Hyperawareness: What is hypervigilance, and what does hypervigilance feel like

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Kevin Mangelschots

Hypervigilance is characterized by intrusive thoughts, extreme anxiety, and sometimes even compulsions that can be very detrimental to our daily functioning.

Most of us have experienced anxiety at some point in our lives, like when we had to give a presentation in front of a big crowd, for example. This is normal. But some people experience much more severe anxiety on a daily basis about the most random things.

Let me explain what it is, and how it feels like.

What is somatic hypervigilance?

Somatic hypervigilance can be described as being overly focused on bodily sensations such as swallowing, and breathing, but also feelings of fatigue, and pain, for example.

As a result of this increased awareness, they tend to feel these sensations more intensely, and frequently.

The cause(s) of being hypervigilant isn’t fully understood, but what happens is that the nervous system inaccurately filters sensory stimuli, which results in the afflicted person getting ‘stuck’ in a state of heightened awareness.

It’s also frequently called somatic hyper awareness as a synonym.

What is emotional hypervigilance?

A person holding a question mark in front of their face.

Emotional hypervigilance conveys an increased state of arousal, tension, or susceptibility to some, but not all, sensory information that enters their brain.

They’re in a state of heightened awareness to their surroundings, such as to the feelings of others, especially those who are close to us.

Due to this extreme focus on the emotional state of those around them, they often go to great lengths to please others while foregoing their own needs and desires.

This increased state of sensitivity can result in overwhelming emotional reactions to these perceived threats. It can cause us to get startled easily.

Hypervigilance can be a symptom of other mental issues such as anxiety disorders and PTSD, although this is surely not always the case.

What does hypervigilance feel like?

Image of various symptoms of anxiety lingering around the keyword, “anxiety”, that's written in red.

Hypervigilance feels like being very anxious and nervous about those things you’re hyperaware about.

They feel like there’s constantly a threat lurking somewhere around the corner, and this is why they experience these obsessive thoughts, since their brain is overanalyzing and overreacting to the information they receive from the senses. That’s why they’re typically perpetually on guard.

It can feel like your thoughts are disconnected from your body and surroundings, since you’re overly conscious of those things.

Physical responses of hyperarousal

Physical signs of feeling anxious are:

  • A quick heart beat
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sweating
  • Feeling and acting restless
  • dilated pupils

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Is hypervigilance a mental disorder?

Picture showing the words mental health and a green leaf on a white background.

Hypervigilance can be a mental disorder, although most certainly not always.

Hyper awareness is related to anxiety. And anxiety is an emotion that’s a natural occurrence in some situations without affecting our daily lives. Think of situations such as feeling anxious before giving a presentation in front of a big crowd, or before playing an important match.

In those instances, I would say it’s normal to experience some degree of anxiety and nervousness, seeing as most folks feel like the stakes are high and experience some jitteriness as a result.

But in other instances, hypervigilance can be a mental disorder if the anxiety and thoughts you experience are so intense that they negatively impact your daily functioning.

Some individuals experience extreme anxiety and intrusive thoughts in every new situation they’re in. Think of popular examples, such as meeting new people at work, or in a social setting.

What triggers hypervigilance?

What causes hypervigilance is often, although not always, some form of trauma.

Think of people who have seen (and sometimes done) terrible things in combat, survived abuse, or suffer from PTSD. It’s possible that being in a stressful situation, or perceived nerve-wracking circumstance, triggers a strong, and out of control fight or flight response that’s out of proportion to the perceived threat.

Overanalyzing things and living too much in your own head rather than focusing your attention outwardly can also lead to hyperawareness. That’s why introverted personalities are probably more at risk to develop hyper awareness compared to extroverts.

It’s thought that being hyper aware is the result of a miscommunication between the amygdala and the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, which are both located in the brain.

Hypervigilance can also be a symptom of other underlying health conditions such as fibromyalgia, sleep deprivation, anxiety, and schizophrenia.

How do you know if you have hypervigilance?

It can be hard to know if you have hypervigilance or not. Nevertheless, there are a multitude of symptoms that can help to diagnose hypervigilance.

Even though some of these symptoms such as anger, and being distracted from essential tasks can be naturally occurring on their own without ever suffering from hyper awareness, they can help to make a diagnosis.

But, for people to be diagnosed with this disorder, it needs to inhibit their daily functioning, while experiencing a great amount of anxiety that’s disproportionate to the perceived threat.

Image of various symptoms of hyper awareness.

Possible hypervigilance symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Jumpiness
  • Being preoccupied with the environment and constantly scanning the surroundings
  • Being distracted from important tasks
  • Anger
  • Being annoyed
  • Proclivity to argue with others
  • Paranoia
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Depression
  • Isolation
  • Dependence on others
  • Changes in appetite
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Exhaustion

Does hypervigilance ever go away?

Illustration of a man scratching their head while holding a yellow question mark.

It’s possible that your hypervigilance goes away with the right treatment, but in some instances, it can also be realistic that you will have to learn to deal and live with it.

I would say that in most cases, it’s treatable and curable if you’re willing to put in the time, work hard and smart.

If being hyper-aware was the result of another underlying issue, such as being sleep-deprived, or schizophrenia, then solving these issues entirely or getting them under control will probably eliminate or greatly reduce your hyperawareness.

Other ways to get rid of hypervigilance include:

  1. Distracting yourself
  2. Focusing extrinsically
  3. Learning to control your thoughts
  4. Exposure therapy to the things you’re afraid of

Distracting yourself

Distracting yourself prevents you from having ample time that you’d probably end up spending thinking about those things you’re hypervigilant about.

It staves off the intrusive thoughts that can be so detrimental to your daily functioning by preventing you from being stuck in your own head.

Focusing extrinsically

Focus extrinsically rather than intrinsically to prevent intrusive thoughts.

What I mean by that is that you should give more attention to the outside world, what other people are doing and saying, instead of being too much in your own head and constantly analyzing things.

Ultimately, hyper awareness is the result of thinking too much. And you can’t think too much if you’re busy truly listening to those around you and living in the moment.

Controlling your thoughts

Picture with the words: “Your thoughts affect your emotions. Your emotions affect your decision. Your decisions affect your life.” Written on a black background.

Learning to control the thoughts that enter your mind is important as well.

If you try to focus on the positives in life, then chances are large you’ll see the positives rather than all the negatives. This means that more optimistic thinkings will enter your mind rather than pessimistic ones.

Of course, negative thoughts such as the things you’re overly aware about will still enter your mind from time to time. But instead of giving those negative thoughts attention, which allows them to grow larger and stronger, disregard them as meaningless imaginations to make them powerless or at least less influential.

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy can make you less likely to suffer from being hyper aware since you become braver, and the things you were afraid about lose their power over time since you notice that you can handle said nerve-racking situations.

Let’s use being hypervigilant about elevators, for example. Exposure therapy would gradually build up the exposure to the elevator to prevent you from getting overwhelmed.

A possible exposure therapy could look like the following:

  • Look at a picture of an elevator
  • Look at an elevator from 5-meter distance
  • Look at an elevator from 1-meter distance
  • Step inside an elevator, but don’t use it
  • Step inside an elevator, and use it

As we can see, the process is gradual. This lets the person get used to exposing themselves step by steps to that what they’re overly conscious about without going over their personal limit.

Exposure therapy is adjusted to each person individually. An appropriate exposure therapy that works for you might not be efficient for me.

How are hypervigilance and PTSD related?

Attribute to http://traumadissociation.com license: CC BY-SA-4.0 Original research: Characteristics and Treatment Preferences of People with Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: An Internet Survey. Spence J, Titov N, Solley K, Dear BF, Johnston L, Wootton B, et al. (2011). PLoS ONE 6(7): e21864. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0021864.

Enduring chronic hypervigilance is a common occurrence in those suffering from PTSD. That’s because being hypervigilant is closely related to trauma in addition to a perceived threat.

Let me give an example to clear things up. Soldiers who have been at war, and who have done and seen terrible things have suffered intense psychological pain.

They’re probably also very perceptive and on high alert regarding external threats, so they don’t get hurt, or killed in the war.

That’s how trauma and threats can lead to a post-traumatic stress disorder.

How are hypervigilance and ADHD related?

Illustration of the ADHD mind, and how the thoughts flow freely and chaotically.

Individuals who are diagnosed with ADHD are typically inclined to scan situations and their environment very rapidly. They search for clues to draw their conclusions.

However, they frequently reach their assumptions based on a few details rather than looking at the big picture, and gathering more evidence. This can cause them to wrongly perceive, and judge, the situation.

Their capacity to engage in problem-solving behavior, think logically, and respond fittingly is frequently decreased since they’re constantly looking for information and searching for threats.

Hypervigilance and OCD

People who are suffering from OCD possess an extravagant sensation of paranoia and danger to perceived threats.

They tend to have unwanted neurotic thoughts, in addition to repetitive behaviors over their obsession. This can be over just one particular thing, and sometimes regarding multiple obsessions.

That means that their mind is constantly working in overdrive. They’re constantly scanning their environment for potential threats all the time. This often creates a continuous sense of fear and anxiety.

Hypervigilance in relationships

 
People can suffer from hypervigilance in relationships due to trauma, because they’re worried about a perceived threat, and possibly even both.
 
This can cause the affected person to become perpetually concerned with their partner’s actions, obsessive regarding the relationship, and even looking for changes that can influence the mechanics between your partner and you.
 

Obviously, this is not a healthy situation. And both should be looking to trust each other, while working on their own insecurities to prevent projecting those negative feelings on their partner.

Hypervigilance VS paranoia

People who are hypervigilant are constantly on guard. They continuously scan their environment for potential threats that can cause them harm.

Paranoia are set beliefs that someone, or multiple people, are trying to hurt, or even murder you. Suffering from paranoid delusions can be a sign of underlying mental disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and also bipolar disorder.

People who are paranoid truly believe that someone is out to get them. This means that paranoia takes place in the present, as they truly believe someone is trying to hurt or kill them at this very moment.

People suffering from hypervigilance are on guard, and suspicious to their environment to prevent further trauma and to neutralize threats. Thus, hypervigilance is anticipating future threats.

What is the opposite of hypervigilant?

Image of a fit woman holding a yoga pose at the beach.

The opposite of emotional and physical hypervigilance could be physical relaxation, emotional tranquility, and a calm mind.

It means being in a relaxed state wherein you’re not preoccupied with your own thoughts or compulsions. It stands for being in control of your thoughts and behavior.

Still, being too relaxed can be a potentially bad and dangerous thing as well. If we perceive actual threats as being less dangerous than they actually are, then it’s more than likely that we won’t take the necessary actions to protect ourselves.

Conclusion

Image of the word, “conclusions” written on a black backboard with white chalk.

Hypervigilance is characterized by intrusive thoughts, intense anxiety, and sometimes even compulsions.

It’s incredibly annoying, and can negatively influence the affected person’s life to a degree that they’re unable, or unwilling, to leave their own home that they often consider their safe haven where they don’t experience that extreme distress.

Even so, it is treatable, and in most cases even curable. Exposure therapy, learning to control your mind and thoughts, can offer solace to temper a hyperactive psyche.

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