Hypervigilance: A Sixth Sense?
I often find that people connect abilities that are quite human and shaped by our experiences and skills with something supernatural. Someone who is great at understanding others thinks they can read people’s minds. Someone who is good at guessing future events based on current knowledge, is clairvoyant. And someone who perceives things that others are not aware of, has a sixth sense. I understand that it is easier and more exciting to view things from that sort of perspective than to say that the first person has excellent emotional intelligence, the second one has great logical skills and the third one? Well, the third one has hypervigilance.
Most people probably know what vigilance is. It means that you are careful. Hypervigilance is extreme alertness. You are constantly scanning your environment for possible threats. Wherever you go, you make sure you know the fastest way to the exit. You are aware of every person coming and leaving. You hear every sound intensively, you smell every smell strongly. And you are always tense and ready to run, attack or hide. You do not trust your surroundings and you don’t ever allow yourself to relax.
It sounds exhausting, doesn’t it, this hypervigilance? Well, it makes sense that it does, because of is a symptom of trauma related mental illnesses such as PTSD and C-PTSD. The body and mind of a survivor of abuse and trauma are always prepared for pain, hurt, threats and attacks. That is what you have learnt: you need to be aware of your surroundings to be safe, and to react fast enough. But it is an unhealthy behaviour that doesn’t make much sense later in life when threats are minimal, or often only imagined.
Hypervigilance can lead to a lot of quite frustrating effects: insomnia, chronic pain and headaches, constant anxiety, fatigue and in some cases even psychosis. It sometimes expresses itself when you jump or crouch when there is a loud noise close by, when you freeze when someone accidentally touches you or that you panicky leave a conversation when the atmosphere or tone changes. It can express itself in many different ways and some of them are debilitating, especially when it comes to social interactions.
I struggle with hypervigilance a lot. I am basically never relaxed, but always tense. It is like I am constantly waiting and preparing for an attack. I have terrible insomnia which is linked to that I can only fall asleep if it feels totally safe and that I get woken up by the tiniest movement or sound. I don’t really wake up though, it is more like jolting up, almost raising my fists, wanting to fight whatever is threatening me. My anxiety is always through the roof. I can’t sit still. I often have pain all over my body, and I am fatigued because I am in a constant state of alertness.
Hypervigilance – A Sixth Sense?
Hypervigilance is an asshole. But through the years, I have also realized that it has given me some amazing talents. I see things that other people don’t notice at all. I am extremely aware of my surroundings and hence, I experience everything with more intensity. So I have the skills that many link to a sixth sense. I know that something is coming before it comes. I see the tiniest movements, I hear the most silenced noises, I sense the most muted changes in atmosphere. Like: I notice leaves falling, cats yawning, someone walking behind me.
It is always an adventure to go out with me, because I will point out things to you, that you probably would have never noticed on your own. My partner experiences that with me all the time and he is always amazed by how he sees things that he has passed by with totally different eyes once he has been there with me.
I have so many examples for this. It could be that we are out on a walk on a dark and rainy autumn evening. The wet leaves under our soles, the raindrops dancing on our umbrellas. I suddenly move a little to the left and he, without thinking much about it, follows me. Three minutes later someone passes us. I had sensed that person walking behind us long ago, estimated that they were walking faster than us, so I stepped to the left to give them the space to pass us.
We could be having a lively conversation while walking to the nearest cafe. And I suddenly stop and smile. He looks at me. Puzzled. He follows my eyes and looks into the same direction. And there it is: a kitten, sitting in a window on the third floor, looking down on us. I scan the environment all the time and I sense every tiny detail. And kittens are quite cute details. So I have to stop and admire it for a minute.
We could be driving down the road’ and stop at a traffic light, listening to music, discussing where to get dinner. And I suddenly point at a really cool sign in a shop window a few houses further, describing the colours and its artfulness. He had driven past that window for 20 years but never noticed that small sign.
It is even more obvious when I am among people. I remember once incident very clearly. We were at a goth club during the summer and went into the patio area because it was really hot inside the venue. And I also really needed to vape and get my nicotine. There were dozens of people outside, sitting on wooden benches. So we sat down too. I faced my partner and we talked. I suddenly noticed something behind me, and I move my leg to the side, to make space. And my feeling was right, about 30 seconds later, a man in a wheelchair rolls past me. He looks at me with a surprised facial expression. “How did you know I was coming? I had to ask everyone else to move, but you just did it. As if you sensed me!” Well. I really sensed he was coming.
If there really is anything like a sixth sense, then this is it. Hypervigilance causes so many negative effects, but it also makes you more aware. You see things other people aren’t seeing, you hear things others barely notice and you sense everything that moves around you. You do experience reality more intensively and I am sure (and I hope) there are ways to use this symptom and turn it into a skill. An ability to experience the world and all its beauty in a way that most other people can’t even fathom.