Do You Constantly Scan Your Relationships for Emotional Threats? It's Called Hypervigilance, and it's Exhausting.

How to reign in this prehistoric reflex.

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Do You Constantly Scan Your Relationships for Emotional Threats? It's Called Hypervigilance, and it's Exhausting. 

I spent my entire childhood orbiting my mother on a hypervigilant 24-hour watch, ensuring she wouldn’t disappear into thin air, accidentally cross the street on red and get hit by a car, or forget she had a family and move to another country while we were sleeping.

This is why I slept in her bedroom for years—well past an appropriate age— jarred awake by the slightest rustle of a bedsheet. I am anxiously attached in the language of attachment theory, which states that the care given to babies by their primary caregiver influences how they’ll attach to their relationships as adults.

The circumstances into which we are born and the conditions in which we are raised create the blueprint for all future interactions and patterns of engagement and connection.

Not long after I was born, my parents separated and then divorced.

Perhaps that’s why connecting with people I love is intertwined with the threat of imminent loss. Who knows? Whatever the case, something triggered my genetic predisposition for anxiety, and it flourished under the guidance of hypervigilance.

Hypervigilance itself is not a mental health condition. Instead, it’s a symptom associated with various mental health disorders, including PTSD, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and mood disorders.

To be hypervigilant means to be on high alert and prone to overreaction.

It is being primed for danger, ready to run or hide immediately, even sitting at dinner with friends and loved ones.

When anxious people feel that their attachments are threatened, they can grow hypervigilant about all their attachments.

Mary Cassatt

As children, survival depends upon the caretaker’s survival, and an anxious baby will be constantly alert for confirmation that their caretaker is alive. I was constantly scanning my environment for threats that might separate me from my mother, thinking that my hypervigilance and its accompanying worry would prevent her death, or my own, from whatever trauma might tear us apart.

As I grew and changed, this aspect of me remained the same; it simply attached and organized itself around different relationships.

Hypervigilance of this sort is a survival instinct, and to live inside of it is to remain emotionally dysregulatedSUCH JOY.

To live in modern society is to exist in a constant state of bombardment. We’re inundated by information, stimulus, and the mistaken belief that filling time is more important than experiencing it.

Because of the demands of contemporary life, we cannot truly digest responses as a whole or move through a complete experience. Many of us exist in a half-digested life. This keeps us stuck in an unfinished loop, and it’s there, in the interruption, the halfway point, that hypervigilance lives.

Without a way to move through this heightened state of arousal by self-regulating, we are often left to reach for something to numb or manage our emotions—including self-medicating, self-harm, or disordered eating.

When hypervigilant children grow up and edge out into the world, they scan their environment for things that signal whether or not they are safe.

In all relationships, but especially romantic ones, they are highly attuned to emotional and physical absences, anything that signals disconnection or feels dangerous, like neglect or exclusion, any small shifts that telegraph such a change.

These slights feel threatening, and the hypervigilant scanner, upon sensing they are being neglected or excluded (or whatever emotional signal they're most sensitive to), feels they need to protect themselves at whatever cost.

They either cling to the person they feel is disconnecting or flee.

The hypervigilant is overly aware of the body language, actions, tones, and behaviors of their loved ones. 

They can analyze things into oblivion, turning something innocuous into something dangerous. Their anxiety is finely calibrated to the sound of abandonment or hurt, and it tricks them into believing that scanning for possible hurts and analyzing said hurts will protect them from being hurt to death.

People with trauma and mental health issues who have had to battle their way through life are highly intuitive, sensitive, and exquisitely empathetic. This makes being hypervigilant even more exhausting. As Feist sang, “I [We] feel it all.”

Why do some people operate in hypervigilance while others operate at the other extreme—excessive self-reliance and independence? There are many ways to answer this; it depends on your chosen lens.

The alertness of the hypervigilant is evolutionary.

We know that adverse childhood experiences can lead to hypervigilance (among many other symptoms) and that hypervigilance is a trauma response, but let’s go further back and look at the roots of the hypervigilance response.

As hirsute prehistoric creatures, we ran in small packs to forage for mushrooms, seeds, and other food, and we were always on guard. While we were out looking for food, so were giant ground sloths, mastodons, sabertooth cats, dire wolves, and bears—and we were their food.

Our survival instinct was highly attuned, and the quietest rustle of a leaf signaled a threat. Upon receiving that signal, our bodies release hormones, triggering a physical change and priming us to fight or flee.

Heritage Images / Getty

Here’s what that chain of command looks like in the brain: When someone experiences a stressful event, it activates the amygdala, which is responsible for our emotions and memories. We have an amygdala on either side of our brain (trivia nerds: they look like almonds). While we often refer to the amygdala as our "fear center," its job is to detect the emotional resonance of all stimuli and all strong emotions: is it joyful, fearful, stressful, or enthralling?

It is also the seat of the fight or flight response. When the amygdala receives a trigger for fear, it sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus in the command center. The hypothalamus yells for the sympathetic nervous system to step on the gas, which it does, triggering the fight-or-flight response.

(You can also think of it like this: someone breaks into your house (fear), you hear the intruder and are startled awake (amygdala), you call the cops (hypothalamus), they call dispatch (sympathetic nervous system), the cops arrive at your house, ready to shoot or be shot (fight or flight.))

This automatic stress response and the corresponding physiological changes kept us (and keep us) alive. They, therefore, served us well, but now, millions of years later, our brains haven’t evolved as quickly as the world around us, and we are still operating as though we are prey.

The fight-or-flight response is part of a primitive and ancient system still living in prehistoric times. Our brains don't know the difference between a physical threat caused by a charging Mastodon or an emotional threat caused by a fight.

This is why when we worry, feel stress, or fear, our bodies can react like we’re in physical danger and flood us with adrenaline and cortisol.

Yet, in situations without a clear and present danger, the adrenaline and cortisol of the fight or flight response have nowhere to turn but into anxiety.

To be constantly on guard is to operate purely on survival instinct, which is exhausting—for everyone.

As an adult, hypervigilantes often behave like detectives in their romantic relationships, looking for clues to ensure that no one has suddenly changed their minds about them or is cheating.

Suppose we find ourselves excessively worrying over the dynamics of our relationship, obsessing over every behavioral cue, and analyzing body language that might foretell impending disconnection. In that case, we are being hypervigilant in our relationships.

When we are truly hypervigilant, we are trapped inside a feeling of chronic dread. This is an unbearable experience that often finds us short of breath and feeling extremely vulnerable.

Dread and terror feel very similar, and when these feelings overcome us, it's challenging, if not impossible, to form close relationships with others. Those who live with hypervigilance tend to isolate rather than experience the terror of the dread.

When I am in a relationship, and something happens that triggers that horrifying dread, I assume the message it's sending me is to run from the relationship.

This, of course, elicits even more dread, and suddenly I’m paralyzed. But I learned recently that we often (and almost always) misunderstand what our dread is trying to tell us. Usually, it’s not telling us we need to leave; it’s telling us that something is happening in our relationship that we don't like, and we need to communicate.

For those who suffer from anxiety, having to communicate is an extremely anxiety-producing prospect, but compared to having to leave a relationship, it’s a lot easier and doable. Identifying what our dread is trying to tell us can help tame our hypervigilance, and learning how to communicate what the dread is trying to tell us will help our relationships.

Chronic dread is often a symptom of panic disorder. It also shows up in people suffering from depression and anxiety and is very prevalent in those experiencing symptoms of PTSD. When you feel it, it’s a good idea to breathe through it, either with someone you trust or on your own. I like the 4-7-8 breathing method for dread.

Often, we can identify what the dread is trying to tell us because it tends to flare immediately, telling us what it doesn’t like. Your partner did something, and the dread activated. What did your partner do? Look at what led up to the feelings of dread to put your finger on what caused it.


Hypervigilance and the corresponding dread that comes with it is an unconscious process, and like all unconscious processes, it takes conscious effort to dismantle it.

My first line of defense may not be appealing to many, but it helps me if I can trace the feeling back to the trigger so that I can understand why I am in the hypervigilant state I’m in or why I’m suddenly filled with dread. Once I can find the root cause, I can figure out what's bothering me, label the trigger “Not scary,” and mentally file it away.

However, there are other effective ways to deal with chronic hypervigilance. One way is through EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy. This technique allows your brain to introduce and integrate traumatic memories so that they get properly processed and are no longer as distressful.

Neurofeedback Therapy teaches you how to relax your brain and nervous system. Over time, this method teaches your brain to respond differently to overwhelming things and heal.

Meditation, or deep breathing, is also really helpful in calming down your sympathetic nervous system. Hypervigilance keeps us in a consistent state of high alert, and deep, long breathing signals to our parasympathetic system (our in-house nurse) that we’re ready to be calm. My favorite meditations can be found here.

Somatic Experiencing Therapy and Internal Family Systems (often called "Parts Therapy") are excellent modalities for hypervigilance. Somatic Experiencing can help you in the moments of hypervigilance when you are overcome by the sense that your dread will kill you.

You learn in these therapies that we are every age we've ever been. When we've experienced trauma as young people, we become stuck inside the trauma at the age it happened. So, our present reaction to an emotional experience is usually a past trauma response that we mistake for our feelings in the present.

One method is to recognize that the part of you responding to the threat is not you currently but you of the past.

The version of you at age 3, 6, or 9 who first felt the trauma that led to the hypervigilance and dread but who cannot articulate what she feels, knowing only that it feels like her existence is at stake.

That’s the feeling that remains, and if we can learn to identify and recognize that the person who has shown up to declare that we feel dread is a younger version of us, reporting on the same feeling but from a different experience, we can start to distinguish between what feels true and what is happening.

The experience of feeling disconnected is frightening, and the act of being hypervigilant is a maladaptive way of guarding against our fear of separation.

Recognizing hypervigilance as a symptom of feeling emotionally dysregulated is a great starting point. It’s not who we are; it’s simply an ancient response doing what it was programmed to do, and until we explain to our hypervigilance that its time here has run its course and it’s time to find a new line of work, it will continue.

It's hard work but worth it. It's always always worth it.

And you? Are you a scanner? Where do you find yourself scanning most—in your romantic relationships or elsewhere?

If you’d like to dive deeper into this topic and conquer dread in yourself and any children, this workshop is for you!

Thank you for reading.

Until next week, I remain…


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Nope, I am not a licensed therapist or medical professional. I am simply a person who struggled with undiagnosed mental health issues for over two decades and spent 23 years in therapy learning how to live. Now, I'm sharing the best of what I learned to spare others from needless suffering.

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