When we're ready to deal with some aspect of ourselves it often bubbles up just to the edges of our consciousness and we start seeing signs and clues for it everywhere. Like connect-the-dot puzzles, those clues lead us to confront, research, and deal with an issue that has been holding us back or hurting us in some way. The symptom of hypervigilance is my connect-the-dot puzzle right now. Specifically, as it relates to intuition. The other day I heard someone on the radio mention one of the symptoms of hypervigilance, which in itself is usually a symptom of PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This was just one of many "dots" that have presented lately. I have been in PTSD recovery for most of my adult life following an extremely abusive marriage in my early twenties. I have been somewhat hypervigilant all my life, probably stemming from childhood abuse.
When I escaped from the abusive asshole husband, I moved back in with my mom for a while. My brother was eighteen or nineteen and still living at home. One evening as my brother and I were talking in the living room we simultaneously noticed we were both nervously and repeatedly glancing out the front window during our conversation. We realized that we were mentally "on alert" for our mother's return from work. During our childhood our mother's mood upon arriving home from work tired and "hangry" was often very bad. We tried to secure her good favor by scurrying around, cleaning up, and whichever one of us was assigned dinner duty had to make sure it was well in process before she walked in the door. We sometimes sat nervously waiting for the car to pull into the driveway. Trying to work out from the way the car was driven, the way she opened and shut the door, what kind of mood she was in. Would this be an evening of calm or anger? At the time my brother and I noticed our behavior in the living room that day we were adults and had nothing to fear from the return of our mother. We awkwardly laughed at ourselves, aren't we being silly? Hypervigilance is subtle.
The negative emotional effects of my childhood were not severe. Like everyone, I had imperfect parents but my childhood experiences did not cause my PTSD. My mother was raised by an emotionally abusive mother and grandmother and alcoholic father who himself suffered from extreme combat PTSD. She married at nineteen and had four children. My parents divorced when the oldest child was nine and the youngest was two. My father was not involved in the child rearing except as financial support. Needless to say, my mother was emotionally ill-equipped to deal with it all and she made mistakes, some horrible. Still, she did her best and she did succeed in parenting better than her parents. Nevertheless, there were damages as there usually are, but I did not display the symptoms of PTSD proper until during and after my first marriage when I was faced with the perpetual threat of being seriously injured or killed by my intimate partner.
While many of my PTSD symptoms have diminished with therapy and the healing of time, I continue to be hypervigilant. I rarely experience flashbacks anymore. The more intense and obvious flashbacks are actually easier to manage after the initial freak-out. I can rationally understand that my current emotions are responding to a past situation and I ride it out, coping by focusing on the present reality. The smaller ones, however, fly under my radar and can trigger extreme hypervigilance that I don't immediately recognize as an inappropriate reaction. I think it's normal for me.
In a dictionary definition nutshell, hypervigilance is the condition of maintaining an abnormal awareness of environmental stimuli. It causes one's body and brain to perpetually maintain a heightened state of awareness which is part of the natural fight-or-flight response. What served as a necessary survival tool during the time of trauma continues on to become a part of one's everyday existence, seamlessly woven into every waking moment, every interaction.
On the plus side, it makes one very observant, keenly so. When it comes to "reading people" and scoping situations out, hypervigilance is like a sixth sense. Those with hypervigilance know more about what is going on than most people ever will. They pick up on others' moods and stresses, hone in on details most people miss, and spot the smallest change in their environments. In practice, hypervigilance seems a lot like intuition because this constant scanning for threats becomes second nature. We don't try to do it, we don't think about it, we just do it. It feels like a gift from the trauma endured. In some situations, truly potentially dangerous ones, it is a gift, but it comes at a cost. The price is paid in depeleted mental and physical energy and it could cost your relationships with others.
I think intuition and hypervigilance can merge. It can be difficult to identify which is at work because they share similar "knowing" and results. The main difference is in the physical sensations that accompany them. Hypervigilance is tiring. Exhausting, actually. I often get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach or a clenching in my throat, and I become restless and there is a strong sense of urgency. That is how I feel fear. By contrast, intuition feels effortless. I am calm and relaxed and my mind just "knows" something or I mentally "hear" a phrase in my head. Hypervigilance develops out of fear and relentlessly gathers external clues. Intuition develops by following one's internal cues rather than external. This is one reason I prefer providing email tarot readings over face-to-face. I can't unconsciously scan the client's facial expressions or body language via text. There is less involvement of my hypervigilance and I can trust that my intuition is coming to the fore. The feedback from my clients suggests that my intuition is quite strong without the hypervigilance in play.
I suspect many people who have what they believe to be very strong intuition are also hypervigilant stemming from a past trauma. Identifying which is operating is key to reducing the cost of the hypervigilance -- stress. Stress, as we know, is incredibly unhealthy and damages the body and brain in measurable ways.
I'm partly loathe to give up hypervigilance as it has been my faithful superpower, but it has degraded my health and well being. I may never release it entirely but I plan to work to replace its function with my intuition. It is comforting to know that I also have developed keen intuition and can continue to strengthen that as I work to reduce the other. For now, I plan to take this wonderful advice given in this in-depth article, Searching for Bad News: The Circuitous Path of Obsessive Thinking by Dr. Heather Stone:
Live with ambiguity. Relax into knowing that, without hyper-vigilance, you have relatively complete and accurate information. The ambiguity that is in and around you is an unclear, imperfect, benign presence that can be trusted and accepted.
The Unknown that you fight so vehemently – that you fear, blame, rail against, and pray would become Real so that it could finally leave you alone – is often better than every known thing you have ever wanted to control. Let me put it another way: every good thing in your life that surprised you was previously unknown to you. You didn’t anticipate or create the people who showed up and loved you. You didn’t manage or direct the gifts that you were given, either literally or metaphorically. Live with the Unknown, because the stuff that will make you happy in life will be the stuff that you can’t control.