If you’ve suffered a traumatic experience, it makes sense that you might be on the lookout for danger. Who would want to risk further trauma? This leads us to ask, “What is hypervigilance?” Here’s our quick guide to help!
Merriam-Webster defines hypervigilance as:
extreme or excessive vigilance: the state of being highly or abnormally alert to potential danger or threat1
Hypervigilance is exhausting to live with!
Hypervigilance is one expression of hyperarousal – a state where your system is on high alert. Merriam-Webster defines hyperarousal as:
excessive arousal : an abnormal state of increased responsiveness to stimuli that is marked by various physiological and psychological symptoms (such as increased levels of alertness and anxiety and elevated heart rate and respiration)2
Essentially with hypervigilance, you are on high alert. Scanning for danger. Your body and mind are in a state of constant tension. Hopefully, you have some safe spaces where you can drop your guard and relax – but you might not.
Hypervigilance and PTSD
Hypervigilance can be a symptom of PTSD, although it doesn’t have to be present. Beyond Blue describes the state of being “overly alert or wound up”3 that hypervigilance can be part of:
You may have trouble sleeping, feel irritable and find it hard to concentrate. You may become easily startled and constantly on the lookout for signs of danger.4
Being “constantly on the lookout for signs of danger”? That’s hypervigilance.
What is hypervigilance? Being constantly on the lookout for danger.
You could be out shopping with trusted friends, not knowing if you might bump into someone who has done you harm. Or at church with a bunch of people you trust, but where you have suffered abuse from a church leader or other person who might be there.
In these situations, your friends might be focused on the expected things in those environments: shopping, conversation, or worship. Meanwhile, in the back of your mind, you are alert for danger, scanning your environment, on the lookout. Or, that scan for danger could be a very conscious one, taking up most of your brain space and energy. To those around you, you might appear quite agitated, or you might just seem distracted, flat, or distant.
Hypervigilance doesn’t have to be limited to the location where the trauma took place. Perhaps you’ve started at a new church – or are trying to – and just the fact that you are in any church at all might be enough to keep you on high alert.
One of the challenges hypervigilance brings is that our trauma now affects us in situations that are truly safe, but our system remains on high alert nevertheless. A safe person might, for example, have some quirk or habit that reminds us of an abuser. How can we tell the difference when our system is in danger mode?
It can be a complex and difficult process to come down from high alert while retaining awareness of real danger signs.
(You might find our article “sift the lies from the truth” helpful on this topic.)
What can help? Try this checklist.
If you suffer from hypervigilance, what can help?
Our top suggestion, naturally enough, is good therapy. But here are some ideas:
- Therapy, with or without medication5
- Journalling and self-talk
- Reading and learning
- Perhaps avoiding caffeine or other chemicals that might increase hyperarousal
- Chat with your doctor about strategies for your diet, including helpful vitamins and minerals
- Finding safe spaces and safe people
- Going with a buddy when you can’t avoid difficult situations – or even to support you as you stretch yourself
- Having positive, safe experiences
- Music or other settling tools (eg take headphones when you do the grocery shopping)
People’s experiences of faith post-trauma can vary widely, but some might find their faith a huge help, and for those we might suggest also:
- Some great memory verses that help you feel safe
- Worship songs and positive church experiences
How can you help others?
We don’t want to understate the value of being a good, trustworthy friend! Priceless!
Being serious about your personal discipleship can help you become an increasingly safe person for others to be around. So work diligently at developing the fruit of the Spirit:
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control6
As we work on developing our Christian character: reflecting, repenting, and re-trying, it’s only natural that as we more closely reflect Jesus’ character, others find us safer.
Being aware of the checklist above can be great, and, as always, working on our listening skills and empathy. But perhaps especially think about fruits like patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.
Hypervigilance is both horrible and exhausting: what a great gift if we are a balm to those who suffer from it! Paul wrote:
Be completely humble and gentle;
be patient, bearing with one another in love.7
- Under the guidance of a qualified professional, of course
- Galatians 5:22-23a – NRSV
- Ephesians 4:2