When I was younger my favourite superhero was spider-man. He had it all, strong, fast and could hang from ceilings to avoid people, what more could you want. Well for one he had an early warning system that told him when trouble was around the corner. Imagine you have a spider sense that kicks in as you walk into a room and tells you something is wrong. This would protect you and keep you safe.
Some people like firemen have loads of spider-sense. They can walk into a room, stop in their tracks and shout get out; just before the ceiling collapses in. When asked why they react that way they may say, it’s a feeling, a sense of something bad is about to happen. It’s more than a smell, a sound or something that they see. Vigilance on that level is a superpower-it’s hypervigilance.
Everybody is vigilant to some degree or another. You use it when crossing the road, meeting strangers and walking down dark streets. Parents have hypervigilance where their children are concerned. Mothers seem to look without looking. Antennae tuned into the sound of crying with an uncanny ability to pick out the sound of their own child. Or a parent will turn and ask “Where’s Johnny?” when no one else would even think that thought.
Hypervigilance can also occur in everyday life. If you are hypervigilant at all times it can be a problem. Like having a night-sensor that comes on at the slightest puff of wind or when someone walks past your front door. The effect can be a nuisance if it happens at all hours of the night, disturbing your sleep. Never mind upsetting the neighbours.
In the recent past, we have moved from a culture of relaxed vigilance to one where we are now living in a hypervigilant society. People are more tuned into the possibility of bad events happening. Watching the news in years gone by we saw images of floods and earthquakes but they felt a long way away. They didn’t have any real impact on us.
Why does hypervigilance happen? Hypervigilance is related to two factors: the events that we experience and secondly our autonomic nervous system’s response to these events.
Our autonomic nervous system is composed of two parts, a fight or flight element and a rest and digest element.
The rest and digest part is responsible for sleep, sex, recovery, digestion and absorption of food. The thrive piece,
the fight or flight is like the body’s response to the night sensor being activated. The breathing speeds up, the pulse quickens and muscles tense in order to respond to a threat. It’s us gearing up for action. Survival.
What if the threat is more imagined than real? What if the threat is feeling threatened, insecure and unsafe? What if you feel this way more and more each day? What if you feel this way all the time?
Remember the fireman earlier who just senses that something bad is going to happen. Imagine if that fireman felt that way driving his car, or eating his lunch or while trying to read a book or sleep? His sensor is always on but in these situations, it is too sensitive. Hypervigilance sets in.
How does this happen? Well nobody is born hypervigilant. Certain events like abuse, war or illness can contribute to hypervigilance. Yet in the last few years, we as a society have become more like this.
On a day-to-day basis, we move from being excited or aroused to calming back down. It might be a work presentation that raises your level of arousal and afterwards the relief kicks in. Very much like a pendulum swinging back and forth. All the time the pendulum swings through a mid-point or a base level. Now imagine that base level or mid-point shifting in an upwards direction.
The starting point is higher and the resting point is higher. We may be resting but still on edge.
This is what happens when we get aroused or agitated constantly and are not allowed to return to a calm state.
With the pandemic we are exactly that, there’s an enemy out there that I have to be worried about. I can’t see him, I can’t hear him, I can’t smell him, but I know he’s out there. In fact, he may be in the room with me now. He might have come in the door with you, so I better keep away from you and him and her and them! In fact, I am now suspicious of everybody.
Questions and suspicions arise: are you vaccinated? why aren’t you wearing a mask? At the heart of every question are questions of personal safety. These questions are not asked out loud, you might not even be aware of thinking that way at this moment but the effect on your nervous system is there. The sensor is on, the body responds by being alert. Every thought ratchets up the baseline.
Yet the baseline started shifting long before Covid. There was the economic crash of 2008- ratchet up.
Brexit and its effects, the last four years-ratchet up.
Fuel shortage-ratchet up.
Driver shortages-ratchet up.
Climate change-ratchet up.
The external circumstances have made us all hypervigilant.
So someone meets you and ask how are you doing? The chances are you won’t be answering: well I’m ok but feeling a bit hypervigilant lately. Hypervigilance is subconscious. When it surfaces you might hear answers like:
I’ve been feeling a little nervous or anxious lately but I can’t put my finger on why.
Or I’ve been having more migraines than usual. Or I’m more bad-tempered recently.
The physical effect is the body’s way of expressing hypervigilance.
Every day you move between the sympathetic and parasympathetic elements of your nervous system. When the sensor gets stuck you spend too much time in one element usually the fight or flight. This affects your mental health, physical wellbeing and ability to work.
Signs of being hypervigilant include:
Unable to maintain focus for more than a short period of time,
easily distractible, low levels of concentration,
reduction in sex.
Hypervigilance also has physical effects mediated through the body’s hormone system. Cortisol is one of the main hormones released in a hypervigilant state. The levels tend to rise slowly so some effects don’t happen quickly. Being anti-inflammatory cortisol reduces immunity so hypervigilant people have colds or flu on a regular basis, cortisol also affects blood sugar control, causes an increase in weight, affects mood swings and irritability.
What can you do about the situation? You can do little about the things that happen out there in the big wide world. What you can do is affect how you deal with the effects.
If you’ve ever had to deal with an angry person you’ll know that saying just calm down doesn’t work. The reason being is that hypervigilance affects hearing, we get attuned to higher-pitched distressed sounds and lower rumbles of danger. The mid-tones go missing.
In a hypervigilant state our prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of our brain gets hijacked by our amygdala-the emotional brain. The logic goes out of the window until the body reverts to a baseline. That is why you’ll see breathing changes, twitching or shaking happen. The body returns to rest first, the mind then follows.
For more information on how to go from hypervigilance to relaxed vigilance check out our ‘Keep Calm and Carry on’ series on our Youtube Channel where we explain in more detail techniques like breath-work, movement, and journaling. And how they can reduce or prevent hypervigilance.