Learn what hypervigilance can look like, some causes of it, and potential ways to overcome it.
Being attentive to your surroundings and aware of your environment is a good thing - knowing what’s around you keeps you safe. Being alert as you walk home after dark may help you avoid danger. Being wary of undercooked or unhygienic food may keep you from getting sick. Being mindful of rattlesnakes along the trail may help you avoid snakebites. In all of these situations, being vigilant is adaptive and advantageous.
However, if you’re always in a state of heightened alertness, always on the lookout for threats, always expecting a mugger around every corner, always expecting contamination in your food, always expecting a snake underfoot, even when there is no true threat, you may find yourself unable to live a normal life. This state of constant high alert is known as hypervigilance. In this article, we’ll talk about what hypervigilance is and what conditions hypervigilance can appear in. We’ll end by going over some ways that you may be able to overcome hypervigilance.
What Is Hypervigilance?
Vigilance is the state of being carefully aware and watchful for possible dangers or difficulties. A security guard needs to be vigilant for signs of crime. A health inspector needs to be vigilant for signs of poor hygiene. A medical doctor needs to be vigilant for early symptoms of diseases. In all of these examples, vigilance is appropriate and is a requirement of the job. When the alertness becomes excessive, when it becomes constant and high, or when it causes distress, it transcends from vigilance into hypervigilance (Bernstein et al., 2015).
7 Hypervigilance Symptoms
Hypervigilance is a state of being constantly on guard or alert for signs of potential danger. Hypervigilant behaviors can include (Bernstein et al., 2015; Kimble et al., 2010)
Constantly scanning for threats in public places
Constant alertness for unusual sounds
A need to note entrances and exits in enclosed places
Constant checking of locks inside the home
A need to investigate circumstances that seem out of the ordinary
Feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable when you can’t be aware of everything
Feeling that something bad will happen if you’re not always alert
Hypervigilance is often present in people who have lived through trauma or violence (Smith et al., 2019). In dangerous settings, vigilance to signs of potential threat or harm may save a person’s life. However, when this vigilance persists outside of these dangerous settings, in environments with a low risk of harm, the vigilance itself may become problematic. Symptoms of hypervigilance may persist for years after experiencing a traumatic event (Lindstrom et al., 2011). Hypervigilance often manifests in people who have chronic anxiety disorder, PTSD, or OCD.
How to Manage Hypervigilance
Hypervigilance may be present on its own, not connected to any other symptoms or condition, or as part of a larger syndrome or condition, as in OCD or PTSD. The most effective way to manage or overcome hypervigilance symptoms may differ according to the specific circumstances in which it is present. For example, if a person’s hypervigilance is a part of their OCD, managing the hypervigilance may be best accomplished by treating the OCD (Foa & McNally, 1986).
If not connected to a larger condition, some therapeutic approaches to control hypervigilance include meditation, cognitive-behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and/or mediation.
Being aware and vigilant to potential threats and harms may be very adaptive - if you are in a warzone, being constantly alert may save your life. However, this same hypervigilance to potential threats may also ruin your life if they follow you out of the threatening and dangerous environment and into relative safety. If you continue to be ever-alert to potential enemies even in peacetime, you may be unable to ever relax. This is the double-edged sword of hypervigilance: it keeps you safe from harm - from enemies, germs, social threats, or anything else - but can itself become harmful. Achieving freedom from hypervigilance when it has become the problem rather than the solution may result in a drastic improvement in quality of life.
Bernstein, R. E., Delker, B. C., Knight, J. A., & Freyd, J. J. (2015). Hypervigilance in college students: associations with betrayal and dissociation and psychometric properties in a Brief Hypervigilance Scale. Psychological trauma: theory, research, practice, and policy, 7(5), 448.
Foa, E. B., & McNally, R. J. (1986). Sensitivity to feared stimuli in obsessive-compulsives: A dichotic listening analysis. Cognitive therapy and research, 10(4), 477-485.
Kimble, M. O., Fleming, K., Bandy, C., Kim, J., & Zambetti, A. (2010). Eye tracking and visual attention to threating stimuli in veterans of the Iraq war. Journal of anxiety disorders, 24(3), 293-299.
Lindstrom, K. M., Mandell, D. J., Musa, G. J., Britton, J. C., Sankin, L. S., Mogg, K., ... & Hoven, C. W. (2011). Attention orientation in parents exposed to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and their children. Psychiatry research, 187(1-2), 261-266.
Smith, N. A., Voisin, D. R., Yang, J. P., & Tung, E. L. (2019). Keeping your guard up: Hypervigilance among urban residents affected by community and police violence. Health Affairs, 38(10), 1662-1669.