The Psychology of Hypervigilance in Trauma Survivors

After the brain has been through psychological trauma, there are obvious remnants. Trauma has been defined as the inability to cope with overwhelmingly stressful and/or dangerous situations. As long as there was a situation in which there was risk of harm or actual harm to oneself or others, it is considered a traumatic event. One of the major tell tale signs of the presence of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is the phenomenon of hypervigilance or hyper-arousal. In simple terms, it is simply being on “high alert” in order to respond to potential threats. Since one has already been through a traumatic experience, or several, the brain tries its best to prevent future trauma.

Let’s say that someone is walking through a grocery store. This person has a long history of emotional abuse and bullying since childhood. They see a group of teenage friends chatting and laughing. The person’s mind may go into a hypervigilant mode, thinking the kids are laughing at them. Since the brain is trying to protect them from more abuse, their heart rate may increase, they may start to sweat, and they may even have an overwhelming emotional response like intense sadness or insecurity. The mind was reminded of trauma, so the body went into overdrive. The brain is always prepared for fight, flight or freeze responses. It is a well-intentioned but poorly executed survival mechanism for trauma survivors (2018).

Neurologically, why does this happen? According to various brain imaging technologies, scientists have been able to pinpoint the presence of PTSD symptoms in the amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is in the back of the brain and was one of the first things to develop in our evolutionary history. It detects threats, activates the fight or flight response, stores memories and important information from previous stressors, and it activates the sympathetic nervous system into physically responding to the situation. Our brains developed this section for our own species’ survival. The prefrontal cortex, in the front of our brains, developed later. This area is responsible for emotional and reactionary regulation. It makes decisions and has the ability to rationalize irrational reactions. A trauma survivor suffering from chronic hypervigilance will experience an overactive amygdala and an underactive medial prefrontal cortex (Greenberg, 2018).

Therefore, in the first scenario, the person’s amygdala perceived the group of laughing teens at the store to be a potential threat since it had stored memories of previous similar stressors. The person immediately thought they were being targeted by cruelty, so because their prefrontal cortex was inhibited, they experienced a racing heartbeat and fearfulness. Likewise, they may be on guard for the rest of the day, scanning their surroundings to see if other people look at them or laugh in their general direction. They may even make plans to never return to that store. An individual who hadn’t been traumatized in that way may have thought that the group of teens were having a lot of fun. A hyperactive amygdala causes trauma survivors to see non-threatening situations as dangerous and because of the lack of action from the prefrontal cortex, they would be less able to rationalize and relax after encountering a trigger.

Obviously, trauma leaves its marks on the mind and body. Chronic hypervigilance can lead to many mental and physical health problems. But, there are some coping skills to aid in recovery. Firstly, professional therapy is essential when overcoming trauma. Trauma and hypervigilance go hand-in-hand, so finding a qualified trauma therapist is an excellent first step. Telepsychiatry may be an even better option for individuals who become too anxious to leave home. Mindfulness exercises like guided imagery, controlled breathing, and meditation have shown promise as well. Even taking a few deep breaths can redirect the brain out of fight or flight mode. Exercise, like yoga on a regular basis, also has the potential to ease symptoms since it promotes physical awareness (Tull, 2019). While trauma leaves its mark on the body and brain, understanding the science behind hypervigilance can increase awareness, thus promoting necessary healing.

References:

(2018). Hypervigilance: Are You Being Extra Sensitive to Your Surrounding? Retrieved from: https://www.thrivetalk.com/hypervigilance/

Greenberg, Melanie. (2018). How PTSD and Trauma Affect Your Brain Functioning. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201809/how-ptsd-and-trauma-affect-your-brain-functioning

Tull, Matthew. (2019). Hypervigilance with PTSD and Other Anxiety Disorders. Retrieved from: https://www.verywellmind.com/hypervigilance-2797363

 

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