Signs of emotional hypervigilance explained

Do you feel like you're constantly on edge? Are you worried about every little detail in your life? Do you replay social interactions, exhausting yourself with overthinking? If so, you're not alone. Many of us grapple with heightened vigilance, often directed toward our emotions. So what is emotional hypervigilance, how can you recognise it in yourself and most importantly, how can you find healthier ways to cope?


According to Counselling Directory member Gregori Savva in their article, 'What is emotional hypervigilance?' emotional hypervigilance is "a heightened state of arousal, stress or sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli."

Recognising the signs of emotional hypervigilance

  • Constant worry: You worry continuously, without a break and often about things beyond your control. Because of this, you feel constantly on edge and find it challenging to relax.
  • Overthinking and rumination: You replay your thoughts on a loop in your mind, repeatedly thinking about the same things, especially your problems or worries. It's like having a broken record playing in your head. You might constantly replay a conversation, analysing every word and gesture, looking for hidden meanings or signs of disapproval, even in casual interactions. With overthinking, you might spend a lot of time imagining potential future social scenarios creating mental scripts for every possible conversation in an attempt to be prepared for any outcome. 

Physical symptoms

The stress associated with emotional hypervigilance can also impact your physical body in the following ways: 

  • Muscle tension: You might notice increased muscle tension, particularly in the neck, shoulders and jaw, leaving you feeling uncomfortable and even experiencing headaches. 
  • Digestive issues: Stomachaches, indigestion, changes in bowel habits and even irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms. 
  • Sleep disturbances: Emotional hypervigilance often interferes with sleep and might cause insomnia, restlessness and fragmented sleep patterns. You may find yourself waking up frequently during the night.
  • Headaches: Caused by physical tension and stress. 
  • Fatigue: Being constantly vigilant and on edge is physically draining, leaving you tired, low on energy and generally exhausted. 

Even though these are physical symptoms, counselling can give you tools and strategies to effectively manage these manifestations of emotional hypervigilance by giving you the headspace you need to manage your stressors.

Relationship struggles 

When you are constantly second-guessing yourself, not expressing your needs and finding it hard to be present in social interactions, it is no wonder your relationships can be impacted. Misunderstandings, conflicts, or difficulty forming connections are more likely. You might then withdraw from social situations and isolate yourself for fear of judgement or rejection.

Some causes of emotional hypervigilance

It's typically a combination of factors that contribute to you feeling this, for example:

  • Anxiety, social anxiety, or specific phobias can lead to constant worry and vigilance.
  • Past trauma such as abuse, violence or a life-threatening event may develop emotional hypervigilance as a defence mechanism. 
  • High levels of stress from work, family, or personal issues.
  • Perfectionism, where you are constantly seeking flawlessness and fear of making mistakes.
  • Sensory sensitivities.

A word on hypervigilance in neurodivergent (autistic and ADHD) individuals

Emotional hypervigilance is not exclusive to autistic and ADHD individuals but is prevalent, with social and sensory sensitivities and triggers often contributing. Autistic masking, where we hide our autistic traits to fit in better with the neurotypical world, can be conscious or unconscious and is exhausting either way. Intrusive or sudden noises can trigger heightened alertness and anxiety. Overcrowded places, such as public transport or crowded events, can be overwhelming and cause individuals to be on high alert. 

Executive functions are the mental processes that help us achieve our objectives; they help us solve problems, guide our decision-making, and control our actions. Executive functioning differences in autistic and ADHD people mean emotional regulation is challenging, particularly when sensory overwhelm when our working memory or difficulties with time management make it difficult to complete tasks.

These social and sensory sensitivities and executive functioning challenges can cause stress, anxiety, and emotional hypervigilance.

Finding healthy coping strategies

Perhaps you recognise some of these signs in yourself or your loved ones – what can be done to help?

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques

  • Mindfulness is staying fully present in the moment without judgment or distraction. It can be anything that takes your mind off what has happened and might happen in the future. It's paying deliberate attention to your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment as they are in the present.
  • Deep breathing: Practice deep belly breathing to calm the nervous system and reduce anxiety.


  • Regular exercise: Physical activity can help reduce stress and anxiety. Find an exercise routine you enjoy, whether walking, yoga, or a team sport.
  • Adequate sleep: Prioritise good sleep routines and ensure enough rest, as sleep is crucial for managing emotional well-being.
  • Nutrition: Maintain a balanced diet focusing on whole foods, as nutrition can impact mood and energy levels.
  • Hydration: Drink enough water throughout the day, as dehydration can contribute to stress.

Seeking professional help

It's important to note that emotional hypervigilance can affect individuals in different ways and to varying degrees. The first step is awareness, and if you've recognised any of the signs in yourself or someone you care about, you're already on the path to understanding and healing. Seeking professional help is a critical step. Addressing emotional hypervigilance often involves understanding the underlying causes. Counselling can help with this and support you to find healthy coping strategies that work for you.

In addition, the coping strategies mentioned, like mindfulness, relaxation techniques, self-care, and seeking support from friends and family, can help guide you back to a healthier emotional state. Remember, you're not alone in experiencing this. Many of us grapple with heightened vigilance, and self-compassion and understanding will help you feel healthier and happier – something to be genuinely vigilant about. 

If this has resonated with you, why not check out my profile for more information on how we might work together and to get in touch?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Seaford, East Sussex, BN25
Written by Jennifer Warwick, MSc Psych, BACP Registered | Counsellor and Parenting Expert
Seaford, East Sussex, BN25

I am a BACP registered counsellor working online. I work with people who struggle to balance work, home and family life. People constantly rush, looking after others over themselves and are exhausted.

I specialise in supporting parents and carers as they navigate their child's tween and teenage years. Contact me for an introductory chat by phone.

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