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what is hypervigilance?

and how can we work with it in the body?

Have you ever found yourself feeling really jumpy, or on edge– for days, or weeks at a time? For some folks, this can become so common they don’t even notice it anymore.

Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity and reactivity. Our nervous systems are always scanning for things that might be dangerous. If everything’s going pretty well in our lives, this is a pretty low-key function.

If we’re living with the effects of traumatic stress, anxiety, or feeling overwhelmed, we may find ourselves in a state of hypervigilance, in which our normal “scan for danger” system is on high alert.

Hypervigilance might feel like:

  • Jumpy, easily startled, surprised or frightened, irritable, tense, quick to anger or defensiveness

  • Over-reactive: “normal” sounds such as a horn beeping in traffic can cause a heightened stress response, pulse quickening, jaw clenching, feeling of heat in the body

  • Quick to feel frustration, reactivity or anger; an over-sized reaction to events

  • Difficulty relaxing or sitting still

  • Sensitive to noises, movement, or anything different in one’s environment

  • Feeling “fast” or urgent, heart pounding, heart rate elevated; rapid, shallow chest breathing; tight neck/shoulders

  • Feeling like you need to watch the door or have a plan for escape

  • Catastrophizing, planning for the worst

Others find that limiting their screen time (especially social media, news, etc) helps them to

feel less overwhelmed or inundated, which can increase the feeling of danger and the need for vigilance.

Always being “on” and ready for danger means that our system is producing more stress hormones to keep us focused and ready to go. While adrenaline and cortisol are great for short-term situations, they can leave us feeling drained and exhausted. Sleep can be more difficult, and our body isn’t able to function as well as it can.

If you find yourself stuck in this state, it’s important to be sure you are well-resourced with mental health care. At the same time, from a somatic (body) point of view, it may be helpful to notice what seems to increase the feeling for you, and to limit your exposure. For example, cutting back on stimulants such as caffeine is useful for some folks.

Another way that we might work with hypervigilance in our body is to notice when it is present. Rather than trying to get rid of it, we can name it and think about adding supportive practices:

  • Time without screens, especially in nature

  • Movement practices that work for YOU:

    • Shaking, walking, dancing

    • Practices that are slower, mindful and grounding such as yoga or tai chi

    • Playing Frisbee or throwing a ball with a friend

    • Non-screen games (board games, or card games) that give your body and mind something to do. Bonus if it’s with a buddy for social engagement!

We also want to keep in mind that hypervigilance is part of a natural function of our nervous system. There’s nothing we’ve done “wrong” to create this effect; it’s often based on factors which are beyond our control.

While it’s still important to seek out resources and mental health care if you’re going through a state of ongoing hypervigilance, please remember that this is not a “you” problem.

Hypervigilance is an adaptive response to allostatic overload– a state in which your system is trying to recalibrate to handle stress, much of which may be beyond your control. That doesn’t mean that you can’t (or won’t) feel better, but you don’t need to feel like there’s something “wrong” with you.

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