Our bodies are constantly assessing our environment for threats. Most of this happens subconsciously as it would be both exhausting and overwhelming to continually check for danger forever.
In non-traumatised individuals, this happens throughout their lives and causes no ill effects. Their nervous systems respond appropriately to all levels of danger – they see it when it’s there and when it’s not, and they don’t feel the need to scan for it consciously.
However, the nervous systems of traumatised individuals are very different – they’re much more likely to be constantly on guard, scanning for the next threat. This state is called hypervigilance.
In this blog, we’ll explain what hypervigilance is and some healthy coping strategies you can employ to manage it.
What Is Hypervigilance?
Stephen Porges uses the metaphor of a ladder for our threat response. Before the most well-known responses, such as fight, flight, or freeze, comes hypervigilance – an extremely alert state where we’re actively looking out for danger. Our heart rate rises, adrenaline is released, our breathing becomes more shallow, and our muscles tense up.
Hypervigilance is one of the most common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Constantly checking for danger is exhausting. On a physical level, our bodies weren’t designed to be under stress for long periods, and mentally it can be highly confusing and can distract us from our day-to-day activities. Completing work assignments or being emotionally present for our loved ones is difficult when our body is telling us to watch out for an attack!
As such, hypervigilance has a hugely detrimental effect on our personal lives. It can hold us back in our careers, prevent us from developing meaningful relationships, and stop us from sleeping properly. Symptoms present slightly differently in everyone, however some of the most common signs include:
- Feelings of paranoia
- Dilated pupils
- Increased startle reflex
What To Do About Hypervigilance?
If you’re suffering from PTSD or suspect you are, a professional diagnosis and treatment is always advised. While it would be fantastic to be able to heal our trauma by simply following certain steps and practices, it’s often far more complex than that.
However, there are certain activities you can do to bring yourself back into a resting state if you’re noticing symptoms of hypervigilance. Please note that the list below is not exhaustive – it’s important to find what works for you.
Sleeping properly is essential to every aspect of our health. However, hypervigilance makes this difficult – it’s hard to drift off when your body is telling you to watch out for danger.
This sets off a horrible cycle of feeling worn out due to lack of rest, exacerbating our existing problems. While there isn’t a guaranteed way of falling asleep on command, there are certain practices you can follow to make getting some better quality rest more likely:
- Avoid screens for an hour before bed, especially video games.
- Have a set time you wake up and go to bed – your circadian biological clock likes routine.
- Exercise regularly, but not just before bed.
- Don’t nap after the early afternoon.
- Use your bed for sleeping – don’t bring your work laptop or phone with you!
- Avoid heavy meals, alcohol, and caffeine before bed.
Exercise is one of the best things we can do for hypervigilance. It’s not just about keeping our body supple, stretching out the muscles that tense up during hypervigilance, and working off the adrenaline energy. Exercise also releases feel-good endorphins that can boost our mood and overall sense of well-being.
Certain exercises, such as yoga stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This part is responsible for our rest and digest state and helps calm us down.
Remember To Breathe
When our bodies are getting ready for threat, our breathing becomes sharp and shallow as we attempt to take in as much oxygen as possible in case we have to fight or run away. We might not be able to control our heart rate or perspiration consciously, but we can control our breathing.
Studies have shown that deep, paced breathing correlates with activation in our insula, the region of the brain linked to bodily awareness, interoception, and pain processing. By breathing deeply and calmly, we can send a message back to our brain that we’re in a safe place.
It’s very easy to think of our nervous system as a one-way road. It sends the message we’re in danger or that we’re safe, and we respond accordingly. However, our nerves are actually information superhighways, with signals travelling both ways. By sending signals back to our brain that we’re safe, we can stop it from firing so many signals.
Although none of these activities are suggested as helping to heal trauma and PTSD, they are brilliant coping strategies for the symptoms that can blight our lives. They complement each other, are very accessible, and cost nothing – you’ve got nothing to lose by trying.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling to heal from psychological trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 Wyk, M. V.. “The relationship between PTSD, hypervigilance and disordered sleep.” (2013).
 Khattab, Kerstin et al. “Iyengar yoga increases cardiac parasympathetic nervous modulation among healthy yoga practitioners.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM vol. 4,4 (2007): 511-7. doi:10.1093/ecam/nem087
 Haase, Lori et al. “Mindfulness-based training attenuates insula response to an aversive interoceptive challenge.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience vol. 11,1 (2016): 182-90. doi:10.1093/scan/nsu042