Hypervigilance: A Symptom of PTSD

“A while ago?” her friend asked. “Yes, he raped me a while ago. Exactly nine months and two days ago. What’s that? Nine months or nine minutes. It’s the same thing. And it is in the past, you say? Then why is it still happening, every day, every time I close my eyes? Every time I hear someone behind me, and I don’t know who it is; or someone touches me, and I didn’t see it coming? How is it that I get an almost irresistible urge to punch anyone who happens to touch me unexpectedly? Tell me, sis, how do I forgive, let alone forget, something that is still happening, that keeps happening over and over? How? How do I do that?”  

People who are traumatized, like sexual assault survivors, have good reason to feel that they should be hyperaware of possible danger. Hypervigilance is an exaggerated state of awareness and is one of the hyperarousal symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

When someone is hypervigilant, s/he is constantly tense and “on guard.” An individual experiencing this symptom of PTSD will be motivated to maintain an increased awareness of their surrounding environment, sometimes even frequently scanning wherever they are to identify any potential source of threat. As a result of the hyperawareness, survivors often experience a number of social, emotional, and physical issues when it occurs in a normal setting.

Symptoms of Hypervigilance

Hypervigilance affects people’s behavior, for example, choosing to sit in a far corner of a room in order to have an awareness of all exits. When it is extreme, hypervigilance may appear similar to paranoia.

People who suffer from PTSD and at the same time, hypervigilance, find it difficult to feel safe anywhere. To prevent the traumatic experience, they lived through from happening again, they become overly preoccupied with spotting potential threats. As a result, they 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 often exacerbate the symptoms of hypervigilance, which may cause hyperventilating, having trouble sleeping, etc.

People in a hypervigilant state also experience physical symptoms. Like, sweating when they’re in environments that frighten them or make them uncomfortable, increased heart rate, dilated pupils, elevated blood pressure, etc.

Coping Mechanisms Used by Hypervigilant People

In order to avoid feeling vulnerable to an attack again, they may prefer to carry weapons with them – guns, knives, pepper spray; they may also prefer to sit or stand in the corners of rooms to remain on guard. 

Avoidance is another way hypervigilant people cope. If they were attacked on a particular street or an elevator, they may avoid that street and all elevators moving forward. 

Treatment for Hypervigilance

Relaxation techniques like, meditation, mindfulness exercises, are helpful because they focus the mind on the present moment rather than in the past, which is where hypervigilant people tend to focus.

If you or someone you love is experiencing hypervigilance to the extent that it’s interfering with everyday activities and relationships, it may be time to get help. A mental health professional with experience treating patients with PTSD will help you manage your symptoms. While keeping your PTSD diagnosis a secret might seem like the right thing to do, you may find it beneficial 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 react the way you do and why you’re exhibiting behaviors they may find confusing or odd. 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.

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