• Jo

Healing Hypervigilance

Summer was a wonderful illusion. The sun was out much of the time; I had time off work and away on holiday, the lack of social distancing made it seem like Covid had gone away. There were rumours that there was going to be another spike in the autumn, but it was a long way off. Meanwhile we were encouraged to help boost the economy. Why worry about the future when you can dine out cheaply?

Then September arrived, and we learned the reality of the predicted spike. The illusion shattered.

Back to reality

Reality crashed in. Back at work I now have the task of delivering children’s work alongside my youth worker role. To prepare I immersed myself deep in Covid compliance literature, websites and webinars. Within a day I wanted to hunker down and hibernate until at least Easter 2021.

I sensed my body going back into high alert mode as dread and worry overtook me. Dread of receding back into lockdown. It is the ‘here we go again’ feeling because we now know what it is like in lockdown. Worry about how to do the new part of my job: during a pandemic youth work is a doddle compared to children’s work.

The low level anxiety which normally resides in the pit of my stomach expanded and shifted upwards. At times I could feel it in my chest, concentration levels plummeted and sleep became erratic. My body which had calmed down during the summer has ramped up its threat meter. I have gone back to being hypervigilant.

Scanning for lions

Our bodies and minds are wired to respond to the threat of danger. Imagine you are on holiday and a lion leaps out at you. (I know it is unlikely, but go with it for now). In that moment of danger your body becomes hyper aroused and hyper focused on your survival. You no longer care about your holiday plans or what you might have for dinner that evening. Your brain has shut down the parts related to long term goals and any focus except survival. Once the threat is gone (the zoo keepers reclaim their lion) your nervous system is free to feel safe again and calm down allowing the other parts of your brain to come back online.

However, if the lion escapes again, day after day, and starts pursuing you, then your body may stay in hyperarousal. It won't return to equilibrium because you are constantly looking out for the threat and anticipating. Our bodies are not designed to sustain that level of alertness over a long period of time. It is supposed to be a short sharp burst of adrenalin to see us through the immediate danger.

With Covid dragging on longer than we anticipated, combined with constantly changing guidance due to the latest science and uncertainty on how long it will all last, we are unable to restore our equilibrium. This is especially true for people already dealing with the impact of previous trauma and those of us wired to be highly sensitive and already on high alert much off the time. During the summer I, like many others, went into semi denial and so my body was able to calm down. Now we are back to constant high alert.

Stephen Porges, an expert in neuroscience, gives us this analogy. Your body has become like a security guard scanning people at an airport. The guard is on constant alert looking for suspected terrorists. Anyone and everything is a possible threat. Your senses become heightened so that things which didn’t normally bother you become blown out of proportion.

Hypervigilance is a survival mechanism designed to get out of danger quickly. Our bodies are not designed to live in that state perpetually. It is draining being on that level of alert all the time.

So the question becomes: what can I do about it?

Befriend not berate

The first and foremost thing you can do when in a hypervigilant state is to befriend all that inner turmoil. This may seem counter intuitive because all we want to do is to stop feeling the sensations but working with them rather than against them is what helps. It is like driving in snow and skidding on a patch of ice. Knowing that the way out is to turn the steering wheel into the skid rather than out of it seems illogical - but it works. It is the same with hyperarousal. Turn into your feelings not away from them.

Hypervigilance is a physiological response in your body. It is not a conscious choice. Your nervous system is in survival mode. Your pre-frontal cortex, the mature decision-making part of your brain, which isn’t fully formed until you are in your mid 20s, has temporarily gone offline. Instead the amygdala, the primitive emotional part of your brain, has hijacked your mind and is in charge. Knowing that your response is not a voluntary choice can open the door to healing.

This means you can ditch the self-blame for being so on edge. Blaming ourselves for not pulling ourselves together or being so anxious doesn’t help at all. But it is also a normal response. We want to feel in control of our bodies, we want to believe that we can control them.

So many of us have been taught that your emotions are our enemies and are to be squashed down at all costs. And what a cost we have paid. Learning to ride the waves of our feelings, rather like surfing, is far healthier than denying or shaming them. Being able to tolerate and manage our own emotions takes practice when we are used to numbing out or feeling powerless.

Surfing the waves

Being kind to ourselves activates our parasympathetic nervous system which is what calms down the sympathetic nervous system – the one on high alert. We don’t need to white knuckle our way through this pandemic. Sure there will be times when we need to park those powerful emotions; at work it is important that I am the calm one in the room to help the young people navigate this time, but home alone I intentionally take time out to sit with my feelings, and give them space to be felt and heard. Like real surfing, it takes time and practice and someone to guide you. But with time you can become proficient. The waves will continue to come and go but you can learn to work with them.

I began writing this blog post a week ago after having a panic attack related to my new role at work. During the week I have worked hard on practising what I have written. What I can say is that I am now surfing the feelings as they arise, some moments, hours and days better than others.

In this post I wanted you to have the neuroscience to help you understand why your body is acting as it is and to be able to move away from self-blame. In part 2 I will give your more practical steps you can take to work with the hypervigilance rather than fight against it.

Meanwhile if you have found this helpful tell me how in the comments section. Also, if you know someone who might resonate with this theme please share it with them.

Further resources

if you want to find out more about the neuroscience:


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