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6 Mins

Hypervigilance: what to do if you’re always ‘on alert’

September 26, 2022
Kate Tilbury

Have you ever felt like your senses are on high alert – perhaps sounds or sights are making you jumpy, or it seems like everything around you is turned up to full volume?

Our bodies work hard to keep us safe, and our subconscious body is constantly scanning our surroundings to pick up cues that might mean we’re in some kind of danger. If a threat is detected, it activates our sympathetic nervous system to trigger the fight or flight response. This is a survival strategy, and it happens automatically. When no threats are detected, our parasympathetic nervous system is in charge, and we’re in a calm and relaxed state.

The body also makes predictions based on things we’ve previously learned, and situations we’ve found ourselves in. This may mean it’s sensitised to certain words, sights, sounds or smells, for example, and interprets them as dangerous. We can probably all think of times our body has had an involuntary reaction to something around us – for example if the song you use as your wake-up alarm comes on in a shop it might make you jump or feel momentarily confused!

Normally, once we’ve assessed, processed and – if necessary – responded to the potential threat, we return to that calm and relaxed state created by our parasympathetic nervous system. Someone who is hypervigilant, however, might find themselves constantly or frequently in that high alert mode. People who experience hypervigilance have often experienced or witnessed first-hand something that is traumatic or upsetting. Often, this has negatively changed their view of the world, of themselves or of people.

Hypervigilance can be extremely taxing and draining on both the body and the mind. If you’re constantly in 'survival’ mode you can’t relax into conversations with friends, for instance, focus properly on your work, or fully enjoy activities. This is likely to have an impact on your relationships and overall wellbeing. Some people will become snappy and irritable, or turn to unhelpful behaviours to slow their system down such as drinking alcohol.

Recognise what’s happening

The first step to addressing hypervigilance is to become aware when it’s happening, and acknowledge the reason: it’s an unconscious automatic process designed to help us stay out of trouble.

Take a step back from the feelings you're experiencing

If If there isn’t any danger that you need to react to, take a pause and ask yourself – do I need to take any action here? What can I do to support my system, and break out of the cycle I’m in?

Activate your parasympathetic nervous system

This might involve doing exactly the opposite of what your body is telling you; something that will help return you to a calm state, which could be journaling, drinking a glass of water, or calling a friend.

Hypervigilance involves the senses being triggered, so it’s a good idea to focus on using your senses to calm yourself down. Smelling an essential oil, listening to soothing music or gazing at a painting that reminds you of a peaceful and safe place might be worth trying.

Breathing exercises can also be helpful. Sit or stand in front of something rectangular – such as a PC screen or a picture frame. First, follow the right hand side of the rectangle with your eyes from top to bottom, breathing in. When you reach the bottom right corner, breathe out as you follow the longer side along with your eyes, until you reach the bottom left corner. Then follow the left side up, breathing in. Do this as many times as you need to, and notice the impact it's having.

‘Losing yourself’ in an activity that absorbs your attention and requires concentration can also help with managing hypervigilance. Whatever you choose to do should have a good balance between challenge and enjoyment.

If you recognise yourself in our description of hypervigilance, and you’re struggling with how it makes you feel, you might benefit from a talking therapy like online CBT with ieso. Find out more about what we treat here.

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This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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