We live in an age of labels – attention deficit disorder, asperghers syndrome, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, pain-in-the-arse. All these conditions existed long before they received a formal diagnostic name (I assume – I’m not a researcher…) but we like labels – either for ourselves or our loved ones.


Somehow it legitimises behaviours we don’t understand, and can even offer hope of a “cure”.

Hypervigilance – it’s been around forever, of that I have no doubt. But it’s not a word I ever heard mentioned in all my many years of formal education. For a more thorough definition, have a look here, but whether or not it’s something you personally have experience with, doesn’t negate the fact there are a lot of people out there standing on guard, waiting for the next blow to fall. I’m one of those persons. It’s a bit unfun. For me personally, it’s not related to PTSD – I haven’t been subjected to military combat or sexual assault, and for that I’m very grateful. But for one reason or another my nature and nurture cooked up a little concoction that makes me hypervigilant – all the time. What does that mean? It means I’m always on guard.

  • Sudden noises make me leap like a started gazelle, providing great amusement to all and sundry.
  • Relaxation is a word I read in a dictionary. I’m in a permanent state of tension, waking in the night with clenched fists and gritted teeth.
  • My five senses are highly attuned: I hear every nuance, see intricate details, declare most bed sheets “scratchy”, smell the subtlest wafts, and taste delicate essences.
  • Crowded rooms are distressing, unable to separate conversations from background noise.
  • Emotions are painted across your demeanour, with unsaid words and emotions you hide.
  • I’m sensitive to your real mood – not your happy facade.
  • I read a lot into conversations, and research in great detail about seemingly innocuous comments.
  • I worry endlessly about people I’ve never met.
  • I pre-plan every possible outcome – just in case.
  • My heart rate doubles when the phone rings, letters arrive, or there’s a knock on the door. Or if I just think those things are going to happen.
  • I fantasise disasters in great detail when I’m alone: in the car, in bed, walking.
  • If I can’t see loved ones face to face, I picture them dead.
  • In stressful situations the air is too thick to breathe.
  • Hypervigilance robs me of a future, while I’m so fearful in the present.
  • Trust is hard-earned and easily lost. Experience taught me everyone will leave, judge me, hate me, never speak to me again. I’m waiting for the hammer to fall.
  • And all this hyper-awareness is exhausting. I know how ridiculous I’m being, but it doesn’t help. Feelings are feelings and can’t be magicked away.
  • Numbing behaviours are unhealthy and unsustainable, but my god, they work. Until the guilt sets in.
I’m not alone in this permanent state of heightened awareness – the fact it has a label suggests other people have it too.

But if you’re fortunate enough to respond in a healthy manner to life and the normal stresses around us, spare a little bit of thought for those of us who can’t just switch off and “put things in perspective”. We’re not stupid – we realise our reactions are extreme and unhelpful. But ignoring an emotion is ineffective, numbing it through alcohol, self-harm, or 14 packets of tim-tams feels good in the moment and worse in the long run. Finding perspective is not easy and is a key reason I’m developing a wonderful, long term relationship with my psychologist. There are tools and strategies – I read that somewhere. In the meantime, if you sneak up behind me you’ll amuse yourself greatly by scaring the living bejeezers out of me. It’s funny – I get it. But when I finally find my heart rate sitting at a nice comfortable level, it’s a bit of a pity for it to start turning somersaults again.

Hypervigilance – for me – is related to anxiety. It isn’t the sole symptom, but they feed off each other. I’m sure there are great benefits to this heightened state of awareness. But with today’s stresses, I’m struggling to look at the positives. Tomorrow I’m going to get a new little tattoo – another means of intense focus that temporarily blots out the outer world. Instead I’ll be wrapped up in a little world of productive pain.