A few years back, I was having a conversation with a coworker in the wake of a larger meeting we had with the whole team and I was sharing some of my thoughts on what was going on with the team and individual responses to the meeting. I had a lot of things to share that I noticed or was able to infer from the way people interacted or asked questions, etc. He was a bit shocked and commented about how deeply I pay attention and think about other people at work, much more than he was used to.
I suppose he meant it as a compliment. I think he was even trying to suggest that I cared about my peers more than other people usually do.
He was wrong, of course. 😉
It’s not that I didn’t care about my peers, it was just not as much as I was getting credit for. What he didn’t realize was that, as a trauma survivor, when I find myself in a situation that is uncertain, for example when a major change is being introduced to the team at work, or there’s a difficult conversation to be had, I go into hypervigilant mode. The only way my trauma-scarred psyche can even exist in that situation is to try and see all of the threats before they’re coming at me. So I am constantly scanning the environment, reading vocal tone, facial expressions, and body language for what people are really thinking.
That means I am more likely to notice someone feeling angry or anxious without the need for them to say that. That’s not such a bad thing. The downside is that I could overreact to small signs as well. Someone on a virtual call who is dealing with a cranky child on the side will look a bit aggravated, and it has nothing to do with the topic. I have to keep that in mind and not let my trauma response overreact to that.
The point is, that the learned responses from my childhood can, at times, provide me with an advantage. At other times they can be a disadvantage.
Let me give you another example. I’m sitting in the living room, catching up on some of the news of the day. These days that simple act can provoke a trauma response because the world is a scary place. There are people I love who are being targeted with hate and legislated out of public existence. There are real threats and my threat response is to start noticing everything and evaluating all of it through that prism. Sometimes that means I struggle to stop myself from reading the next post, or the next thread, and on and on. Worse yet, when I’m stuck in that made and my wife kindly reminds me about plans we have or something she needs me to do, my ears hear it, but my brain takes that information and says “not a threat”, and tosses it aside.
On one hand, I’m glad I have such a secure relationship that the information my wife gives me is not a threat. On the other, forgetting she tells me things is maybe more of a threat to my emotional well-being than I give it credit for, and I should reconsider my threat response here. 😉
In the big picture, the thing I know that I need to do is to be aware of when I’m in that mode and act accordingly. There can be some great benefits to hypervigilance and there can be some real downsides. If I’m aware of it, I can scan the environment as necessary without ignoring other important, but not dangerous, bits of information, and watch out for my own overreactions. I can consciously use the skill that I learned as a trauma survivor for my own good without it wrecking my day-to-day life or causing more anxiety.
It’s a tricky line to walk, and I’ll be the first to admit I don’t always do it so well. If I’m honest, I’ll even admit that being laid off has made this even harder. But I’m working on it. I hope you will too.
What has your experience been with hypervigilance? Do you see how it can be beneficial, and also when it gets you in trouble?