Hypervigilance – the final frontier

“After a traumatic experience, the human system of self-preservation seems to go onto permanent alert, as if the danger might return at any moment.”
Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery

I was just thinking about how far I’ve come in my recovery in the past 30 years. Starting with my recovery from an eating disorder and then peeling off the underlying layers of anxiety and depression, I now realize that many of my issues were related to the stress of growing up in an unstable environment – a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. Recovery has been an ambitious but slow-moving undertaking and I don’t think I have peaked yet.


Worrying Cartoon

Recently I have identified a tendency in myself that still needs some work, and it can be best summarized by the word hypervigilance. Certain aspects of this concept provide me with a label to place on the residual fall-out that seems to have embedded itself into my psyche; my overwhelming tendency to survey my environment and relationships for signs of danger. This internal surveillance system functions on automatic pilot, and the resulting chatter in my brain distracts me from the moment. It was a useful coping tool when I was growing up, and a way to protect myself from my mom’s extreme mood shifts. My continued watchful behavior was reinforced when I was married to an unpredictable, impulsive individual.

If you have ever seen the TV show, Monk, the character’s ability to pick up minute details at a crime scene sums up my ability to quickly evaluate my environment.  Except recently I have noticed how often I get it wrong and the negative impact these misconceptions can have on my life.

My “talent” has been a blessing at times, like when I noticed subtle changes in a patient’s health status and averted a crisis. More often it can be a curse, like when I need to pay attention in a meeting and spend my time obsessing about why my boss didn’t say hi to me in the hallway.

Now it is time to let this maladaptive coping mechanism go, as it has outlived its usefulness and can be a significant deterrent to my peace of mind.

Tackling my tendency towards hypervigilance will be a challenge, like scraping burnt food off a skillet that has been sitting on the stove too long. First I must recognize when it is happening, letting the skillet soak in warm soapy water to loosen the residue, and then I must gently find ways to counter those thoughts and behaviors, like figuring out which cleaning rag to use to scrape the dirt off the skillet without damaging the surface.

SAM_0378Old habits die hard and I will need a lot of support as I venture into this new terrain. I’ll keep you posted and welcome any suggestions.



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