Hypervigilance: A Symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome

A Debilitating Symptoms of PTSD

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People who have lived through trauma have good reason to feel that they should be hyperaware of possible danger. Hypervigilance, however, is an exaggerated state of awareness and is one of the hyperarousal symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A person who is hypervigilant is constantly tense and "on guard." A person experiencing this symptom of PTSD will be motivated to maintain an increased awareness of their surrounding environment, sometimes even frequently scanning their settings to identify potential sources of threat.

Not surprisingly, hypervigilance can lead to a number of social, emotional, and physical issues when it occurs in a normal setting.

What Are the Symptoms of Hypervigilance?

Hypervigilance is often accompanied by changes in behavior, such as always choosing to sit in a far corner of a room so as to have an awareness of all exits. At extreme levels, hypervigilance may appear similar to paranoia.

PTSD sufferers with hypervigilance live in a long lasting state of insecurity. To prevent the traumatic experience they lived through from happening again, they become preoccupied with spotting potential threats. As a result, hypervigilant people startle easily, making it a bad idea to sneak up on an individual who's in such a state. Being in a new or uncomfortable environment can exacerbate the symptoms of hypervigilance.

People in a hypervigilant state also experience physical symptoms. It is typical for such individuals to begin sweating when they're in settings that frighten them or make them uncomfortable.

Often, their heart rate quickens and they may experience shallow or rapid breathing as well. 

Coping Mechanisms Used by Hypervigilant People

People who experience hypervigilance may not only prefer to sit or stand in the corners of rooms to remain on guard, but they may also carry weapons with them--guns, knives, pepper spray--to avoid feeling vulnerable to an attack once more.

 

Individuals with hypervigilance may also adopt obsessive-compulsive behaviors to cope with their fears. If they happened to be wearing their grandmother's necklace when they survived a murder attempt, they may refuse to take the necklace off or believe that they will die if they don't wear the necklace at all times. If they were attacked on an elevator, they may avoid all elevators from then on.

Treatment for Hypervigilance

Relaxation techniques have been shown to help hypervigilant people. These techniques may include everything from yoga to breathing exercises to meditation. Mindfulness methods may also help because they focus the mind on the here and now rather than in the past, which is where hypervigilant people tend to be focused. 

When to Seek Help for Hypervigilance

If you or someone you love is experiencing hypervigilance to the extent that it's interfering with everyday routines and relationships, it may be time to get help. Find a support group for people living with PTSD or mental health professionals with experience treating patients with PTSD. 

While you may want to keep your PTSD diagnosis and symptoms a secret from some people, you may find it helpful to share what you're going through with close friends and family members who can be a source of support.

 Revealing your diagnosis can help them understand why you're exhibiting behaviors they may find confusing or odd. Moreover, studies have shown that people with PTSD who have a good support system are more likely to manage their symptoms better or even eliminate them. 

Sources:

Kimble, M. et al. The impact of hypervigilance: evidence for a forward feedback loop. J Anxiety Disord. 2014 Mar;28(2):241-5.

Substance and Mental Health Services Administration. Trauma and stressor-related disorders. Web. 2017.

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