn’t get as a child, including reassurance and emotional support. When you find yourself running through worst-case scenarios, it’s time to cool yourself down. Here are some techniques to have on hand: deep breathing, distractions, and calming tools like journaling, listening to music, and taking a hot shower.

It’s important to not fall into the trap that your brain is trying to tell you, which is that the only way you can feel better is to resolve the “problem.” Don’t do this, you’ll go down rabbit holes. Tell yourself that your little-kid brain is getting fired up and that you aren’t a little kid anymore and there is nothing to worry about. Use your tools to calm yourself down.

If you find yourself struggling with hypervigilance, you may find it helpful to talk with one of our therapists at Symmetry Counseling. Explore counseling services online to see how therapy in Chicago can help, and contact us today to get matched with one of our licensed counselors.

References 

Taibbi, R. (2021, May 30). Are You Hypervigilant? Psychology Today. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fixing-families/202105/are-you-hypervigilant 

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