Hypervigilance has been a painful part of my life since I was able to form an independent thought. If you have never experienced this phenomenon, then you do not understand how hypervigilance negatively affects the lives of those, like me, who know it intimately.
In this piece, we shall discover together the definition of hypervigilance, the neuroscience behind it, and how being always on the alert for danger keeps us from forming long-term intimate relationships.
What is Hypervigilance?
Hypervigilance involves a heightened state of awareness and the readiness to be ready to run away or hide at any moment. For primates, including man, this is an adaptive evolutionary trait designed to keep us out of or to run from danger.
However, hypervigilance becomes a life-altering problem when it interferes with the ability for a person to form lasting intimate relationships or even to function normally in society.
Hypervigilance itself is not a mental health condition, but it most definitely is part of many trauma-related disorders. Experiencing hypervigilance is like living life ready for nuclear war to start at any moment.
Hypervigilance is associated with the following mental health disorders. This list is not all-inclusive.
- Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Panic Disorder
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Personality Disorders
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Dissociative Identity Disorder
- Mood Disorders
A person becomes hypervigilant during childhood after exposure to life events including the death of a parent, witnessing violence or being the victim of violence or any situation where the child feels in danger.
The Symptoms of Hypervigilance
Once you read the symptoms I’m about to list, it will become clear how hypervigilance disrupts life and relationships.
Being Constantly on Red-Alert. People who experience chronic hypervigilance feel 24/7 that danger lurks around every corner. Attuned to the sights, smells, sounds and even the location of others, those of us who are hypervigilant never rest. I can tell you from experience that always being on the alert is both frustrating and exhausting.
Some people who have an extreme case of hypervigilance, experience agoraphobia, the extreme fear of leaving their home for fear they will be helpless and vulnerable.
It is very difficult to form lasting relationships if you are full of dread. The unnecessary terror makes it almost impossible for us to get close to others which in turn means we do not form lasting romantic relationships. Many, like me, who live with hypervigilance would rather isolate away from everyone than feel the horrible sense of needing to hide.
An Increased Startle Reflex. People with hypervigilance may jump at any sudden noise or movement. Loud voices can send a person experiencing hypervigilance into a spin causing them to dissociate and/or have the feeling they need to flee.
Being in an unusual situation or place can exacerbate the already over-active startle response, so, dating or being close to someone is nearly impossible.
Increased Epinephrine-Induced Body Sensations. Epinephrine, otherwise known as adrenaline, is a stress hormone that is necessary to prepare our bodies for the fight/flight/freeze responses. However, in someone who is hypervigilant, this important adaptation becomes a severe problem.
When a alerted to danger that is either real or imagined, a body of a person who is hypervigilant has their body going into hyperdrive pushing by the secretions of adrenaline and cortisol (another important stress hormone) into their bloodstream.
This exaggerated response causes the hypervigilant to experience increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, feel the need to run away, or to dissociate away from whoever or whatever caused the response.
Obviously, if one experiences these bodily responses, the first thing one might do is avoid any situation that may trigger it. This may include meeting new people and forming relationships.
The Neuroscience of Hypervigilance
It is not enough to know you have hypervigilance, understanding what is happening in the brain can help alleviate some of the distress you may feel about having it.
It is well-known that experiencing childhood trauma, aka, adverse childhood experiences, causes extensive adverse brain changes that affect us into adulthood. We know this because of numerous magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other neurological studies visualizing the damage.
We’re going to look at some of the important brain regions and how they can become damaged by childhood trauma.
The Corpus Callosum. The corpus callosum is a thick band of nerve fibers that act as the wiring of your brain. It is responsible for the communications between the two halves of your brain, including the transference of motor, sensory and cognitive information.
The “wiring” that makes up the corpus callosum depends on a fatty substance called myelin, a mixture of proteins and lipids forming the insulation over the “wires.”
Like electrical wiring you have in your home, if the insulation on the wires is intact, the electrical signal will propagate well, and the appliance will work just fine.
However, if the electric wire has broken or missing insulation, the signal going from the wall socket to the appliance will experience a short. This leaves the appliance receiving intermittent or absence of signal. If not corrected, the missing insulation will cause the device to not work properly, quit working altogether or cause a fire.
A similar thing happens with the “wiring” of the corpus callosum. If the myelin covering the “wiring” is in good condition, the right and left sides of your brain can “talk” allowing you to experience normal moods and greater mental stability.
However, if the myelin is missing or damaged, your brain will experience a short with intermittent or missing signals propagating between the hemispheres of your brain.
This means you will experience mood and mental health problems.
A study1 published by Jakowski, et.al. used MRI Acquisition Imaging to see how much childhood maltreatment affects the white matter (corpus callosum) of the brain.
Their study found neglect and abuse had adversely affected the corpus callosa of the children they had studied. Not only did neglect or abuse make the white matter in their subjects smaller, but the size of this vital brain region was greatest in children who were younger when the neglect or abuse began.
It is clear, adverse childhood experiences making our brains misfire and causing a myriad of different mental health disorders and hypervigilance.
To make it clear, the problems survivors experience forming and keeping healthy long-term relationships because of hypervigilance are directly correlated to the childhood trauma we experienced.
It is not nor was it ever our fault.
With the wiring of our brain damaged, we experience hypervigilance and a lot of other problems that keep us from seeking out and forming healthy, long-term relationships.
The Amygdala and the Hippocampus.
The amygdalae and Hippocampi of our brains work together to help us remember events by categorizing them for storage with their associated emotions. They are also responsible for our response to danger whether it is real or perceived.
The amygdala is a primitive structure located deep inside our brain. It is always on the alert to danger and is the first part of our brain to respond when it perceives danger is present.
When triggered, the amygdala begins a cascade of physical responses by shooting chemical signals to other parts of the brain that release cortisol and adrenaline to ready our bodies to fight/flight/freeze.
Also, the amygdala plays a vital role in memory consolidation. It is impossible to form long-term memories without the cooperation of the amygdala.
The hippocampus controls memory storage in the brain. Memories consist of chemical signatures that the amygdala and the hippocampus together create to make memories ready for storage and retrieval.
However, when overwhelmed the amygdalae and hippocampi of children who are experiencing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) change in size and do not function well.
Groundbreaking studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) like this one from 2012 performed on veterans in the United States showed clear evidence that exposure to extreme trauma during war decreased the size and function of both their amygdalae and hippocampi.
Spurred on by such findings, researchers turned next to survivors to see if their experiences of childhood neglect or violence had done the same to their brains.
The results were dumbfounding.
One such study2 reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry studied the volumes of the amygdalae and hippocampi of subjects living with the diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder, a condition caused by severe childhood maltreatment.
They found the hippocampal volume of their subjects was 19.2% smaller and the amygdalar volume was 31.6% smaller than their control of healthy adults.
What these results and others like them mean, is that because of the atrophy of the amygdalae and hippocampi of people who have experienced trauma in childhood, we face problems with our memory and the way our amygdala responds to perceived and real danger.
The resulting hypervigilance leaves us in the living hell of the constant flood of stress hormones into our bodies readying us for the flight from a danger that does not exist.
Pulling it All Together
As survivors, we face a myriad of different problems in the formation of long-term and healthy relationships. Hypervigilance is one of the most devastating of these reactions.
Understanding why we react the way we do to situations and people is key to overcoming the handicaps caused by hypervigilance.
In the next article, we will explore together ways to mitigate the effect that adverse childhood experiences have on our ability to form loving and healing relationships with others.
- Jackowski, A. P., Douglas-Palumberi, H., Jackowski, M., Win, L., Schultz, R. T., Staib, L. W., Krystal, J. H. & Kaufman, J. (2008). Corpus callosum in maltreated children with posttraumatic stress disorder: a diffusion tensor imaging study. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 162(3), 256-261.
- 2. Vermetten, E., Schmahl, C., Lindner, S., Loewenstein, R. J., & Bremner, J. D. (2006). Hippocampal and amygdalar volumes in dissociative identity disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(4), 630-636.