The Mighty Logo

How Hypervigilance Affects My Anxiety, Not PTSD

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

We live in an age of labels – attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), bipolar disorder, pain-in-the-arse. All these conditions existed long before they received a formal diagnostic name (I assume – I’m not a researcher) but we like labels, either for ourselves or our loved ones. Somehow, it legitimizes behaviors we don’t understand, and can even offer hope of a “cure.”

• What is PTSD?

Hypervigilance has been around for forever, of that I have no doubt. But it’s not a word I ever heard mentioned in all my many years of formal education. For a more thorough definition, have a look here, but whether or not it’s something you personally have experience with, doesn’t negate the fact there are a lot of people out there standing on guard, waiting for the next blow to fall. I’m one of those people. It’s not fun. For me personally, it’s not related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – I haven’t been subjected to military combat or sexual assault, and for that I’m very grateful. But for one reason or another, my nature and nurture cooked up a little concoction that makes me hypervigilant all the time.

What does that mean? It means I’m always on guard.

Sudden noises make me leap like a started gazelle, providing great amusement to all and sundry.

Relaxation is a word I read in a dictionary. I’m in a permanent state of tension, waking in the night with clenched fists and gritted teeth.

My five senses are highly attuned: I hear every nuance, see intricate details, declare most bed sheets “scratchy,” smell the subtlest wafts and taste delicate essences.

Crowded rooms are distressing, and I’m unable to separate conversations from background noise.

Emotions are painted across your demeanor with unsaid words and emotions you hide.

I’m sensitive to your real mood, not your happy façade.

I read a lot into conversations, and research seemingly innocuous comments in great detail.

I worry endlessly about people I’ve never met.

I preplan every possible outcome, just in case.

My heart rate doubles when the phone rings, letters arrive or there’s a knock on the door. Or if I just think those things are going to happen.

I fantasize disasters in great detail when I’m alone: in the car, in bed, walking.

If I can’t see loved ones face to face, I picture them dead.

In stressful situations, the air is too thick to breathe.

Hypervigilance robs me of a future while I’m so fearful in the present.

Trust is hard-earned and easily lost. Experience taught me everyone will leave, judge me, hate me, never speak to me again. I’m waiting for the hammer to fall.

And all this hyperawareness is exhausting. I know how ridiculous I’m being, but it doesn’t help. Feelings are feelings and can’t be magicked away.

Numbing behaviors are unhealthy and unsustainable, but my god, they work… until the guilt sets in.

I’m not alone in this permanent state of heightened awareness – the fact it has a label suggests other people have it too. But if you’re fortunate enough to respond in a healthy manner to life and the normal stresses around us, spare a little bit of thought for those of us who can’t just switch off and “put things in perspective.” We’re not stupid; we often realize our reactions are extreme and unhelpful. But ignoring an emotion is ineffective; numbing it through alcohol, self-harm or 14 packets of Tim Tams helps in the moment and makes it worse in the long run.

Finding perspective is not easy and is a key reason I’m developing a wonderful, long-term relationship with my psychologist. There are tools and strategies – I read that somewhere. In the meantime, if you sneak up behind me, you’ll amuse yourself greatly by scaring the living bejeezus out of me. It’s funny – I get it. But when I finally find my heart rate sitting at a nice comfortable level, it’s a bit of a pity for it to start turning somersaults again.

Hypervigilance, for me, is related to anxiety. It isn’t the sole symptom, but they feed off each other. I’m sure there are great benefits to this heightened state of awareness. But with today’s stresses, I’m struggling to look at the positives. Tomorrow, I’m going to get a new little tattoo – another means of intense focus that temporarily blots out the outer world.

Photo by Cagatay Orhan on Unsplash

Originally published: November 8, 2018
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home