Understanding Hypervigilance: Effects on Well-Being and Strategies for Coping

A lighthouse, representing hypervigilance.

Hypervigilance is a state of heightened alertness and sensitivity to potential threats. It can profoundly impact day-to-day well-being. People experiencing hypervigilance often suffer from anxiety, stress, and fatigue caused by the nervous system constantly scanning for danger.

Sleep disturbances and difficulty concentrating are common symptoms of hypervigilance which can deeply affect daily life and mental health. Coping strategies are vital for managing the toll that hypervigilance can have on physical and mental health. Techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, and grounding techniques can help regulate arousal levels.

Understanding the origins of hypervigilance, the processes that are affecting the body, and approaches to coping and recovery can help those at the behest of a dysregulated nervous system find comfort, calm and regulation.

What is Hypervigilance?

Hypervigilance is an overactive alertness to danger and potential threat. It emerges from the natural and unconscious human response to threat, a survival mechanism that has proved integral to our survival in the face of threat and danger from predators.

When the human nervous system is well-regulated, it triggers the stress response only in situations of perceived danger. However, in the case of chronic dysregulation, stress signals are released in non-threatening situations, leading to inappropriate or excessive stress signals even in non-threatening situations.

This heightened arousal can cause individuals to perceive safe environments as dangerous, resulting in increased anxiety and vigilance.[1] Hypervigilance may manifest as a fixation on potential threats, increased startle reflexes, difficulty concentrating, and heightened physiological responses like elevated heart rate and blood pressure.

Hypervigilance can make typically safe environments, individuals, and scenarios feel potentially threatening. Even in familiar settings, those experiencing hypervigilance may be acutely aware of nuanced cues like body language, vocal tones, private discussions, mood shifts, and facial expressions of those nearby, making work, education, and social situations incredibly stressful and draining.

Causes of Hypervigilance

Hypervigilance often emerges as a coping mechanism in response to trauma, serving as a way for individuals to anticipate and avoid potential threats. Traumatic events can trigger a heightened state of arousal and vigilance, leading to persistent hypervigilance even in non-threatening environments.

The brain’s fear response becomes highly sensitised, making it difficult to distinguish between real and perceived dangers. This perpetual state of alertness can perpetuate the cycle of trauma, as hypervigilance reinforces feelings of fear and anxiety. Addressing hypervigilance within the context of trauma recovery involves exploring the underlying triggers and employing coping strategies to regulate arousal levels and promote a sense of safety and well-being.

Hypervigilance and Trauma Through The Lens of Polyvagal Theory

As hypervigilance is linked to dysregulation in the autonomic nervous system (ANS), it leads to a heightened state of alertness and arousal. This aligns with the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares the body for “fight or flight” responses in the face of perceived threats. People experiencing hypervigilance often exhibit symptoms that mirror “fight or flight” such as increased heart rate, shallow breathing, and heightened sensitivity to environmental stimuli.

Looking at hypervigilance through polyvagal theory helps to highlight the importance of interventions aimed at regulating the ANS and restoring balance. Therapeutic approaches such as mindfulness practices, somatic experiencing, and trauma-focused therapy can help survivors of trauma reestablish a sense of safety and reduce hyperarousal responses.

Effects of Hypervigilance

When the ANS is constantly scanning for threats, it can induce fatigue, muscle tension, chronic stress, headaches and a wide range of other effects, that compound and exacerbate each other. Heightened startle responses, elevated heart rate, and hypertension may further strain the cardiovascular system.

Emotionally, hypervigilance can lead to heightened anxiety and persistent feelings of fear, making it challenging to relax or feel safe even in seemingly secure environments. Individuals may experience irritability, mood swings, and a sense of being constantly “on edge.” Socially, hypervigilance can disrupt relationships, as individuals may struggle with trust issues, avoidance behaviours, and difficulties engaging in social activities due to perceived threats.

Additionally, hypervigilance often exacerbates pre-existing mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), intensifying symptoms and reducing overall quality of life. The persistent state of hypervigilance can perpetuate a cycle of heightened arousal and distress, impacting daily life.

Addressing hypervigilance typically involves a combination of therapeutic interventions including mindfulness techniques, and stress-reduction strategies. Developing coping mechanisms and seeking support from mental health professionals are crucial steps in managing the effects of hypervigilance and promoting overall well-being.

Strategies for Coping and Approaches to Healing

There is a wide range of approaches suggested for dealing with hypervigilance. Strategies that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, or work to process the hormones and energy triggered by a dysregulated ANS are the most effective.

Conscious Breathing

Conscious breathing involves deliberately slowing down the breath and focusing on deep inhalations that expand the belly. By reducing the breathing rate from the typical 10-14 breaths per minute to a slower rhythm of 5-7 breaths per minute, the vagus nerve is stimulated.

Valsalva manoeuvre

This technique involves exhaling forcefully against a closed airway, achieved by closing the mouth and pinching the nose while trying to exhale. It increases pressure within the chest cavity, stimulating the vagus nerve. By elevating vagal tone, the Valsalva manoeuvre helps modulate heart rate and blood pressure, promoting relaxation and reducing anxiety.


Humming, by stimulating the vagus nerve, contributes to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting a sense of relaxation and calmness. The vagus nerve, closely located near the vocal cords and inner ear, responds to the vibrations generated during humming. These vibrations can trigger a cascade of physiological responses, including a reduction in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels.


While breathing and humming stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and therefore induce a state of calm, movement helps to process the energy generated by the activation of the stress response in non-threatening situations.

Engaging in physical movement offers an outlet for releasing this energy for people who are dealing with trauma or hypervigilance. Activities like jogging, dancing, martial arts, and yoga allow individuals to discharge tension, reduce anxiety, and restore a sense of calmness and control over their bodies and minds.

Treating Hypervigilance

Hypervigilance itself is not a diagnosis, but rather a symptom of issues like PTSD. Traumatic stress impairs access to the rational frontal lobe, hindering executive functioning and making it challenging to engage in within the way we wish to. While talk therapy focuses on top-down processing, body-centred modalities like Somatic Experiencing (SE™) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) employ bottom-up processing to regulate the nervous system and gradually engage the prefrontal cortex.

EMDR specifically targets the emotional charge associated with traumatic memories, fostering connection to positive beliefs. Somatic Experiencing aids in recognising trauma symptoms, accessing inner resources, and safely processing memories. These approaches offer avenues for addressing trauma and hypervigilance, considering how aspects of traditional talk therapy can hinder trauma processing.


[1]  Dalgleish T, Moradi AR, Taghavi MR, Neshat-Doost HT, Yule W. An experimental investigation of hypervigilance for threat in children and adolescents with post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychol Med. 2001;31(3):541–7.

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