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What You Should Know About Hypervigilance and PTSD

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

You know that nagging feeling. Everything is going well in your relationship, but you’re still waiting for something to go horribly wrong. You’re aware of everything in your surroundings, constantly on alert for danger. You’re sensitive to anything amiss that might suggest trouble, and it can get in the way of your everyday life.

When you survive trauma, it’s typical to experience this hypervigilance or state of high alertness. It’s like always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Hypervigilance is also a common symptom of mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially when it continues well after the trauma has ended.

What Is Hypervigilance?

Hypervigilance is a heightened awareness of your surroundings, on high alert in order to sense danger. If you experience hypervigilance, it might be hard to concentrate on the activity at hand because you’re checking what’s happening around you all the time. A sudden movement or unexpected sound can startle you. Hypervigilance may also make you irritable at times or find crowded spaces overstimulating.

Following trauma, hypervigilance is one way your brain attempts to keep a close eye out for upcoming danger to help you stay alive. Your nervous system perceives trauma as a life-or-death situation. This ingrained survival sense is adaptive when you’re aware there’s a lion nearby. However, when your danger meter gets stuck in the “on” position long after the trauma ended, hypervigilance can cause disruptions and distress in your daily life.

Is Hypervigilance a Sign of PTSD?

Hypervigilance is a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) along with other mental health conditions where your fear response is turned up. In the case of PTSD, your doctor or a mental health professional will evaluate you for hypervigilance or an exaggerated startle response. Both of these symptoms are categorized as “alterations in arousal or reactivity associated with the traumatic event,” per the DSM.

Some other diagnoses that may have hypervigilance as a symptom include:

  • Acute stress disorder
  • Complex PTSD (C-PTSD)
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder

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What Does Hypervigilance Feel Like?

Hypervigilance definitely makes you feel on edge, but it shows up different for everyone. Mighty community member Kendall C. explained their experience with this symptom:

I’m still very hypervigilant that I still feel the need to constantly ‘read the room’ by observing others’ moods in case they randomly explode and I’ll be prepared for it. Something I did a lot as a kid that I really don’t know why I still continue to do it, takes up a lot of energy and mental space.

Mighty community member Bryce A. shared one way hypervigilance impacts his life:

I’m constantly checking to see who’s behind me, in line I basically have to stand sideways or have my back to the wall.

Where to Learn More About Hypervigilance

To learn more from others with PTSD who get what it’s like to experience hypervigilance, take a look at the stories below. And if you want to share your experience with a community that understands, post a Thought on The Mighty. Here’s how.

Other Symptoms of PTSD

If you live with PTSD, you know the condition is more than just hypervigilance or startling easily. Here are some other common symptoms of PTSD:

Header image via Luis Quintero on Unsplash

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