The Psychological Toll of Hypervigilance


For some people, the days and weeks since the new presidential administration took office have seemed to be one piece of bad news after the other. Some of us have our legislator’s office on speed dial, calling endlessly to protest attacks on healthcare, civil rights, immigration, climate protections, trade partnerships, foreign interference, and other issues that affect us and those we care about. It gets to the point where you don’t even want to turn on the television news or open the Twitter app on your phone anymore. What bad thing can happen next?

Walking around with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, wondering what’s going to happen next, is an all too real feeling for those who have experienced domestic violence. There’s even a name for it: hypervigilance. Brainworks Neurotherapy, an organization in the UK, explains how hypervigilance stems from experiencing trauma: “In fear for its life, the body goes into defensive mode, producing chemical messengers to activate the nervous system to flee or fight. While this response may have helped us survive at the time, they do not serve when the danger has passed. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder occurs when the mind gets locked into ‘battle stations’. Reactions become hard-wired – brainwave activity gets stuck. Reactive emotions of anger, fear or panic can dominate, and that’s where the trouble starts.”

REACH’s Advocates see this in the survivors we work with every day. Our Clinical Supervisor says that trauma survivors dealing with hypervigilance notice the most minute changes in their environment. One client she saw in the clinic where she used to work could recognize every clinician that worked there by the way they sounded walking down the hall. They often have what seem like extreme reactions to loud noises like a plate being dropped or a door slamming.

As with most trauma symptoms, hypervigilance is a way that our brains develop to protect us from very real danger. The problem isn’t in its existence; it becomes a problem when you can’t turn it off. It’s hard to be present in the moment and experience things like joy, peace, and happiness if you are constantly on guard for danger. It’s physically taxing – being in a heightened state of awareness and ready for the next bad thing to happen puts a strain on our nervous systems.

So what can be done? REACH Advocates start by helping survivors understand that what they are feeling is a normal response to the trauma they’ve experienced. We can help them process ways to evaluate their environment for safety so they can begin to ‘dial down’ their response. Again, hypervigilance is not always bad – it can serve us well to be on high alert walking down a deserted street or in a parking garage, for example. By recognizing it and normalizing it, survivors can manage responses to their environment in an appropriate way. Most of all, we try to make REACH itself an environment where people feel safe and supported, and where their trauma symptoms can begin to subside, and they can begin to open up and talk about their feelings and responses.

For all of us, self-care remains important. Survivors and staff alike at REACH come to know the importance of things like breathing exercises, mindfulness, monitoring our consumption of media, being outside in nature, and other ways to pause and take care of ourselves.