Hypervigilance, which this article will define and discuss, isn’t always great for your mental health. The human brain is designed to absorb information from your surroundings, and keep you aware of potential threats you might encounter. Paying attention to what’s going on around you consistently is a form of ‘vigilance’, and it’s a natural part of being human. Without this situational awareness, the earliest generations of human beings may never have survived.
However, for some people, a natural state of awareness can evolve into an overly-sensitive, constant sensitivity to every potential threat, danger, or risk. When your brain is always working to survey your situation, this is known as hypervigilance.
Hypervigilance is a normal, and a sometimes necessary human state. However, it’s also frequently connected to various issues, from paranoia and anxiety to difficulty connecting with other human beings. Below we’ll discuss some pros and cons of being overly aware or ‘hypervigilant’, as well as an explanation of what qualifies as being hypervigilant.
What is Hypervigilance? An Introduction
Hypervigilance, sometimes referred to as enhanced situational awareness or arousal, is a mental state in which your brain attempts to constantly assess any potential threat around you. This condition is a common symptom of various forms of trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, and general anxiety or stress.
Typically, people develop enhanced situational awareness or hypervigilance as a defense mechanism. If you’ve been through a difficult experience, your brain will try to protect you by becoming hyper-aware of future possible threats, so you can avoid dangerous outcomes. Some people experience hypervigilance as a result of a mental health condition such as generalized anxiety disorder or schizophrenia.
Though the experience of hypervigilance can vary from person to person, those living with this heightened state of awareness can often experience various mental and physical symptoms, such as:
- Increased fixation on potential threats
- Difficulty relaxing
- Elevated heart rate and blood pressure
- Viewing the world through a lens programmed for suspicion or always finding perceived evidence of threats
- Obsessive or avoidance-based tendencies
- Paranoia about certain people or situations
- Difficulty sleeping
Are There Any Benefits of Hypervigilance or Hyper Awareness?
For those who experience it regularly, hypervigilance is rarely a pleasant experience. It can cause your heart-rate to skyrocket, anxiety to permeate, your breathing to feel irregular, and make it difficult to focus.
However, sometimes, staying highly alert can be extremely useful.
Hypervigilance is an organic feature of the limbic system, which also controls the fight-or-flight response. This system ensures we can respond safely to threats when we’re walking home alone at night, driving through a thunderstorm, or approaching other risky situations.
A bit of hyper awareness from time to time can assist you in:
- Reading situations more carefully: Being hyper aware forces you to focus more carefully on your surroundings, and absorb every piece of available information. This can assist you in making more intelligent decisions, based on a clear understanding of the scenario.
- Preserving personal boundaries: When you’re able to carefully analyze each situation, you can determine which might push you too far from your comfort zone and cause emotional or physical stress. This can stop you from doing things which make you too uncomfortable.
- Improving your analysis skills: Hyper awareness teaches the brain to be more mindful of details. This can assist in your analytical skills when you’re learning and exploring new situations. You may find you’re able to detect information about a scenario others would miss.
The Disadvantages of Hypervigilance
Hypervigilance is similar to an alarm system in your head. Sometimes, the bells start ringing to let you know when a threat is near, prompting you to act. However, if the alarm is sounding at all times of the day and night, it quickly becomes exhausting and overwhelming.
Hyper awareness can drain your emotional, mental, and physical faculties, and even make it harder to differentiate between true threats and simple uncertainties. The major negative side effects of hypervigilance include:
1. Increased Anxiety and Fearfulness
Hypervigilance can sometimes be a result of anxiety and trauma, but it can also exacerbate or cause anxiety symptoms in its own right. Hyper-aware people can spend a lot of time focusing on the things that ‘might’ go wrong, or the aspects of a situation which may be dangerous. This means it’s easier to be fearful of everything you’re not absolutely certain about.
A hyper aware person may develop social anxiety because they often notice people looking at them and fear they’re being judged. You may also develop general anxiety about various situations because you become focused on the possible negative outcomes of a situation.
Increased anxiety and fear can also lead to negative coping mechanisms. Someone afraid of the judgment of other people could begin to isolate themselves completely.
2. Trouble Sleeping and Physical Discomfort
Hypervigilance has a significant impact on your quality of life when it occurs too frequently. As mentioned above, hyper awareness forces you to pay attention constantly to everything that’s going on around you, draining your focus and mental capacity. This can quickly lead to exhaustion. The more exhausted you feel, the more likely you are to become unwell.
Hyper awareness can also cause physical symptoms such as sweating, fast shallow breathing, and an increased heart rate, which contribute to your sense of fatigue.
If you’re constantly aware of your surroundings, you may also find it’s difficult to relax, unwind, and “switch off” when you need to. This could lead to insomnia, which can make feelings of anxiety and stress even worse.
3. Behavioral Changes and Relationship Issues
When you’re hypervigilant, you’re always ‘on edge’, and evaluating the potential outcomes of different situations, often assuming the worst. This makes it difficult to connect with other people and give others the benefit of the doubt.
Rather than building a relationship with someone based on trust and mutual understanding, you may find yourself frequently trying to understand the motives behind someone’s actions, or being suspicious of others.
Because hypervigilance and social anxiety disorder are often connected, you may find yourself avoiding situations where you can meet other people, which causes you to become increasingly isolated and withdrawn. In some cases, people who are hyper aware can also suffer from angry outbursts and unusual behaviors which might drive loved ones away.
The more you isolate yourself based on the perceptions you have of other people, or the worries you may harbor about connecting with others, the harder you may find it to form relationships.
4. Inability to Act or Take Advantage of Opportunities
People who are hyper aware often live their lives firmly within their comfort zones, as a form of self-protection. They stick to situations where they know they’re going to be safe, which means it’s difficult to take advantage of new opportunities as they present themselves.
Because you’re acutely aware of what could go wrong in each situation, and the potential dangers lurking around every corner, you may become afraid of taking any chances at all.
Some people living in a state of hyper awareness actively avoid any new opportunities, regardless of whether they could be positive or negative. This makes personal growth and development impossible, and could impair your chances of happiness.
5. Worsening Mental Health
Spending so much time in your own head being negative, and focusing on the possible negative outcomes of various experiences, can lead to worsening mental health conditions such as exacerbated anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and social anxiety. You may start to believe habitual actions can protect you against perceived dangers.
If you’re a relatively pessimistic person, you may become hyper-focused on the potential threats in the world around you, which can lead to feelings of depression. Hypervigilance can also mutate into a state of paranoia, where you constantly catastrophize and believe the worst of people.
As these conditions worsen, they can create a revolving cycle of negative thinking patterns, prompting continued hyper awareness and stress.
6. Hindered Ability to Live in The Moment
It’s almost impossible to truly enjoy each moment life brings when you’re constantly assessing the potential dangers in the world around you.
When you’re plagued by hypervigilance, you may also find you spend a lot of time in your own head, constantly obsessing about the “what ifs”, rather than enjoying what life has to offer, or enjoying the present moment. People in this situation often miss out on moments and experiences which could bring them happiness.
Hypervigilance can stop you from being spontaneous, and exploring new experiences. While it may also prevent you from making some mistakes, it still means you can’t learn from all of the diverse opportunities in life.
How Do You Manage Hypervigilance?
Sometimes, a state of hyper awareness will dissipate on its own. If someone experiences a traumatic or upsetting event, they may be more vigilant when assessing their surroundings for a short time. However, as you begin to ease back into your typical life, your behavior may go back to normal.
If you’re with someone who truly makes you feel safe (which takes time), you may start to become less hypervigilant.
In some cases, however, managing hypervigilance requires some additional help from mental health professionals. People experiencing this condition as a result of PTSD, or another mental health condition, may need to seek psychotherapy treatment in the form of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) or prolonged exposure therapy. Those with high levels of anxiety may need to consider medication to manage their symptoms.
In many cases, a state of hyper awareness can be easier to manage with the right level of self-care. Practicing mindfulness, relaxation techniques, and meditation can assist hypervigilant people in switching off and adjusting their view of the world.
Is Hypervigilance Good or Bad?
Similar to the fight-or-flight response, anxiety, and even stress, hypervigilance is a natural biological process, and it’s useful within limitations. However, when you begin to live in a constant state of hyperarousal, this can lead to exhaustion, anxiety, and even problems with your job or personal relationships.
Learning how to manage hypervigilance effectively, and be aware of your surroundings without being overwhelmed by them, is important to living a happy, healthy life. You can learn more about the potential mental health conditions you’re perhaps at higher risk of developing, based on your genetic makeup, by taking a CircleDNA test.
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (Sukhmanjeet Kaur Mann; Raman Marwaha.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559129/
- The limbic system (V. Rajmohan & E. Mohandas) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2917081/
- The Impact of Hypervigilance: Evidence for a Forward Feedback Loop (Matthew Kimble, Mariam Boxwala, Whitney Bean, Kristin Maletsky, Jessica Halper, Kaleigh Spollen & Kevin Fleming) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4211931/
- Self-reported exhaustion: a possible indicator of reduced work ability and increased risk of sickness absence among human service workers (K Glise, E Hadzibajramovic, I H Jonsdottir & G Ahlborg Jr) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19943058/
- Anxious and alert? Hypervigilance in social anxiety disorder (Richard Wermes, Tania M Lincoln& Sylvia Helbig-Lang) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30273899/