Hypervigilance is a condition in which you are super-sensitive to particular stimuli that signal, to you, that something bad is about to happen. It is most often associated with serious trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, but it can occur with any situation that has overloaded your ability to cope. Hypervigilance is a coping mechanism, a defense mechanism whereby you begin to watch for any possible sign that something is going wrong or could go wrong so that you can be ready to fight it or get away. Hypervigilance can go to an unhealthy extreme, remaining even years after you have been removed from the stressful or dangerous situation.
Hypervigilance develops when you are in or have been in a situation where you desperately want to avoid trouble or problems. This can be the result of crime, of constant insecurity due to living in a dangerous or unfamiliar area, or repeated or constant issues at home like a rapidly deteriorating house where one thing after another goes wrong. You may be hypervigilant if you have served in a combat zone or if you have a medical disorder that causes pain or trouble breathing. In a 1999 interview with Dr. Carlos Zalaquett for the University of South Florida, Dr. Donald Meichenbaum noted that whatever you have gone through “sensitizes” you to stimuli that remind you of the initial trauma. Everyone has her own limits, so what one person can deal with may be too stressful for another.
Highly Sensitive People
Don’t mistake hypervigilance for a trait known as being “highly sensitive.” A highly sensitive person is not someone who is emotionally oversensitive but one who is naturally hypersensitive to his surroundings, noise, light and other stimuli. This occurs whether or not the person has been through something traumatic or had a health problem. If something at home is bothering one of the occupants because he is highly sensitive, he’ll need to take steps to both remedy the specific problem and shore up his own ability to deal with whatever is happening. Dr. Susan Biali writes on the Psychology Today website that strategies for dealing with being highly sensitive range from the immediate, such as hearing protectors to block out noise, to the long-term, such as getting enough sleep and ensuring daily schedules aren’t overloaded.
If you have been through a stressful situation, such as harassment by a neighbor or seeing news stories about crime in your neighborhood, being hypervigilant can help you identify possible problems before they occur. However, a hypervigilant state that continues once the stressful situation has been remedied can prevent you from enjoying your home. For example, that harassing neighbor could move out of state and stop contacting you, ending the harassment; but even after logically figuring out that your new neighbor is not going to be as bad as the last, you might still jump every time you see her walk past your home. This could strain the relationship between you and the new neighbor or prevent you from fully moving on with your life.
If hypervigilance is the result of trauma, such as a crime, or if it is the result of some other situation where practical home remedies do not work, speak to a therapist or psychologist -- get help in dealing with the situation. Taking the necessary steps to make your home secure or make yourself feel secure may help, but it may be more than you can deal with yourself because of the psychological component.
- Psychology Today: Top 10 Survival Tips for the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
- University of South Florida: An Interview With Dr. Donald Meichenbaum About the Treatment of Victims of Traumatic Events
- UC Berkeley: Surviving Betrayal
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Stress