Article – Escaping The Tight Grip of Hypervigilance

Published articles by Rebecca Mitchell on issues around sexual abuse

‘Every breath you take …Every move you make… I’ll be watching You’

Published in “Interact” The Journal of the Trauma and Abuse Group
September 2010

“You’ve taken down the Easter cards!” My client looked frightened and angry. Easter had passed weeks before and the dust had started to gather on the fading chicks by mid May. “Everything is coming to an end” she sighed and added “Its all shutting down.” She was partly correct – our sessions were drawing to a close but I hadn’t realised the small visual change would cause her so much distress.

Yet knowing her as I did I shouldn’t have been surprised. Maggie had an extraordinary “eye for detail” which took over almost every part of her life and relationships. She was obsessively ordered, controlled and vigilant – in fact she was more than just vigilant – she was hypervigilant.

Dan Allender suggests in his book “The Wounded Heart” that when children have experienced trauma and especially sexual abuse as children this will produce hypervigilant behaviour as adults. He sees this as a direct consequence of the damage of the betrayal they have had to endure. The betrayal as children leads to a lifestyle of constant watchfulness, strong inability to trust and consequently is extremely emotionally draining. Bruce Perry the Child Trauma Specialist explains “It takes a great deal of energy to remain vigilant and “on guard” … it is exhausting to view the entire world as a potential threat.” (Source: The boy who was raised as a dog by Dr Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz: page 194: Basic Books: Published 2006) (a website which offers to educate patients, families and caregivers about anxiety and panic disorder) defines hypervigilance as “a heightened sense of perception induced by anxiety.” It goes onto explain that hypervigilance can “make people acutely aware of subtle details normally ignored, sometimes to a degree where even familiar environments may seem somehow changed.” Hypervigilance can often be seen as one of the consequences of trauma and indeed one of the criteria of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder according to research by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. (Source: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Leaflet: Royal College of Psychiatrists: March 2010)

Certainly the day after the London bombings in July 2005 when I nervously got back on the tube I was on full alert. Scanning for any signals of a danger I visually examined every bag, knapsack and even purse on my carriage – whereas before I would have totally ignored the luggage of other passengers. Thankfully bombings in London are a rare occurrence and over time this habit faded. However, when you live, indeed grow up, in an atmosphere trauma, high tension and uncertainty for many years; it can be extremely difficult to break the hypervigilant habit of being “alert all the time, as if you are looking out for danger…. You can’t relax.” (Source: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Leaflet: Royal College of Psychiatrists: March 2010).

The danger may not be against outward physical threats e.g. guns or bombs; but could be looking for clues in the person or people with whom you have a relationship, about what their next thought or action might be. People who have been bought up in traumatic situations learn to watch out for what could be the ignition point for the next outburst of temper or betrayal and are often extremely suspicious of intimate relationships – even when the people who caused them so much damage are no longer in their life.

This clearly makes relationships with others stressful both for the person and for their friends, partners and family. Each slight change in voice tone is noted and analyzed, a text can be read and re-read countless times, an email will be written and re-written numerously.

Hypervigilant people live their lives “on guard” at all times and their hypervigilance pervades everything they do, say and believe about themselves and others.

Some behaviours may look like:

  • An over awareness of what people see or think about us
  • Constantly concerned about others
  • Lack of objectivity – reading too much into situations
  • Over scrutiny/analysing behaviour of situations
  • Looking for others to betray constantly
  • Our minds tell us partial truths that we latch onto
  • Not being aware of what is obvious to others

It is indeed a gruelling and paralyzing way to live.

As someone who has grown up within a sexually violent home – the world and other people often seem to me very dangerous. This has made it extremely difficult for me to relax and trust in relationships. I often default into anxious cycles of behaviour that could be categorised as hypervigilant – leaving me very isolated as I scrutinize others looking for clues of betrayal and or violence.

I have also seen hypervigilance reflected in the behaviour of clients I have worked with in my capacity as a group work facilitator for women who have experienced child sexual abuse. I remember an exceptionally vivid description by one client – Angie – as she described how she and her brother would sit nervously waiting for her father’s key in the lock. Trying to work out from the way the key was turned, the door was shut, the footsteps in the hall, what kind of mood he was in. Would this be an evening of calm or violence?

In “Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse” Heitritter and Vought describe families living this way as “walking on eggshells” because “communication is dishonest. Feelings are not dealt with straightforwardly but are denied and disregarded”. (Source: Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse by Heitritter and Vought: Page 73: Published by Bethany House 1989) These are all the ingredients to lay the foundation for hypervigilant behaviour – there was no honest discussion in Angie’s house about her father’s behaviour so she and her brother were left on their own to interpret the situation. As an adult sadly but not surprisingly, Angie continued to maintain this kind of vigilance long after she left home. She would constantly analyze and scrutinise every action, comment, text, phone call and email her friends made.

Pauline Andrews in her article in “Interact” also gives her experience of hypervigilance as a therapist as she became aware that “Extreme trauma survivors know more about what is going on than we ever will. Their hypervigilance picks up our moods and stresses, spots the smallest detail that’s been changed in the counselling room.” (Source: What I Have Learned through working with DID by Pauline Andrew: Interact Volume 10 No 1 March 2010 ). She goes onto explain that this is because these clients are “always checking for safety in order to build trust”. This is exactly what Angie was doing with her friends – but sadly without the knowledge of a therapist they only saw it as a reflection on them – and most of Angie’s relationships ended with her exhausted and her friends confused, upset and often distancing themselves from her.

Hypervigilance is also in my experience often accompanied by two not so welcome companions: catastrophizing and suspiciousness.


Like hypervigilance suspiciousness is often the fall out of growing up in very emotionally flammable situations. We are suspicious of people and their motives for wanting to be in a relationship with us. This can result in feelings of paranoia around others.

What are they really thinking about us? What are they planning to do to us? Dan Allender describes the suspicious behaviour as part of the self protection to avoid “soul damaging relationships” however this back fires against as it stops us from entering into “soul-enhancing involvement.” (Source: The Wounded Heartby Dan Allender: Page 119: NAV Press: Published: 1990) It is almost like playing a waiting game. We predict the betrayal (often inaccurately) is coming and watch the other person looking for clues – in order to prepare for it. Others however, are not prepared to sit it out and seize control of the situation by ending the relationship first – which provides the illusion of being the most powerful person. However, the tragedy is that potentially healthy relationships are annulled needlessly.


Catastrophizing is again an outworking of trauma as Therapist Dr John Flanagan explains in his helpful website for people who have experienced trauma:
“We catastrophize because it is what we are used to … our childhood was a catastrophe…we have done all sorts of things to give us a sense of control and now something hints of spinning out of control and it panics us.” (Source: This panic often causes our minds to automatically trip into a game of “what ifs” that we play in our minds. It takes a current situation and gives it an extremely negative spin – allowing it to take us down all sorts of roads of worry and anxiety creating scenario after scenario of ever worsening fates. It is like having an internal “Spin Doctor” but the spin is all negative. Worst, as so aptly predicted in Proverbs “as a man thinks so he is” it can often produce a self fulfilling prophecy of failure – we believe something will fail so we unconsciously create a situation that ensures failure.
(Proverbs 23 verse 7).

So how can we let go of such ingrained behaviour? And also, is it possible that there could be any benefits to being a hypervigilant person?

Firstly, like all unhealthy behaviours, the initial step is to recognise you are doing it. Catch yourself out when you sense yourself spiraling down your own personal hypervigilant thought patterns. Even more illuminating – see how many times a day or week that you find yourself having hypervigilant or catastrophizing/suspicious thoughts.

Secondly, try to be “in the moment” for a few minutes. This could be by focusing on your breathing in and out slowly. It could be by rooting your feet firmly on the ground. This will give your mind a couple of minutes to calm itself.

Thirdly, record all your negative thoughts on a notepad or iphone etc. Over time you will notice the times when you are most likely to spiral into negative thoughts and patterns. Thinking back do these remind you of anything from your past? You may need help and support to do this perhaps talking though this with a counsellor or support group.

Fourthly, try to get into the habit of some positive self talk. Instead of thinking “My partner is late again…it’s the third time this week…..perhaps he is losing interest me or doesn’t care about me anymore..I wonder if he’s having an affair … why was he checking his phone last night? This relationship is almost certainly over.”

Perhaps try something along the lines of “My partner is late again … it’s the third time this week and I’m finding this difficult. We need to sit down together and work out a good communication plan when he’s going to be late so I can still relax and enjoy my evening.”

Finally, could it be feasible that there any positive sides to being “Hypervigilant” person? Well, I actually think there could be.

Pauline Andrew rightly points out that a hypervigilant client “reads our faces to an astonishing degree” (Source: What I Have Learned through working with DID by Pauline Andrew Interact Volume 10 No 1 March 2010). Once some of the more extreme sides of hypervigilance have been explored – you are left with an extremely sensitive and insightful person. Someone who can easily pick up on other people’s feelings and emotions.

Of course there are the negative sides of that – but also what a perceptive and responsive person to have as your ally! In this world where there is so much individualism, loneliness and people suffering without being noticed – if you have a companion who has been hypervigilant in your life and you are going through a difficult time – the chances are you won’t be struggling alone for long. They will notice you when others may not.

What a fantastic friend or partner to have in your life! What a great person to have as a therapist or as part of a therapy or support group. There are huge downsides – and so much pain that we hypervigilant people have experienced; but I believe with support and encouragement there is also the possibility of being able to reach out to others in a very unique style. Consequently those around us have the opportunity of being touched and supported by us “hypervigilants” in a way that is both special and engaging.

Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse by Lyn Heitritter and JeanetteVought:
Published by Bethany House: Page 73: Published: 1989
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Leaflet :Royal College of Psychiatrists: Published: March 2010
The Wounded Heart – Dan Allender – NAV Press: Published: 1990
The boy who was raised as a dog” Dr Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz: Basic Books: Published
What I Have Learned through working with DID Pauline Andrew Interact Volume 10 No 1: Published: March 2010