One of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD is hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is watchfulness or checking one’s surroundings that is over and above what is normal or reasonable. Hypervigilance takes many forms. It is what makes some of us always choose an aisle seat or one where our back is to a wall. It’s what makes some of us carry defensive weapons such as guns, knives, mace or pepper spray, a police whistle or a mobile phone set to 999. It makes some of us cross the street to avoid suspicious people. Some of us have alarm systems, multiple locks, window locks, high fences, guard dogs, etc. Another form of hypervigilance is studying people very carefully in an attempt to look deeply into their soul to determine exactly what they are made of. Hypervigilance is included in the cluster of symptoms referred to as “increased arousal”. This cluster also includes difficulty sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, and exaggerated startle response.
This increased arousal stems directly from our trauma and the form it takes is shaped directly by the nature of our trauma. If we have difficulty sleeping, it may be because we were afraid to go to sleep or stay asleep for fear of an attack of some sort while we were not conscious to repel it or avoid it. If we are irritable, it may be to warn people to keep their distance or to not behave in ways that might trigger us. If we can’t concentrate it may be because we are too busy trying to monitor all inputs from possible dangers. If we startle easily it may be because we learned to jump quickly to get out of harm’s way. And if we are hypervigilant it is probably because we saw our environment as having multiple and unpredictable dangers that we should be on constant alert for. In fact, much of the time our hypervigilance helps to keep us safe.
However, the “hyper” in hypervigilance suggests that we do more than is normal or reasonable. It is too much because it is an inconvenience or an encumbrance. While it is probably true that we with PTSD are indeed safer because of all the precautions that we take, it is probably also true that our hypervigilance does often get in the way. It may be that we deprive ourselves of going certain places and of partaking in certain events. For example, we don’t go to an event because we can’t get an aisle seat, or because we don’t know what kind of people are going to be there. Sometimes we see people looking at us and we think that they are judging us or are hostile toward us. Sometimes we are afraid to eat certain foods because we are afraid of being poisoned or made ill. And, there are probably numerous other examples of ways in which hypervigilance inconveniences us.