A person who is hypervigilant feels constantly ‘on edge’, ‘keyed up’ and fearful. S/he experiences a perpetual sense of dread and of being under threat despite the fact, objectively speaking, there is no present danger. Indeed, the person affected in this way is so intensely alert to, and focused upon, any conceivable imminent danger that s/he may develop paranoia-like symptoms and frequently perceive danger in situations where no such danger, in reality, exists.
Nervous System :
In physiological terms, the nervous system becomes ‘stuck’ in an over-activated state and it is very difficult for the hypervigilant individual to calm him/herself sufficiently to enable it to return to a normal level of activation; instead, it becomes locked into the ‘fight or flight’ mode (the hypervigilant person’s body is in a continuous state of preparedness to fight or flee because of the anticipation of threat the person feels).
Hypervigilance, Hyperarousal, Childhood Trauma And Complex PTSD :
Hypervigilance is one of the many symptoms of hyperarousal.
Other symptoms of hyperarousal may include :
- insomnia (e.g. constant waking in the night and finding it hard to go back to sleep)
- extremely sensitive startle response
- problems with concentration and mental focus
- abiding feelings of irritability and anger, perhaps giving rise to outbursts of extreme rage / verbal aggression, or, even, physical violence
- constant anxiety
- panic attacks
- reckless behaviour
- using short-term ‘solutions’ such as drinking too much alcohol or using street drugs to reduce painful feelings which, in the longer-term, are self-destructive
It is not difficult to see why the experience of childhood trauma should be linked to increased risk of developing hypervigilance as an adult: if we have lived our early life in an environment that made us feel constantly anxious, under threat and fearful, our very neural development (i.e. the development of our brain) can be adversely affected and it is such negative effects that can leave us so vulnerable and predisposed to developing the disorder, particularly at times when our adult lives expose us to further stressful experiences.
David Hosier BSC Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)