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I spent my entire childhood orbiting my mother on a hypervigilant 24-hour watch, making sure she wouldn’t disappear into thin air, accidentally cross the street on red and get hit by a car, or simply forget she had a family and move to another country while we were sleeping. This is why I slept in her bedroom for years—well past an appropriate age— jarred awake by the slightest rustle of a bedsheet. In the language of attachment theory—which states the care given to babies by their primary caregiver influences the way they’ll attach in their relationships as adults—I am anxiously attached.
The circumstances into which we are born and the conditions in which we are raised creates the blueprint for all future interactions and patterns of engagement and connection. Not long after I was born, my parents separated and then divorced. Perhaps that’s why connection with people I love is intertwined with the threat of imminent loss. Who knows? Whatever the case, something triggered my genetic predisposition for anxiety, and it flourished under the guidance of hypervigilance.
Hypervigilance itself is not a mental health condition. Rather, it’s a symptom associated with a variety of mental health disorders, including PTSD, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and mood disorders. To be hypervigilant means to be on high-alert all the time, and prone to overreaction. It is being primed for war, ready at a moment’s notice to run or hide, even when you're just sitting at dinner with friends and loved ones.
When anxious people feel that their attachments are threatened, they can grow hypervigilant to all their attachments. As children, survival depends upon the caretaker’s survival, and an anxious baby will be on constant alert for confirmation that their caretaker is alive. I was always scanning my environment for threats that might separate me from my mother, thinking that my hypervigilance, and its accompanying worry, would prevent her death, or my own, from whatever trauma might tear us apart. As I grew and changed, this aspect of me remained the same; it simply attached and organized itself around different relationships.
Hypervigilance of this sort is a survival instinct, and to live inside of it is to remain emotionally dysregulated. To live in modern society is to exist in a constant state of bombardment. We’re inundated by information, stimulus, and the mistaken belief that filling time is more important than experiencing it. Because of the demands of contemporary life, we are unable to truly digest a response in full, or move through a complete experience. Many of us exist in a half-digested life. This keeps us stuck in an unfinished loop, and it’s there, in the interruption, the halfway point, that hypervigilance lives. Without a way to move through this heightened state of arousal by self-regulating, we are often left to reach for something to numb or manage our emotions—including self-medicating, self-harm, or disordered eating.
When hypervigilant children grow up and edge out into the world, they tend to scan their environment for things that signal whether or not they are safe. In all relationships, but especially romantic ones, they are highly attuned to emotional and physical absences, anything that signals disconnection or feels dangerous, like neglect or exclusion; any small shifts that telegraph such a change.
These slights feel threatening, and the hypervigilant scanner, upon sensing they are being neglected or excluded (or whichever emotional signal to which they're most sensitive) feel like they need to protect themselves at whatever cost. They either cling to the person they feel is disconnecting, or they flee. The hypervigilant is overly aware of the body language, actions, and behaviors of their loved ones. They can analyze things into oblivion, turning something innocuous into something dangerous. We are so aware of being abandoned or hurt that we believe scanning for hurts, and analyzing said hurts, will protect us from being hurt.
People with trauma and mental health issues who have had to battle their way through life, are highly intuitive, sensitive, and exquisitely empathetic. This makes being hypervigilant even more exhausting. Like Feist sang, “I [We] feel it all.”
Why do some people operate in a state of hypervigilance, while others operate at the other extreme—excessive self-reliance and independence? There are many ways to answer this, it just depends on which lens you choose to use. The alertness of the hypervigilant is evolutionary.
We know that adverse childhood experiences can lead to hypervigilance (among many other symptoms) and that hypervigilance is a trauma response, but let’s go farther back and look at the roots of the hypervigilant response.
As hirsute prehistoric creatures, we ran in small packs to forage for mushrooms, seeds and other food, and we were always on guard. While we were out looking for food, so were giant ground sloths, mastodons, sabertooth cats, dire wolves and bears—and we were their food. Our survival instinct was highly attuned, and the quietest rustle of a leaf signaled a threat. Upon receiving that signal, our bodies released hormones triggering a physical change, and priming us to fight, or flee.
Here’s what that chain of command looks like in the brain: When someone experiences a stressful event, it activates the amygdala, which is responsible for our emotions and our memories. We have two amygdalae on either side of our brain, and while we often refer to it as our "fear center" its job is to detect the emotional resonance of all stimuli, and all strong emotion: is it joyful, fearful, stressful, enthralling? It is also the seat of the fight or flight response. When the amygdala receives a trigger for fear, it sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, in the command center. The hypothalamus yells for the sympathetic nervous system to step on the gas, which it does, triggering the fight-or-flight response.
This automatic stress response and the corresponding physiological changes, kept us (and still keeps us) alive, and therefore served us well, but now millions of years later, our brains haven’t evolved as quickly as the world around us, and we are still operating as though we are prey. The fight-or-flight response is part of a primitive and ancient system that is still living in prehistoric times. Our brains don't know the difference between a physical threat caused by a charging Mastadon or the emotional threat of a possible relationship-ending fight with our partner. This is why when we worry, feel stress, or fear, our bodies can react as though we’re in physical danger, and flood us with adrenaline and cortisol.
Yet, in situations without a clear and present danger, the adrenaline and cortisol of the fight or flight response have nowhere to turn but into anxiety.
To be constantly on guard is to be operating purely on survival instinct, and it is exhausting—for everyone. As an adult, the hypervigilantes often behave like detectives in their romantic relationships, looking for clues to ensure that no one has suddenly changed their minds about us, or is cheating. If we find ourselves excessively worrying over the dynamics of our relationship, obsessing over every behavioral cue, and analyzing body language that might foretell impending disconnection, we are being hypervigilant in our relationships.
When we are in a truly hypervigilant state, we are trapped inside a feeling of chronic dread. This is an unbearable experience that often finds us short of breath, and feeling extremely vulnerable. Dread and terror feel very similar, and when we are overcome by these feelings, it's very difficult, if not impossible, to form close relationships with others. Those who live with hypervigilance tend to isolate rather than experience the terror of the dread.
When I am in a relationship, and something happens that triggers that horrifying dread, I assume the message it's sending me is to run from the relationship. This, of course, elicits even more dread and suddenly I’m paralyzed. But I learned recently that we often (and almost always) misunderstand what our dread is trying to tell us. Usually, it’s not telling us we need to leave; it’s telling us that something is happening in our relationship that we don't like, and we need to communicate.
For those who suffer from anxiety, having to communicate is an extremely anxiety-producing prospect, but compared to having to leave a relationship, it’s a lot easier, and doable. Learning how to identify what our dread is trying to tell us can help tame our hypervigilance, and learning how to communicate what the dread is trying to tell us will help our relationships.
Dread is often a symptom of panic disorder. It also shows up in people suffering from depression and anxiety, and is very prevalent in those experiencing symptoms of PTSD. When you feel it, it’s a good idea to breathe through it, either with someone you trust, or on your own. I like the 4-7-8 breathing method for dread.
Often, we can identify what the dread is trying to tell us because it tends to flare immediately, telling us what it doesn’t like. Your partner did something and the dread activated. What did your partner do? Look at what led up to the feelings of dread to put your finger on what caused it.
HOW TO DEAL WITH IT
Hypervigilance and the corresponding dread that comes with it is an unconscious process, and like all unconscious processes, it takes conscious effort to dismantle it.
My first line of defense may not be appealing to many, but it helps me if I can trace the feeling back to the trigger so that I can understand why I am in the hypervigilant state I’m in, or why I’m suddenly filled with dread. Once I can find the root cause I can figure out what's really bothering me and then label the trigger “Not scary” and mentally file it away.
But there are other effective ways to deal with chronic hypervigilance. One way is through EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy. This technique allows your brain to introduce and integrate traumatic memories so that they get properly processed and are no longer as distressful.
Neurofeedback Therapy teaches you how to relax your brain and nervous system. Over time, this method teaches your brain to have different responses to overwhelming things and to heal.
Meditation or deep breathing, is also really helpful at calming down your sympathetic nervous system. Because hypervigilance keeps us in a consistent state of high alert, deep, long breathing signals to our parasympathetic system (our in-house nurse) that we’re ready to be calm. My favorite meditations can be found here.
Somatic Experiencing Therapy and Internal Family Systems (often called "Parts Therapy") are both excellent modalities for hypervigilance. Somatic Experiencing can help you in the moments of hypervigilance, when you are overcome by the sense that your dread is going to kill you. One thing you learn in these therapies is that we are every age we've ever been, and when we've experienced trauma as a young person, we become stuck inside the trauma at the age it happened, and so our present reaction to an emotional experience is usually a past trauma response that we mistake for our feelings in the present.
One method is to recognize that the part of you who is responding to the threat, is not the you currently, but the you of the past. The version of you at age 3, 6, or 9 who first felt the trauma that led to the hypervigilance and dread but who lacks the ability to articulate what she feels, knowing only that it feels like her existence is at stake. That’s the feeling that remains, and if we can learn to identify and recognize that the person who has shown up to declare that we feel dread is a younger version of us, reporting on the same feeling, but from a totally different experience, we can start to distinguish between what feels true and what is actually happening.
The experience of feeling disconnected is frightening, and the act of being hypervigilant is a maladaptive way of guarding against our fear of separation. Recognizing that hypervigilance is a symptom of feeling emotionally dysregulated is a great starting point. It’s not who we are, it’s simply an ancient response doing what it was programmed to do, and until we explain to our hypervigilance that it’s time here has run its course, and it’s time to find a new line of work, it will continue. It's hard work, but worth it. It's always always worth it.
And you? Are you a scanner? And do you find yourself scanning most in your romantic relationships, or elsewhere?
Let me know in the comments!
Thank you for reading.
Until next week, I am…
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