I am always thrilled when a client brings an insight to me that reflects an understanding of their issues at a fairly deep level, especially when they are able to use language they find helpful to explain how they use their insights to address their own difficulties. So, please, if you are either a client now or might some day plan to be a client, I hope you’ll express your insights in our sessions in whatever language you find helpful.
Recently this happened when a client noted in her first session that she had struggled with “hypervigilance” for years as the result of previous trauma in her life. When she used the word, she immediately began to explain what she meant by the term, perhaps believing I didn’t understand her use of the term, especially in relationship to her experience of trauma. I stayed silent, appreciating her need to explain herself, but then when she finished, I let her know that I’d been introducing the term to clients who suffer trauma for years. She was pleased about this. I was pleased she had given it so much thought.
I introduce the term “hypervigilance” to trauma victims who so often know they experience it, they know it is unusual, they know it can be very uncomfortable, and that others might react to it very negatively. What trauma sufferers do not often know is that they are not alone in this experience, that they are not weird, and that in fact hypervigilance is a very normal and understandable reaction to the experience of trauma, especially when that trauma occurs in childhood, and is experienced repeatedly.
I suspect that part of the reason for writing this particular blog post is so that, next time it comes up (and it will), with a client who suffered from trauma and now experiences hypervigilance, I can just print this out for them, ask them to read it, and save us both the ten minutes it would take me to explain it, so we can move into a deeper discussion of its impact on them.
So, what is hypervigilance? Here’s what Wiki says:
Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect activity. Hypervigilance may bring about a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion. Other symptoms include: abnormally increased arousal, a high responsiveness to stimuli, and a constant scanning of the environment.
In hypervigilance, there is a perpetual scanning of the environment to search for sights, sounds, people, behaviors, smells, or anything else that is reminiscent of activity, threat or trauma. The individual is placed on high alert in order to be certain danger is not near. Hypervigilance can lead to a variety of obsessive behavior patterns, as well as producing difficulties with social interaction and relationships.
This is just one website that gives hypervigilance a generalized definition, but it does get the point across. As a beginning point to the topic of hypervigilance, one aspect of it that comes across from the Wiki definition is that it is a “symptom” that one “suffers” as the result of anxiety or stress. Later in the Wiki article on the topic, it specifically mentions that it is a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other forms of anxiety. So, in a word, hypervigilance is a bummer. It is tiring, exhausting even. It often causes its subject to be restless almost all the time (ergo the word “perpetual” to describe the “panning” of the environment). It is a taxing thing to have all this heightened awareness, and then to react with a startled response when that awareness encounters an actual sign of danger. The Wiki article also does something very important in describing hypervigilance by noting that it is not the same thing as “paranoia,” although the article doesn’t really explain the difference. Paranoia is a delusional state in which the person believes that someone or others are attempting to hurt them in some way, that danger exists, even when in objective reality (the reality we see but they don’t) no one is actually trying to harm them or wants to harm them. Hypervigilance is not delusional. It is a state of readiness in case objective reality becomes harmful. A person who experiences hypervigilance without paranoia doesn’t see things, hear things, or believe things that are not there. He or she is just more attuned to all of the things that are actually there, even when the rest of us might ignore them as no big deal.
Here’s a kind of funny story (I say “kind of funny” because it could have turned out very badly, but didn’t) about my own experience of hypervigilance many years ago to give the term and the idea a real world scenario. I was an attorney and had been working at the same law firm for several years. So, me and the guys, we got comfortable with each other, or so at least one of the other lawyers thought. He pulled a “bro” move on me (you know, like when a guy kind of gently punches another guy on the arm to say, aren’t we glad we’re both guys, and friends, and all that). Well he did that while partially behind me and on the side. My hypervigilance and startle response kicked in automatically. I saw his fist coming toward me from the corner of my vision. Without thinking about it at all, I ducked, turned quickly, grabbed his arm, swung him around and tried to restrain him. He turned red, started yelling expletives at me, and I immediately let him go. Fortunately, my own experience with hypervigilance has simmered down quite a bit over the decades since that story.
Fatigue, anxiety, worry, startle response, constant levels of edginess and tension; these are all the unfortunate side effects of hypervigilance. As the story above demonstrates, inappropriate behavior or responses caused by the hypervigilance can be a serious problem. In therapy, trauma sufferers seek to find a place in the external world, and in their inner lives, where they able to find a reprieve, a rest, a break from their hypervigilance, as part of their healing process. This is addressed more deeply in the two chapters about the important role of safety in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter. Clients who suffered trauma also often tell me that their level of hypervigilance fades considerably as they work through their trauma. This makes sense, especially because their healing process is partly based on the recognition that they are no longer in the situation in which the trauma occurred and they have begun to see that they have power and ideas to prevent that trauma situation from re-occurring.
I’m not a huge proponent of the idea that “everything happens for a reason.” If that were true, then all the terrible things that have happened to all the people who have suffered terrible things, happened for some good “reason.” No. Terrible things happen. People are traumatized. They are abused, raped, thrown away, killed, and all kinds of other really awful things happen to them. So, terrible things happen. After they have happened, rather than trying to find a reason for it, my approach is to address it, in a safe manner, taking all the time you need, and if possible find some good, not in the thing that happened (there is no good there), but in how you can later use what happened for some good.
Now let’s get back to hypervigilance. I will use myself again as illustrative point. I was a trial lawyer. I liked going to trial (even though I was often very nervous about losing or doing something wrong or stupid in court). When I was in the courtroom, I often found myself doing this: watching the other lawyer questioning the witness, while also watching the jurors watching the judge’s reaction to the witness, while listening to my client tell me his or her observations, while taking notes about what the witness was saying, while reviewing documents that had been introduced as exhibits. All this at the same time. I often found myself paying attention to every person in the courtroom, including those coming into and leaving the courtroom. I was watching their body language, facial expressions, tone of speech, and then used it all to my advantage. I now use hypervigilance as a therapist, to help me pay attention to the same kinds of information. I might be meeting with a couple, or a family, and while talking to one of them, watching the others in the room out of the corner of my vision, to see if their body language or facial expression, or breathing changes, so I can get a better sense of how everyone is reacting to everyone else in the room. I even pay attention to the way I am sitting, talking, playing with something in my hand, while watching how a client reacts to this, not as a test, but as something I can’t really help doing, so I do it to collect information for my client’s benefit.
The point here is that hypervigilance is a bummer. A major bummer. It is tiring, and nerve-wracking, and its cause sucks, because it is the result of experiencing trauma, which just means terrible things that continue to scare the hell out of you, either as the subject of those things, the witness of those things, or both. Hypervigilance can be reduced by healing from the underlying trauma, so the experience of hypervigilance is no longer caused by the trauma itself and does not retrigger previous traumatic experiences. Hypervigilance can also be used in positive ways to enhance perceptive capabilities when that can be useful, but only when you become aware of the reasons it exists, when it is happening, and how to channel it as a positive force in your life.
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.