Hypervigilance after domestic violence.

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What is hypervigilance and why is it a thing after abuse?

Any kind of abuse is a trauma, and trauma leads to a plethora of symptoms, one of which is hypervigilance. This is described as an elevated state of constantly assessing potential threats around you.

Hypervigilance can feel like constantly checking your surroundings to ensure there is no threat, overreacting to loud noises, being easily startled by seemingly safe noises, people and situations. In an abusive relationship you become attuned to certain things, the sound of the abuser’s car pulling up, the sound of a key in a lock, the sound of footsteps, the tone of someone’s voice, micro expressions that could indicate that an unsafe situation is about to occur and you cannot switch them off, even when the threat has seemingly passed.

This is exhausting.

You may find yourself constantly checking that doors are locked (I still do). You may wake in the night thinking you have heard a noise and it causes panic with a pounding heart, sweating, fast breathing and these reactions are normal when you have been traumatised.

I have a dog who is hypervigilant (and she barks a lot), she is my early warning system. If I wake up in a panic thinking I have heard a noise, if the dog is not growling or barking then I have learned (over time) to feel safe. Of course, it’s frustrating when it’s just the milk delivery person dropping off our milk at the front door but I would rather feel safe.

If you are experiencing hypervigilance after trauma and abuse, there are some things you can do to help alleviate the symptoms. This is your nervous system preparing you fight or flight, all your nervous system knows how to do is keep you alive and it does not have the capacity to think. What you need to do is override it with thinking and the first step is to remember to breathe. Create that space between stimulus and response so that you can rationalise the response you do give.

  1. Breathe
  2. Take slow, deep breaths to regulate the air entering and leaving your body
  3. Ground yourself, feel where you are in time and space, look for something to anchor your attention
  4. Keep breathing those long, slow breaths
  5. Tell yourself that you are physically safe, the threat is not with you now, this is a trigger, a warning to be ready
  6. Once your breathing is under control your heartrate will return to a normal level along with your blood pressure
  7. Be mindful that nervous system activation is accompanied by the release of hormones that get you ready for fight or flight and these can take some time to leave your body
  8. Sugar helps to calm the shakes after an adrenalin surge so a biscuit or sweet cup of tea or coffee can help
  9. Do something calming until the feeling passes – breathing, stretches, scrolling through your phone, playing a game, doing a wordsearch

If hypervigilance is something that is encroaching on your daily life and the symptoms are feeling unmanageable then reach out for support. You CAN heal from trauma and abuse.

~ Lisa

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© Lisa Furnish

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