Written by Amy Beecham
Constantly tense, on guard, and exceptionally aware of the emotions of others around you? Hypervigilance could be the reason.
Do you ever get the feeling that your friends are all talking about you behind your back? Or walked into a room and wondered whether every single person is secretly mad at you?
While you may have diagnosedyourself as an empath, a highly sensitive person or simply an overthinker, it could be something else: an emotional state called hypervigilance.
Defined by the Counselling Directory as “a heightened state of arousal, stress or sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli”, it is characterised by intense emotional reactions, anxiety and impulsive patterns of behaviour. In other words, you might feel constantly tense, on guard and exceptionally aware of the thoughts and feelings of others around you.
“We enter hypervigilance when we become scared,” explains Jordan Vyas-Lee, psychotherapist and co-founder of leading mental health care clinic Kove. “It brings sensory inputs to a heightened state of awareness, and the brain begins semi-automatically scanning for threats. At its most severe, it comes with a feeling of primal fear.”
Hypervigilance is actually part of our innate human response to threat, an evolutionary hangover from the days when we had to be constantly aware of the dangerous environment around us. In the modern day, however, when we rarely find ourselves in anything more than mild danger, it has become more of a hindrance than a help. When the most we have to contend with is workplace conflicts or family drama, it leaves us somewhat emotionally over-prepared, which is what leads to the feeling of being on edge.
“Hypervigilance increases our awareness of the things we tend to be worried about,” Vyas-Lee says, leading us to over-search for subtle threats. A dirty look or pointed comment becomes a personal vendetta; a slight misunderstanding becomes a huge fallout.
“Socially anxious people will over-attend to others’ facial expressions looking for the judgments that they fear,” he explains, “which leads to people misattributing ambiguous signals from others as threatening.”
But while it’s a completely normal response, hypervigilance, especially when combined with anxiety, tends to warp our subjective reality, and so can lead to a vicious cycle of paranoia anxiety. “Ultimately it causes us to search for and find threats where there likely isn’t any, like a faulty car alarm tuned too sensitively,” Vyas-Lee suggests.
So how can we navigate hypervigilance in a safe and healthy way?
Unsurprisingly, the best way to navigate hypervigilance is firstly to notice that it’s happening. “Labelling what is happening as hyper-awareness and anxiety rather than reality can be a good start in getting some distance from your fears,” says Vyas- Lee, as it might be easier to interpret our anxious concerns in a non-threatening way if we’re doing so.
“Secondly you may want to engage in some sort of grounding strategy,” he says. “Hypervigilance sends the brain into overdrive, and slowing the mind down can really help. Wrestling your awareness on to something non-threatening and focusing very intently on it can help to shift the mind out of anxiety mode.
“Controlled, mindful breathing works well, or counting how many black shoes you can see on the underground can decentre your awareness from feared stimuli and soothe the brain’s threat systems.”
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health or emotional wellbeing, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ guide to local mental health helplines and organisations here.
If you are struggling, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.
You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected] for confidential support. In a crisis, call 999.
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