Blog Posts | Complex PTSD | Sexual Abuse

Hypervigilance

October 18, 2017

I walked into the Five Guys restaurant. Briefly, I surveyed the restaurant. They weren’t busy; most of the tables were empty. I approached the counter and gave my order. After filling my drink, I scanned the mostly empty room. Without conscious thought, I picked my table and slid into the chair while I waited for my order to be completed. And then, I smiled wryly to myself as I realized I had done it again.

Most Five Guys restaurants have floor to ceiling windows on two sides of the eating area. I had chosen the table in the corner where I could sit with my back to the solid corner post of the wall. I was only fifteen feet away from both outside exits. I had automatically scanned the few people in the restaurant and categorized them as non-threatening. No one could approach me without me being able to see them first. No one could shoot, stab, or grab me from behind because I had the wall at my back. However, I had processed all that on a subconscious level. I wasn’t even aware I was doing it.

Hypervigilance is a legacy of trauma, especially long-term trauma. Hypervigilance is one of the symptoms of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). Hypervigilance is both a blessing and a curse.

Hypervigilance—Awareness of Surroundings

Hypervigilance, at its most basic, is always being aware of your surroundings. Hypervigilance means that you know where the exits are and the fastest way to get there. Hypervigilance means that you prefer to sit with your back to a wall, facing the room and other people. Hypervigilance means you constantly categorize everyone’s personality and level of threat to yourself. Hypervigilance means that sudden loud sounds or a person approaching you from behind can startle you. Hypervigilance is like the gunfighter in the Old West who always categorized the other men in a saloon and never used his right hand (his gun hand) to pick up a drink.

Hypervigilance is a survival mechanism. As a child, subjected to abuse or other trauma, the only way to even protect yourself a little was to always be alert. You knew where your abusers were, all the time. You learned to read your abusers’ states of mind. You knew when your mom’s explosion was imminent and got out of the way. Letting down your guard even a little meant more hurt. You lived with muscles lightly tensed always, as if waiting for a blow that may or may not come. Eventually, it becomes so much a part of who you are that you have no idea you are even doing it.

Hypervigilance—Awareness of People

Hypervigilance isn’t simply being aware of your surroundings. Hypervigilance means you can also read other people very well. You know what they are feeling. You know what they are thinking. You know if they are trustworthy. You catch that fleeting expression that everyone else misses. You quickly learn to recognize the pervert that makes you shiver; the bully who strides across others like a charging buffalo; the smooth-talking con man who gives you a slimy feeling; the party girl who hides her pain behind laughter; the close-minded zealot who tries to control you; the doctor who truly cares; the confidante who cares for your heart; and so many more. You see, as a child, reading people accurately was the difference between annihilation and survival.

However, I often have no idea why I know someone is not safe. It all happens at a subconscious level. Subconsciously, I pick up clues on everyone I meet. Somehow, I know when there is a mismatch between words and body language. I can’t tell you how I know; I just do. Many times, that is a blessing. That ability enables me to identify safe people and let them in. It enables me to care for those I love, to start praying for them about things even they are unaware of.

Sometimes, however, that ability feels like a curse. Usually, knowing that someone is unsafe or that something simply is wrong somewhere manifests itself as an uneasy, gut feeling. I literally feel queasy. Knowing something, but not knowing why, is difficult. For example, when I was teaching high school students, I had a deep, uneasy feeling about one of my students. I had that feeling about her whole family, and I did not know why. Something, somewhere, was not right, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. I had no actual evidence to go on. I had only the painful feeling that my student desperately needed help, and I had no idea what to do. Sometime later, when that student, pregnant and unmarried, moved to a different state with her boyfriend, I realized I had been right. Something, somewhere, had been wrong. Instances like that have occurred more times than I care to think about.

Hypervigilance—Constant Tension

Hypervigilance means difficulty relaxing your muscles. When I truly try to relax my muscles from their constant tension, I crumble like a spineless jellyfish. There is no in between. Either I am tense and fully engaged, or I am limp all over. Tight neck and shoulder muscles and a clenched jaw are common. Truly letting go and relaxing like a normal person is difficult for me. Slowing down my racing, high-alert mind at bedtime is hard. That’s why massages, hot showers, and calming music are important to my self-care.

Hypervigilance means I could never walk through an airport or go on a run wearing headphones. I depend on my hearing to ensure my surroundings are safe. When I see someone else on headphones in a crowded, public place, I shake my head in wonder. Don’t they know how dangerous that is? During my recent transplant and its ensuing complications, I was mostly deaf for a few weeks because of fluid behind my eardrums. Experiencing near deafness was extremely triggering for me. I didn’t realize until I nearly lost my hearing how much I depended on that sense to feel safe.

Hypervigilance means I don’t like places that are too difficult to scan and categorize. Large crowds exhaust me, as my hypervigilance goes into overdrive: scanning, scanning, scanning to protect myself. Even if I didn’t have a conviction against drinking, I’d avoid bars and clubs, as they are too dangerous: low lighting, too many people in an enclosed space, and too much alcohol. That’s another reason I won’t do drugs or alcohol. It’s too dangerous to not be aware of my surroundings at all times.

Hypervigilance means I quickly reach sensory overload. The other week I attended a Gospel Music Festival in a local theater. I loved every minute of the five sessions of music performances by various Southern Gospel groups. But by the end of the weekend, I felt myself retreating into myself and my smartphone. Why? Hypervigilant all weekend, my brain told me I had reached overload. I needed to relax and process at home for a few days where I felt safe so I could regain my equilibrium.

Hypervigilance means I don’t like talking on the phone to strangers. Why? Because I can’t see the other person’s body language over the phone. I can only go by their words, and I don’t trust their words. Once, I thought I didn’t like the phone because I stuttered so badly when I talked on the phone. Now, I realize I stuttered when I talked over the phone because it felt unsafe. I couldn’t match the other person’s words, tone, and body language to get a complete picture.

Hypervigilance—Does It Get Better?

In a way, yes. At first when I became aware of my hypervigilance, I tried deliberately to do the opposite thing. I’d choose the table in the middle of the crowded restaurant or ignore my sensory overload signals. I found out that wasn’t the answer. My hypervigilance and threat levels simply went into overdrive, and the only way to shut it down was to disappear into my dissociative addiction. That is certainly not healthy either.

Since then, I’ve learned that hypervigilance is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just something that exists, and I need to deal with it. There is nothing wrong with usually choosing the seat in the restaurant that feels safe. However, I’ve also learned that nothing terrible happens when I don’t, and I’m able to deal rationally with the subconscious, inner panic. I’ve learned to accept that I reach sensory overload quickly, especially in social situations, and give myself the time I need afterward to process and find my balance again. That’s not bad either. It’s simply learning how to be gracious with myself instead of letting self-contempt whisper its old lies to me.

I’m also learning to trust God as my protector and defender. One thing we learn as children is that we are on our own; we must protect and defend ourselves at all cost because no one else will. That’s the devil whispering his lies into our ears. The truth is that God is our protector and defender. It doesn’t mean He keeps “bad stuff” from happening; we found that out way too young. However, it does mean that He never leaves us alone in it. He is bigger than the “bad stuff.”

The other lie is that “bad stuff” happens to us because we are at fault. Somehow, we failed to do the right thing to protect ourselves. If we had tried harder, the abuse wouldn’t have happened. So now, the devil whispers in our ears that if more “bad stuff” happens to us, it’s still our fault. We should have protected ourselves more or done something different. That lie is the whispering voice of self-contempt. The truth is that “bad stuff” happens because we live in an evil world. We can do everything to protect ourselves and still get hit by the drunk driver or raped on our way home from work.

Now, knowing that I am never alone to deal with life on my own means I use hypervigilance less. I still believe in using common sense to stay safe, and I’m not sorry I can read people accurately most of the time. But, protecting myself isn’t all up to me anymore. I understand now that I didn’t cause any of the abuse. I’m not responsible for the “bad stuff.” I know now that God is on my side, and even when the “bad stuff” happens He is right there with me in it. I can trust Him to always have my back.

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