On a recent hike in mountain lion country, I came across a sign which informed me, among other things, that I should not show fear if approached by a mountain lion. Seriously? Who could think so logically, I thought, when faced with such a threat?
I started to think more about this sign and about mountain lions in general when I realized that was having a hard time really thinking. After all, at any moment, a mountain could appear from behind a tuft of tall grass, or on top of a boulder, or even on the trail itself. Each time I rounded a switchback, I imagined the fearsome predator watching and waiting for me. And if that happened, I was pretty sure I’d show fear. Lots of it.
Hypervigilance. That’s what happens when faced with the fear, overwhelm, and helplessness (real or perceived) that defines trauma.
As I continued down the trail, I began to notice I wasn’t the only one feeling nervous, on edge, hypervigilant. I wasn’t the only one constantly aware, constantly scanning for potential threats. It was, in fact, all around me. In the deer which appeared alongside the trail, constantly watchful as it browsed. In the rufous-crowned sparrow, nervously hopping up the trail, its rufous cap of feathers fluffed up in mild alarm. In the pocket mouse, partially hidden behind a low-lying branch, constantly sniffing the air and straining its ears for any sign of danger.
Hypervigilance helps keep us safe. It helps us stay alert and focused. It gives us a sense of control. And it helps us determine what is safe and what is not.
But too much of a good thing is not so great.
Hypervigilance is essentially a stress reaction. Living with constant hypervigilance means living with increased stress. Over time, too much stress can contribute to a whole host of physical and emotional concerns, ranging from diabetes and high blood pressure to depression and anxiety. Too much stress wears down the body, mind, and spirit.
How do I know if I’m hypervigilant?
Do you live with tense muscles? Headaches, back pain? Worry, anxiety, panic? Are you jumpy, nervous? Do you try to control aspects of your life: your schedule, your environment, your relationships? Are you more comfortable in restaurants sitting with your back facing the wall? Are you observant, watchful? Do you have trouble sleeping, often because of worry or because it’s hard to turn your mind off? All of these can be signs you are living with hypervigilance.
How does hypervigilance develop?
Hypervigilance can develop after a real or perceived threat or traumatic event, but it can also be a part of a person’s life long after the stress and trauma are over. In childhood, hypervigilance can develop as a survival tool when there is significant, ongoing stress, such as abuse, neglect, or a difficult family life. Being hypervigilant can help a child better anticipate when a traumatic event might occur, thereby giving a sense of control over how to best survive the trauma. When hypervigilance develops in childhood, it can begin to feel normal, so that a relaxed state becomes unfamiliar, even uncomfortable. This can be carried into adulthood, becoming integrated into an adult’s personality and approaches to daily tasks and life in general.
Living in mountain lion country, even the deer must rest. Even the sparrow must relax its body and mind at the end of the day. And even the mouse must take a break, find respite so it can replenish its energy for another day of living and surviving.
Who are the mountain lions in your life? Are they threats of today or of the past? What does your hypervigilance look like? How will you rest, take a break, find respite from hypervigilance, even in the middle of mountain lion country?