Hypervigilance is a tendency to constantly scan your environment for threats. You're hyper aware of your surroundings in a way that makes you feel tense, anxious, and constantly on guard.
For sufferers of CPTSD, hypervigilance often means being hyper-aware of things connected with their traumatic experiences.
- If you were traumatized by people who could be nice one day and highly abusive the next, you might be wary of nice people, always searching for signs that they'll turn on you.
- If you've been emotionally neglected, you'll search for signs that you're boring someone and that they're itching to get away from you.
- If you were abused and punished for the smallest mistake, you'll search your own behaviour and actions for signs that you're less than perfect.
Seen this way, hypervigilance is a normal reaction to an abnormal (and highly traumatic) situation. It lets us notice possible threats at once. Back then, in the situation that caused our CPTSD, this was a vital survival skill.
The problem with hypervigilance is that it doesn't go away on its own. Even when we're safe, we're still looking at the world around us as if we're under threat. This level of awareness is exhausting and stressful. Many of us aren't even conscious of our own hypervigilance. We developed it as children, and it's become our normal level of awareness. We'll get through our day at work or through a party without any problems - only to collapse once we're at home and by ourselves, so utterly drained that all we can do is veg out on the sofa and watch TV.
People who live with CPTSD survivors often feel that they must walk on eggshells, since the slightest less-than-absolutely-affectionate facial expression can cause massive anxiety.
What NOT to do
- Don't feel guilty for feeling drained and exhausted after you've been in a situation that cranked your threat-scanning radar up to eleven.
- Don't tell yourself that you "shouldn't be like that". CPTSD is an injury; you're suffering from its effects.
- Don't lose hope. Things can get better.
- Don't jump to conclusions, and don't assume that everything that feels threatening is threatening. Someone's "disapproving looks" might simply be caused by a splitting headache.
What TO do
- Allow yourself some downtime after stressful situations. Many of us prefer activities that don't require us to be at all alert and aware, like vegging out on the couch and watching TV.
- Limit your stressors and pick your battles. If every social situation is stressful to you, try shopping on the internet.
- Educate yourself about Emotional Flashbacks.
If it's at all possible without triggering additional anxiety, try to see which situations are very stressful and hard to manage, which are so-so, and which are relatively easy. Knowing which situations are hard to cope with makes it easier to prepare for them in advance, and to plan for enough downtime afterwards. Knowing which situations are easy to manage lets you road-test coping skills in a relatively safe environment. Once something is proven to work for you, you can then try applying it to middling situations.
Such coping skills might be:
- finding things that give you a reliable sense of safety: wearing shades, wearing make-up, wearing headphones; always carrying a mobile phone and enough money for a taxi; always carrying a bag with food, water, and a first aid kit; asking a friend to call you during a party so you can answer the phone and (if necessary) pretend to be called away; carrying something that feels good and comforting to you (such as chocolate, a souvenir, prayer beads, a cuddly toy).
- consciously finding an alternative, realistic explanation for things that feel threatening: "this person isn't giving me a disapproving look, they're simply startled by the squeaky wheels of my shopping trolley"
- attention-focussing: instead of examining every single person in a shop for threats, focus on a few important things: the shelf you need to get to, the cashier, etc.
- attention-retraining: try to focus your attention on positive cues in your environment (i.e. for signs that someone is kind, friendly, attentive, non-aggressive, etc).
- limiting your overall level of awareness, for example by wearing headphones and playing music, by reciting poetry (not out loud, only in your head), or by visualizing a relaxing place (like a sunset on a beach or a snowy landscape). Another thing to try might be mindful deep breathing.
- If you have an overactive imagination, see if you can use that to keep yourself busy in a pleasant way, like imagining two pirates having a duel in the middle of the shop.