Your body is wired to deal with perceived threats around you. Whether the threat is real and could cause death, such as a lion chasing you or not lethal, (a work deadline that you are not sure you will meet), your nervous system responds in the same way.
Your alarm system – the amygdala
At the front detecting threat, is your amygdala – this part of your brain is on the lookout for any threat/danger. If your life has been difficult and you have experienced many threats/trauma, your amygdala with be even more vigilant when scanning for threats or danger. Hypervigilance exists when your nervous system has many experiences and ‘memories’ of possible problems in the environment. Examples that can cause hypervigilance include war veterans, children who experienced abuse, individuals who have experienced terror etc – these are just a few examples.
The moment the amygdala detects threat, it shuts off communication with the thinking part of your brain (the cortex) and prepares. If a lion is coming for you, you don’t have the luxury of thinking things through.
Can you imagine? Hmmmn..how fast is the lion and how far is he? Can I outrun him? Does he look friendly or should I start to run? By this stage the lion will have probably caught up and taken a bite.
The amygdala prepares by releasing adrenalin to boost your body and you tend to do one of four things – fight. flight, freeze or faint. Interestingly, the amygdala is also vital for the transferring and storing of memory via the hippocampus and this may be why the event that prompted the fear response may not be remembered later if at all.
After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream.
Anger is often seen as fear in disguise. We can choose to stand and fight the threat.
We could choose to run away and escape. A split second decision will be made as to whether the stress is too powerful to fight and this will result in a flight response.
Another option is to stay quiet and do nothing until the danger has passed. The fear response shuts down the body’s ability to move, causing the person to literally feel frozen or stuck until the fear passes. According to Pete Walker, people who have experienced trauma, the freeze response causes individuals to associate danger with people and that safety can only be found when they are alone. The freeze response is also called the camouflage response, and when triggered causes the person to hide, isolate, and stay away from human contact as much as they can.
“Fawning” is a fear response where the brain decides to try and please whoever is triggering the fear response to prevent them from causing harm. This response is common in survivors of trauma, who might try to avoid abuse by keeping the abuser as happy as possible. This can also manifest as compliance to avoid being hurt.
The responses above happen automatically and instinctually. Our brain does the best that it can at the moment. Unfortunately, this means we often do not make the most effective choices when the amygdala is activated. For example, a person might lash out at their spouse due to a fight response when feeling anxious about work. They might freeze and be unable to deliver an important presentation.
Chronic hypervigilance is a common consequence of PTSD, particularly in people who have been in dangerous environments for a long time (such as serving in battle during a war) or experienced extreme emotional trauma. Hypervigilance is common among children who have experienced the recent death of a parent, were witnesses to violence, or are victims of abuse.
Hypervigilance can be characterized by four common features.
- Overestimation of a threat: Hypervigilant people will be on the lookout for threats that are either unlikely or exaggerated. This may include shutting themselves in to avoid an attack, sitting near an exit so that they can escape quickly, or sitting with their back to the wall so that no one can sneak behind them.
- Obsessive avoidance of perceived threats: This includes avoiding everyday situations where dangers may lurk, including public gatherings and unpopulated public spaces (like garages). In extreme cases, a person may develop agoraphobia (anxiety about being in places where escape might be difficult).
- Increased startle reflex: This is an abnormal response in which a person jumps at any sudden noise, movement, or surprise, even in the middle of the night. Being in a new or uncomfortable environment might further exacerbate the response.
- Epinephrine-induced physiological symptoms: Epinephrine (adrenaline) is one of two stress hormones associated with the fight-or-flight reflex (the other being cortisol). People with PTSD-associated hypervigilance will often have a sustained epinephrine response, manifesting with dilated pupils, an increased heart rate, and elevated blood pressure.
Hypervigilance can severely interfere with sleep, causing fatigue, a loss of concentration, and an inability to focus. Sleep deprivation can further intensify feelings of paranoia, fueling hypervigilant behaviours.
Excessive anxiety is the same as hypervigilance. There are ways to reduce anxiety and help your body to turn off the ‘amygdala alarm’
How to reduce hypervigilance
Hypervigilance can also cause you to feel suspicious of people in your life. It can even reach a state of paranoia. Hypervigilance can lead you to catastrophize, or believe that the worst possible thing is about to happen.
Managing Hypervigilance – The thoughts you resist persist
It’s also normal to want to get rid of those uncomfortable, pit-of-the-stomach feelings as quickly as possible. But that approach can make you more anxious.
This heightened sense of perception, driven by fear or anxiety, can cause strain on your relationships and impact your ability to go to work or school. But there are ways that you can manage this symptom.
- Taking a break — try yoga or gentle stretching, listen to upbeat music, or meditate.
- Taking deep breaths — slowly inhale, hold for a beat, and then exhale.
- Counting — count to 10 (or 20) very slowly, while taking deep breaths.
- Getting exercise — movement helps your physical and mental health.
- Talking to someone — let a trusted friend or family member know how you’re feeling.
- Acceptance: When we let anxiety run its course in the moment without fighting it, ironically, that makes it less. On the other hand, fighting anxiety is what typically [triggers] a panic attack.
- Do a reality check: Ask yourself these questions:
- On scale of 1 to 100, how likely is it that the thing I’m anxious about will happen?
- Do I have good reasons to think something will go wrong?
- Is there a chance I’m overly worried?
- Remind yourself that you’re safe: Ask yourself, ‘Is there a real danger in front of me, or am I actually safe at home and worried about something that’s no threat to me right now?
- Take a mental break: Use a guided imagery app or simply daydream on your own. A brief mental vacation can break the cycle of anxious thoughts. Imagine a safe place and take yourself there in your mind along with deep breathing.
- Change your body position: Stand up, shoulders back, feet slightly apart and chin up. This stance can help you feel confident and offer a ‘reset’. Confident body posture promotes confident thinking.
If you’re struggling with hypervigilance or other mental health symptoms that you’re having trouble managing, it’s best to reach out to a mental health professional. These highly trained individuals have a wealth of experience and can help you navigate the unique challenges of your situation.