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Living with Hypervigilance, an exhausting state of awareness.

by Matt Pappas

Hypervigilance is something that many abuse survivors live with every day of their lives, and very common in those that suffer from PTSD. Of course it’s not limited only to abuse survivors; anyone who’s endured severe trauma can experience hyper-vigilance.

It’s also something that I personally battle on a regular basis.

Technically speaking, Hypervigilance* is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity, accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors who’s purpose is to detect threats.  In more common terms; it’s living in a constant state of high alert, high awareness, and increased anxiety. Being on the lookout for anything or anyone that could possibly turn out to be a threat, regardless of any realistic potential or not. A constant scanning of your surroundings and being on edge. While it’s not a diagnosis on strictly on it’s own, it is considered a symptom of PTSD and Anxiety Disorders.**

It’s not about being judgmental towards those around you, it’s about the trauma you experienced previously and hyper-awareness of your current situation to try and protect yourself.

This story is a day in the life of living with hypervigilance, as described during a recent day of jury duty. Be sure and check out the attached podcast as well, where I not only validate what living with hypervigilance is like, but also some ways that I use to help keep it in check and feel better.

It’s 8:35am as we continue to file into the waiting room, of prospective jurors. Well technically it’s called a Jury Assembly room but to me it was just a giant waiting room, minus anything at all to occupy your time.  Some are still putting themselves back together after being searched, run through security checks, and metal detectors at the court-house entrance.

Wait, haven’t I seen that guy before?

The masses that numbered close to 300 at the beginning of the week have steadily dwindled with each passing day. Those that are fortunate, or unfortunate depending on your point of view, to be selected for a jury panel are nowhere to be found among the general population. The rest of us meanwhile continue to sit and wait, finding ways to occupy ourselves by reading, playing cards, chatting, or taking a nap.

Hold on, is that footsteps coming up the aisle? How long has that lady been looking in my direction? What could she want?

The hours slowly tick by, another panel has passed me over…back to the waiting room I go.

“Oh, excuse me, I’m sorry”, he said as he brushed past me in the hall. I better keep an eye on him, I think to myself. 

It’s lunch now, and the hundred or so of us that are left quickly head for the door to grab some fresh air, go for a walk, or head down to the local market for something to eat. The small cliques that have formed all stick together even at lunch; the card players, the chatters, the farmers, the retired, the puzzle workers, all those with common ground search each other out each day. If one gets called to be on a panel, another wandering soul gets ushered in to the group and bonds are increasingly formed.

I wonder what they think all think when the chattering stops and a couple of them happen to look in my direction?

Break is soon over, which means back through security. “No cell phones, no food….Take off your belt, coat, all loose items, and place them in the tub”, the Sheriff’s bark repeatedly.

Why is he looking at me so hard, am I so different? Is he going to search me off to the side? Does he think I’m hiding something?  Wait, what’s that in that woman’s purse?!  “Oh, excuse me”, as the guy behind me inadvertently bumps into me. I’m startled for a second and then think, Wait have I seen that guy before, does he know me? Should I know him? I better keep an eye on him.

Back up stairs again, it’s time to hurry up and wait. The Tipstaff offers to play a movie to pass the time; it’s an older flick that I actually like but I’ll pass for now. Those so-called “chairs” could hardly be construed as anything even remotely comfortable.

Another 45 minutes pass, I’ve read a few chapters from a book on my Kindle, now I need to stretch and check things out for the umpteenth time. living with hypervigilance - exhausting but not hopelessBefore I walk around the room though I decide to hit the restroom, but just as I begin to push on the door it opens quickly from the other side and I jump out of my skin! The guy coming out smiles and chuckles, meanwhile my heart rate just hit mach 2 in about half a second!

Before existing the men’s room, I pause in an attempt to avoid the previous situation..Whew! Thank goodness nobody was coming that time. Crisis averted for now. 

Walking through the large room, I see some people aren’t in their same seats as before. There aren’t any assigned seats, but all week most people have gravitated towards the same general area or the exact same seat.

Why has she moved so far away from her previous seat? Did she not want to sit near me? Maybe she doesn’t like me, maybe she is talking about me to that other guy. I wonder if I should keep an eye on both of them?

Wait! Finally my number is called. I’ve made the semi-final cut for a case. As we line up in order, the guy behind me a  little too close for comfort. While seemingly  as unsure as the rest of us, it still makes me nervous. I’ll definitely keep an eye on him, you just never know!

Sitting in the court room now; why is the judge constantly looking in my direction. Is there something I should be concerned about? What do they know that I don’t, is it safe here? I don’t care if there are 2 Sheriffs sitting just across the way, something feels off. I should be perfectly fine here, after all it’s a courthouse right? Just relax man. 

The guy beside me brushes against my leg, and even though I didn’t jump, he is still on my watch list. Don’t touch me man, I think to myself. C’mon Matt, just relax man, keep your cool.

As the final panel is read aloud, I’m passed over yet again, and it’s back down to the assembly room with the other recycled jurors. The elevator is crowded, it’s small, and if we had to go any more than a few floors my claustrophobia would be kicking into high gear. Stop breathing on me man!! 

Back in the room, and I head to the small lounge area…Yes! a lounge chair is free! Now I have to quickly go grab it, but not look like I’m looking like I’m trying to quickly grab it. Just be nonchalant Matt, you got this.  Get that chair and then you can keep an eye on everyone and try to ease your mind.

I really don’t want this dude sitting across from me though, something about him is off. I don’t want to judge, but my spidey sense is tingling for some reason. Do I know him? Must just be the anxiety. Breathe Matt, you are safe. 

Tom, one of the Tipstaff calls us all back into the assembly room. Bad news, he says…no more movies for today. Good news, see you tomorrow morning! His statement is received with cheers and sighs of relief as we all head for the door. As the clique’s all exchange parting pleasantries, everyone is off to resume their daily lives.

Would these people say Hi to me if I ever saw them again? Should I say Hi to them, can I trust them? They seem nice enough, but…

I wonder if that same lounge chair will be available tomorrow, I wonder if that same guy will end up sitting across from me?

I hope that portrayal validated you if you feel the same way and live with hypervigilance.  I also encourage you to check out the podcast about this topic, where I expound upon this post and offer suggestions on how to deal with it. Listen right here in the post via the player above, or by clicking here. 



Pictures courtesy of Pixabay. Social media images created using Canva. 


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L Wool January 27, 2017 - 10:58 am

Although hypervigilance is nothing to laugh about, I’m kind of snickering as I read this, Matt! It truly is an unquestionably exhausting way to live daily life. I guess this is where meditation is proving to be so beneficial. When I get home from pretty much anywhere, the first thing I want to do is just sit and listen to some meditation. Thanks for posting ~ Lori

Anxiety makes you feel like you are going crazy. - Surviving My Past May 5, 2017 - 11:02 am

[…] Especially in recovery from abuse, there are countless situations that can cause feelings of panic. Just thinking of the trauma that you may have endured, no matter how long ago it may have been, can also stir up feelings of Hypervigilance; “who’s around me, what are they going to try to do, what’s going to happen next, will I be able to handle it, should I run away?” Read more on Hypervigilance here.  […]

Lynn June 13, 2017 - 11:42 am

Wow! I can totally relate to this. I had to start working a second job last year to help make ends meet. my first job is pretty solitary…accounting stuff. the second job is at Walmart. the first six months were awful. I know some people must think I am crazy. I have finally stopped jumping out of my skin when someone comes around the corner that I am not expecting, but the constant scanning while I’m trying to work really is so exhausting. I have those mental conversations all the time. “why is he looking at me.”, “is that person safe?”, “it’s ok, just relax.” I have made a lot of progress adjusting to the environment and I have become very adept at avoiding people I am not comfortable with, but I would love to be able to do my job without the hyper awareness.

Anxiety makes you feel like you are going crazy. – WALK THE TALK 999 December 3, 2019 - 2:14 am

[…] Especially in recovery from abuse, there are countless situations that can cause feelings of panic. Just thinking of the trauma that you may have endured, no matter how long ago it may have been, can also stir up feelings of Hypervigilance; “who’s around me, what are they going to try to do, what’s going to happen next, will I be able to handle it, should I run away?” Read more on Hypervigilance here.  […]


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