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Are You Hypervigilant?

Always being always on edge may have worked when you were a kid—but not anymore.

Key points

  • Hypervigilant people constantly monitor for threats and brace for worst-case scenarios.
  • People often develop hypervigilance in childhood to cope with an unstable family or environment.
  • Overcoming hypervigilance may involve getting closure, recognizing one's triggers, changing one's self-talk, and solving the root problem.
gary bendig/unsplash
Source: gary bendig/unsplash

Kara will admit that she is always on alert: Her head can flood with worst-case scenarios if she wakes up at 3 am; she is always looking ahead—to what might happen, what might go wrong—whether it is potential traffic, a talk she needs to give for work, or what the sales clerk might say if she tries to return a skirt that she bought.

Kara is hypervigilant. Her brain is wired to always look ahead, to always look around corners, to think about and brace herself for the worst. This can be exhausting. This can keep her from living in and appreciating the present moment because her head is always 20 steps ahead.

Are you like Karen? If so, this perpetual on-guard stance can be frustrating for those around you too—you’re the worry-wort, you’re never calm, there’s always something that you're obsessing about. The other person feels they are always trying to keep you from being upset, that they are walking on eggshells braced for when you might snap at them, that they don’t get much back because it seems to be always about you, that you can never get out of yourself and just be with them.

The Roots of Hypervigilance

If you are this way, you likely grew up in a chaotic family where things were never emotionally stable—perhaps the mother struggled with addiction, the father had bipolar disorder, or the parents were always arguing. Or it was more environmental—the unsafe neighborhood, the war zone, the trauma of a natural disaster. It could have been slow ongoing trauma and/or sudden specific trauma. The results are the same as a child.

You needed to figure out how to cope and as a child your options were limited. For some, they learned to withdraw and pull back—shut down, hide in their rooms. For others, they learned to walk on eggshells—be the good kid who reads the signs and accommodates as best they can to not cause trouble or make waves. Or they get angry and flare up to try to get something to change.

But regardless of which reaction you figured out to have, the driving force, that ever-running anxiety wired you for being hyperalert: Is mom drinking? Is dad in bad mood? Again, with limited resources as a child, this makes sense and often works. You duck into your room if mom is drinking; you accommodate and be good when dad is depressed.

The problem is that like many adult problems, what you learned as a child doesn't work as well in the adult world, and you don’t turn it off. You still can feel those little-kid feelings, you still are wired to look for those worst-case scenarios, and you still are over-sensitive to other’s reactions.

Overcoming the Habit of Hypervigilance

What you learned to do as a kid is like old software on a computer. You need to upgrade your software and rewire your brain for version 2.0. Here are the 4 steps:

1. Get closure

Old wiring often lingers not only because you keep firing those same circuits but because psychologically you don’t have closure with your past. There is unfinished business, old childhood regrets, and resentments.

Put them to rest. If you are brave enough and your parents or previous partners are still alive or available, consider having a conversation with them via email or phone or in person or together with a therapist, where you can get finally get things off your chest, say now what you could say back then. It’s not about expecting some radical change in them, but having them finally understand how you felt. You are doing now what you couldn't do back then and the experience of simply doing that, of being heard, as well as your proactively and productively approaching your anxiety, will help you feel more adult.

2. Know your triggers

Many who are wired for hypervigilance as a child develop generalized anxiety disorder as an adult. Your brain is always scanning for what-ifs, possible trouble. But for many, the level of their radar goes up and down.

The key here is learning to know in advance what can trigger you and then recognizing when you are ramping up, getting into the hyper-alert state. You want to catch it before it gets too high and becomes hard to rein in. Here you can practice checking in with yourself regularly throughout the day and see where your anxiety is.

3. Change your self-talk

The cognitive-behavioral approach when you catch your anxiety increasing to learn how to calm yourself down. Again, this is about doing for yourself what you didn’t get as a child, that reassurance, that emotional support. You find yourself running down worst-case scenarios, you physically are feeling anxious. Time to cool yourself down. Here you want to have a bunch of techniques in your arsenal: deep breathing, distraction, and calming tools like journaling, listening to music, and taking a hot bath or shower.

What you want to work to avoid, and what your anxious brain is going to be telling you, is that the only way you can feel better is to resolve the problem in your mind. Don’t do this—you’ll go down the rabbit holes. Instead, tell yourself that your little-kid brain is getting fired up, that you are not a little kid but an adult and there is nothing to worry about. Use your tools to calm yourself down.

4. Be assertive and solve the problem

Hypervigilance is the result of coping in situations where you couldn’t solve the problem, but could only cope. But now you are an adult. If there is a real problem that is bothering you, this is the time to step up and put it to rest rather than working around it. Here you talk to your partner or supervisor about what is bothering you when you are calm. Put these problems and triggers to rest.

Take your time. You don’t have to do it now, but you need to do it.

Hypervigilance is common and understandable but it doesn’t need to continue. Is it time to start rewiring your brain?