Hypervigilance refers to an excessive and sometimes obsessive awareness of one’s surroundings—often due to the belief that a person must be on the lookout for threatening situations and always planning possible escape routes. Hypervigilance is a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is one of the most disabling because the body and mind are not designed to operate in this perpetual state of high arousal.
Common Hypervigilance Triggers
Some Veterans with PTSD struggle with hypervigilance consistently, while others have specific situational triggers that make this symptom worse. Some of the most common include:
- Loud or sudden noises
- People arguing or behaving in an unpredictable fashion
- Crowded places
- Confined spaces
- Feeling overwhelmed by the expectations of others
- Feeling abandoned
- Flashbacks, nightmares, or reminders of the traumatic event
Signs of Hypervigilance
A Veteran experiencing hypervigilance may:
- Struggle to focus on conversations because they are always checking their surroundings
- Study people to see if they are concealing weapons
- Insist on always sitting near an exit
- Overreact in a hostile or aggressive way when someone behaves unexpectedly
- Avoid crowded or noisy environments
- Become personally offended or upset by the tone or facial expressions used by others
- Overanalyze situations and believe them to be worse than they are
- Seem restless and irritable
- Complain of profuse sweating, a racing heartbeat, or trouble breathing
- Have difficulty falling or staying asleep
Sleep difficulties can be one of the most problematic signs of hypervigilance since trouble sleeping can often increase hypervigilant behavior. This locks the Veteran into a cycle that can exacerbate all other PTSD symptoms.
The Relationship Between Hypervigilance and Substance Abuse
Veterans struggling with hypervigilance may turn to substance abuse to self-medicate their PTSD. However, this can cause even more harm. Hypervigilance can be made worse by drug abuse—particularly if a Veteran is abusing methamphetamines or cocaine. The impaired judgment and problem-solving skills associated with substance abuse can also create additional difficulties by eroding a Veteran’s sources of emotional support from friends and family.
Hypervigilance Isn’t Paranoia
Hypervigilance is often confused with paranoia, but there are subtle differences between the two behaviors. For example:
- People who are experiencing paranoia believe in threats that are specific and untrue. People experiencing hypervigilance do not believe there is a specific threat; they are merely on high alert looking for danger.
- People who are experiencing paranoia believe someone or something is trying to harm them in the present. People experiencing hypervigilance are on guard because they think something bad might be happening in the near future.
- People experiencing paranoia do not believe they are suffering from an illness. People experiencing hypervigilance typically know they have no objective reason to be afraid, but they still struggle to relax.
PTSD is more than combat stress. It is a serious mental health disorder requiring professional care.
If left untreated, the hypervigilance associated with PTSD can have a negative impact on a Veteran’s quality of life. In addition to causing severe sleep problems, it can interfere with a Veteran’s ability to work, socialize with friends and family, or enjoy favorite hobbies and activities.
Treatment options vary depending on individual needs, but typically include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or exposure therapy. Antidepressant or antianxiety medications may be recommended in some cases. Lifestyle modifications such as mindfulness meditation and deep breathing exercises can also be beneficial.
We Can Help You Get the Benefits You Need to Move Forward
If you’re a Veteran struggling with service-connected PTSD, VA disability benefits can provide access to medical and cash compensation. If your PTSD is severe enough to interfere with your ability to hold full-time employment, you may qualify for increased payments via Total Disability Individual Unemployability (TDIU) benefits.
VA disability law is complex, but you don’t have to go through this process alone. A Veteran's benefits attorney can help you access the benefits you’ve earned in service of your country. Call the office of Sean Kendall, Attorney-at-Law today to schedule a free, no-obligation initial consultation.