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Hair-trigger stress and anxiety - hypervigilance

Hypervigilance is a heightened state of arousal, stress or sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli. It can cause intense emotional reactions, anxiety and impulsive patterns of behaviour. It makes us feel alert to hidden dangers - a primal sense of threat, a feeling of treading around on eggshells without knowing why. Or the belief that you need to remain alert in case an impending disaster. At other times it may be a sense of uncertainty that cannot be tolerated.

Often, however, the source of the threat cannot be identified and your reaction to it feels disproportionate to the reality. It is as if you have acquired a feeling of unease that cannot be shrugged off, triggering alarm bells for no apparent reason – causing an atmosphere of tension. This is usually played out with a sense of urgency and causes compulsive behaviours that seek to avoid or escape the source of the perceived threat.

Hypervigilance is a state which can be enhanced by a period of long-term anxiety, conflict, trauma, illness or significant loss (such as the death of a loved one). Being ever-watchful means needing to stay on constant alert, searching for evidence of a threat even when it’s not there – such as sifting through past memories, or screen-playing future events in your head. It means feeling highly sensitive to physical sensations like pain, stress, anxiety, anger, grief and loss. As well as wanting to avoid any socially challenging situations or relationships which bring you into close contact and confrontation with others. These situations often act as triggers or reminders of the original distress.

A woman sits alone in the dark
Often those people who are experiencing hypervigilance may be susceptible to their own underlying feelings of helplessness, vulnerability and worthlessness. They may feel unable to cope with the most simple tasks or responsibilities. And constantly fear criticism, or try to please others. Some people may react defensively or violently in order to fight off a perceived threat. They may experience feelings or blame or disapproval by a loved one.

What is hypervigilance? 

This ingrained state of vigilance may have been due to a present crisis – such as trauma, loss or continuous conflict, or it may be due to growing up with an overly anxious, worrying parent, an explosive domestic environment, past traumas or emotionally absent parents. If a child has not learned to process intense emotion; has not been mirrored by a parent or allowed to express itself fully then this results in a susceptibility to the emotions and behaviour of others.

The sensory stimuli and emotions generated by interacting in close relationships may put you on alert and cause excessive stress. While the anxiety which these situations trigger cannot be fully processed or regulated and results in chronic feelings of hypervigilance – scanning, watching and waiting for disaster to erupt.

 Sensory stimuli which can trigger hypervigilance

  • feeling trapped
  • breathing difficulties
  • sudden and loud noises
  • shouting and arguments
  • a sense of abandonment
  • anticipation and fear of uncertainty
  • feeling of being shamed or criticised
  • physical pain and/or emotional distress
  • emotional overstimulation or under-stimulation
  • nightmares, flashbacks, reminders of past trauma
  • the competing demands and expectations of others
  • the random, sudden and chaotic behaviour of others

For the most part, hypervigilance may feel like a sense of simmering tension and unease. The body is under tension, causing tremors, stiffness, rigidity or exhaustion, with under-breathing or over-breathing creating a sense of suffocation and feeling trapped. Once triggered, hypervigilance may cause enhanced or intense emotional responses – activating a fight or flight response. Emotions are raised to the point of alarm or even panic.

A woman, exhausted, sits with her head resting against her arms against a train table

Emotional responses triggered by hypervigilance

  • anxiety, fear or panic
  • anger or violence
  • incessant worrying
  • a deep sense of injustice
  • black and white thinking
  • fear of others’ judgement
  • a spiral of negative thinking
  • self-loathing or judging others
  • dissociative states or detachment
  • emotional withdrawal or shut down

Once a person has remained in a heightened state of alert for a period of time, they may have learned to respond with various coping mechanisms and defences which are both conscious and unconscious. Consciously these avoidance behaviours are planned in advance but not communicated. Unconsciously these avoidance behaviours are enacted automatically as a coping mechanism.

These coping mechanisms are attributed by a great sense of injustice, victimisation and resentment. The following bullet points may contain some or all of the behaviours you associated with this state of being. A couple who both experience some degree of hypervigilance to trigger each other in a chain reaction.

Avoidance or escape behaviours

  • day-dreaming
  • non-participation
  • avoiding social settings
  • running away from things
  • non-engagement in conversation
  • scanning and monitoring for threat
  • risk-averse and fear of new situations
  • escape strategies in new social situations
  • not facing up to things which are difficult
  • procrastination and not meeting deadlines
  • avoiding making contact family and friends
  • avoidance of closeness or emotional intimacy
  • emotional detachment and withdrawal behaviours
  • adverse to making decisions or accepting responsibility
  • non-engaged behaviours which clumsiness, failure and self-sabotage
  • avoidance of panicky thoughts and feelings which can lead to forgetting
  • controlling behaviours which focus on not letting others express themselves
  • avoidance of panicky thoughts and feelings which can lead to forgetting, lateness and clumsiness

Confronting and aggressive behaviours

  • risk-taking
  • paranoia
  • defensiveness
  • rationalisation
  • erratic mood swings
  • aggression and violence
  • feelings of vengefulness
  • an excessive need for order
  • emotional intensity and outbursts
  • scanning and monitoring for threat
  • an excessive need to make things right
  • fear of taking the blame or being shamed
  • an excessive need to search for truth and evidence
  • an excessive need to confront others and resolve arguments
  • controlling behaviours which focus on correcting others or forcing them to accept your views
  • obsessive-compulsive behaviours to bring about wished for order, clarity and certainty

Once you have built up a deeper awareness of your triggers, emotional responses and behaviours you can go about, reducing the symptoms, self-regulating your emotional states and expressing your vulnerability to others with a sense of empathy, compassion and being accepted. This includes working on boundaries.

Close-up of a woman who looks on edge

Reducing hypervigilance

  • being still
  • slowing down
  • being listened to
  • validating emotions
  • observing sensations
  • pausing before reacting
  • self-reflective exercises
  • non-verbal empathising
  • mindfulness of breathing
  • assertive communication
  • self-regulating emotions
  • creating self-care routines
  • repairing after arguments
  • tolerating difficult emotions
  • checking for objective evidence
  • expressing your emotional states
  • putting in boundaries with others
  • acknowledging your pain and fear
  • enjoying moments of sensual pleasure
  • listening to non-judgemental feedback
  • showing kindness and generosity to oneself
  • being open and honest about difficult emotions.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Greg Savva - Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree

I am an experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, EnduringMind. I believe in a compassionate, open-minded approach to counselling as the best way forward for my clients. I focus on helping you make sense of erratic thoughts and emotions. Offering you a chance to gain self-awareness and change for the better.… Read more

Written by Greg Savva - Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree

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