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What It Means to Have ‘Emotional Hypervigilance’

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I vividly remember when a therapist first told me I was hypervigilant — I laughed. A lot. I’m a total space cadet, zoning out at every opportunity and completely missing important social cues.

• What is PTSD?

But the therapist clarified: she didn’t mean I was hypervigilant of my surroundings, I was hypervigilant of others’ emotions. Emotionally hypervigilant. I’d never heard of this concept before, but in a way… it made a lot of sense. I am always aware of how others are feeling, sometimes without trying but often I make a conscious effort to be aware and sensitive to others’ emotional states. The therapist described this as a trauma response. I have always been a very sensitive person, and after years of hearing how my emotions were excessive or dramatic or “wrong,” I developed a coping mechanism: always be aware of how others are feeling. 

It had endless benefits. If I knew how everyone around me felt, I could mirror them to ensure my emotions couldn’t be “wrong.” I could anticipate how much patience a person had that day for any emotions that may be too dramatic and determine how much I needed to rein myself in. Basically, I could shape myself into whatever form kept me and my emotions safe.

It was a survival technique, not meant for long-term use. But it became so natural to me that for a long time, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. By the time I talked to this therapist and learned the term “emotional hypervigilance,” this old coping mechanism had wreaked havoc on my life and eroded my sense of self so thoroughly that I didn’t even know what to do about it.

I still don’t really know what to do about it. I have a lot of trouble trusting my perception of reality because for a long time, my perception wasn’t what mattered, it was everyone else’s perception. As long as I knew how others felt, I knew how I should feel. But this just built a wall between my cognition and my emotions, leading to all kinds of problems. Whenever I felt an emotion that didn’t fit with those around me, I thought I was going “crazy.” For a long time, I thought I had bipolar disorder because I couldn’t piece together how my emotions could be related to anything happening in my life, and they felt so overwhelming that they had to be abnormal. It turns out, my emotions are influenced by the things around me, just like everybody else. Maybe even more so, because of my sensitivity. And they feel so wild and out of control because I have so completely disconnected myself from them.

Now, I’m sifting through a lot of things. Am I traumatized from my relatively warm, loving upbringing? What does that say about me? Do I have any mental illness at all, or am I just a highly sensitive person with poor coping mechanisms? How am I supposed to trust myself when I’m just now realizing my emotions haven’t been my own for most of my life? What am I really like, when I’m not shaping myself for others? Is it even possible to find out?

A version of this article was previously published on the author’s blog.

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

Originally published: July 13, 2019
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