Hypervigilance is an increased state of vigilance and awareness that may be caused by fear and anxiety, as well as certain mental health conditions. People experiencing hypervigilance typically exhibit symptoms in an attempt to avoid danger.
Symptoms of Hypervigilance
Hypervigilance is not a diagnosis in itself, but can be symptomatic of some mental health conditions. It may manifest in slightly different ways in different people, but common outward signs include:
- An increased startle reflex—a person may jump in response to sudden noises or surprises.
- Dilated pupils, an increased heart rate, and elevated blood pressure.
- Obsessive avoidance of perceived threats, along with increased scanning for threats. For example, a person might constantly monitor people around him/her to see if they have guns.
- Overestimation of a situation’s threatening nature. For example, the person scanning the environment for guns may think he/she sees people with guns even when they are holding something innocuous such as a pen.
Causes of Hypervigilance
Severe anxiety and stress can cause brief periods of hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is the body’s way of protecting people from threatening situations, so people in dangerous environments—such as those fighting in the military—may experience prolonged periods of hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is also common in children who have recently experienced a trauma such as the death of a parent or who have witnessed violence. The symptom is characteristic of posttraumatic stress disorder. People with PTSD tend to suffer from chronic hypervigilance that may trigger panic attacks and flashbacks. Other anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder can also cause hypervigilance. Some other mental health conditions, particularly paranoid schizophrenia, may cause periods of hypervigilance.
Treatment for Hypervigilance
Relaxation techniques, medication, and psychotherapy can all help people to reduce their hypervigilance. When hypervigilance is the result of a threatening environment—such as ongoing domestic violence—the first step in treatment should be to help the person get out of the dangerous environment.
Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Last Updated: 08-7-2015
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