One of the aspects of hypervigilance that is most common, but easily overlooked, is a survivor's ability to read the subtler displays of body language, vocal inflection, and posture in others. This is especially true for people who were in longer-term abusive situations.
It first develops as a survival skill - if we can at all sense when danger is coming, we are at least forewarned. Being able to possibly know in advance when we will be hurt is a huge incentive for our brain to start picking up on the subtler aspects of body language. It becomes second nature to many of us - we barely even know we're doing it.
It usually manifests as a gut feeling - that someone isn't safe or trustworthy, or that someone's about to lose their temper. It can even just be our uncanny knack for spotting other survivors, or an uncanny knack of being able to see whether or not someone's telling the truth.
We've covered this topic in part in a discussion about survival skills that can be useful in other aspects of life, but I wanted to touch on this topic a bit deeper this week, since it's something so many of us experience.
While this ability can sometimes be a hindrance (it can be simultaneously terrifying and frustrating to *know* your boss is lying about something), it can also be a big benefit. We're often able to pick up on smaller aspects of people - what really makes them laugh or what makes them sad, and often that means that we can be excellent listeners and supporters.
This week's questions are:
- Do you experience this ability to read people? Does it manifest more in determining if someone is safe or is it being able to spot other survivors or someone in need of help?
- When did you first notice this ability?
- Is this more of a hindrance or more of a help?
- How can you harness this ability to help yourself and others?
So much of recovering from abuse and trauma is re-learning how to live everyday life. Abuse leaves lasting effects on our minds and bodies, because of how intensely terrifying abuse is. Our brains will literally re-wire themselves, to give us skills that might prevent abuse in the future.
However, often the very skills that can keep us safe from or more prepared for abuse can be debilitating to us when we are recovering. Hypervigilance
- a near constant state of alert - is a symptom of PTSD that can help us to stay safe, but that can often exhaust us in our everyday situations. Many survival skills we learn when in an abusive situation are often out-of-place in an everyday setting, especially once we are away from our abusers.
Oftentimes, our brains overcompensate - putting us on high alert *all the time* - in an effort to keep ourselves safe. However, since that also means a high stress level, such survival skills can drain us enough that we have chronic aches and pains, nightmares and flashbacks, and oftentimes we are more susceptible to illnesses like a cold or flu.
Since our brain registers those survival skills as necessary for safety, they are often the hardest to unlearn. It can take quite a bit of focused work to re-train our brains when it's appropriate to use such skills, and when it's not appropriate, in order to feel a relief from our PTSD symptoms. Often, we need to be able to find a middle ground between our using all of our survival skills all the time and using no survival skills beyond the basics (the basics being to eat, drink, sleep, breathe, etc)
So this week we'll talk about identifying some of your survival skills, acknowledging why they're there, and forming ideas on how to re-train them to be advantageous to you instead of a hindrance.
This week's questions are:
- Did you develop any skills which helped protect you? Common skills survivors learn are: reading body language and vocal tone, constant awareness of surroundings, even things such as obsessively checking the locks on doors, cars, and windows.
- How did they help you avoid or prepare for abuse?
- How do they bother you or make everyday life harder?
- What would be a good middle ground for you with your survival skill? Is there a compromise between the full-on instinct and the minimum of protection?
nothing has been going on with me, yesterday I was a complete and totaly biotch. I was just cranky I guess, at my group home they moved me down to the downstairs bedroom which I absolutely hate because I hate big bedrooms, because that is where most of my abuse happened in was big bedrooms. I resisted it for about a week but got tired of hearing the "you are the only kid in the house right now that we trust to be in the downstairs bedroom" speal so I moved. I sleep like crap I wake up like every hour to an hour and a half. plus I can't sleep with lights on, but the only way I can be down in that bedroom is with the hallway light on and the door wide open. That way if I feel trapt inthere or unsafe for any reason while I am in there I have a clear easy shot out of the room. So, I'm not sleeping good at night, plus I just had my wisdom teeth on Tuesday, which btw SUCKED. well, it didn't until like 2 or 3 days after and I didn't have any pain either until Friday. It was mostly the drooling and not being able to feel my face that I hated. I had to eat baby food and yogurt which sucked too because I drooled it down the front of me, but it was kinda funny. I almost fell out of the chair when I first woke up from anestetic my dad caught me thankfully. Then I walked into a wall, and then into a door. =) I'm so goofy, haha. I have a camera full of pics of it all I'll have to get them developed and put them on here lol... I looked like a moron. One staff at the house started singing Alvin and the Chipmonks to me whenever he saw me, haha. I'm still swollen on my left side and have a gi-normous (which isn't even a word lol) on my jaw line, well its not too big, but I think it is just because it is on my face and I hate things on my face that don't belong there. anyway, I better go now... class is getting ready to end...
Hypervigilance is described by Mirriam Webster's Medical dictionary as: "the condition of maintaining an abnormal awareness of environmental stimuli" Ever had one of those nights when you hear every sound? Nights when you lie awake in your bed, terrified to fall asleep? Or, if you do fall asleep, that you have nightmares that people are coming to hurt you?
That's hypervigilance! Hypervigilance is just one of the many ways our post-traumatic stress disorder manifests itself. Hypervigilance is our body's way of trying to protect us - we notice a lot more detail around us, whether or not we like it, and we feel like we are constantly on guard. For those of you who might read the Harry Potter books, hypervigilance is our inner Mad-Eye Moody, that voice that always tells us we aren't being watchful enough, that someone is going to hurt us or betray us, and if only we could stay awake or pay attention for just a few more seconds, we'd know who would hurt us.
Hypervigilance is so hard to deal with. It leaves us feeling like we are always "on" - there's not a time where we can really relax and unwind when hypervigilance hits. For survivors of repeated abuse (either by one abuser or by different abusers over time), especially children who grew up with abuse, hypervigilance can become hard-wired into the brain. Survivors of long-term abuse often have an uncanny knack at sensing danger. After all, it felt like if we paid enough attention, we could know when the abuse was coming next and prepare for it or try to avoid it. This also feeds into feeling like it was our fault if we were hurt, as though we weren't paying enough attention, etc. (even though it was never our fault for being abused)
For survivors of abuse, hypervigilance is a survival tactic. However, once we are out of an abusive situation, our brain often continues to feed us the thoughts that we must always be on guard. Even when we are in a safe situation with people we trust, sometimes just one noise can set us off into panic.
Quite often, hypervigilance is the fuel that intensifies panic attacks. Our brain tries to pick up on danger signals that aren't always there, so one odd look from someone in a store can make us feel unsafe. Since hypervigilance is so hard to cope with, this week's questions will focus on it and how you handle it.
So this week's questions are:
- Do you experience hypervigilance? When do you most often feel it? Has it gotten any less severe over time?
- Are there any thoughts associated with your hypervigilance? For example, do you feel like if you aren't on guard, something will hurt you?
- How do you cope with hypervigilance? Do you have a way to calm yourself down when it happens?
wow, i just realized why i've been having so many bad dreams lately. Why i've been so jumpy, panicky, having such high anxiety.
It's the aniversary or close to it.
the change in the weather is a sign that those nights that remind me of being shoved into the back seat of a hatchback...
I want to disassociate. My week was really tough, and I'm tired of feeling this way .
I've been having multiple experiences of feeling unsafe in my body this week. The first was in massage class, when my partner was less communicative than I would have liked, and instead of insisting she talk more, I kept quiet and got anxious. In choir monday night, instead of asking that it be held somewhere other than the temple (which has wool rugs and is a major trigger for my asthma), I made myself go and just bring my inhaler and hope it'd be okay. I ended up having a major asthma/anxiety/crying attack. Wednesday morning in yoga, halfway through the class, I started crying hysterically and couldn't stop for half an hour. (This has happened before in that class....I think it has something to do with the teacher being male and it being a bit of a "tough it out" type class....for whatever reason, the class feels unsafe to me and I cry every time I go). Yesterday in therapy, I told Amy (the therapist I'm working with) my goals were to work through my sexual abuse stuff and learn to be more assertive in standing up for myself without feeilng guilty for it. When we were talking about the sexual abuse, she asked me how I was feeling in my body, and stayed with that for awhile, and it felt sooo scary and unsafe. I hate it. I hate feeling this way. I hate feeling like I'm going to cry all the time. I hate that I'm afraid of doing yoga right now(this morning). I hate that she said that in the sexual abuse, it was "my choice" to stop saying no, and how its bad that things like that happen as a result of our choices. I hate that my heart feels deadened right now. I hate that all this happens when I was just starting to feel good and comfortable and happy here. I partially want to withdraw from therapy and just feel good for a little while. I'm scared to go to those parts of me.