Mental Health Education,  Support

Hyperarousal, Hyper-vigilance, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

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Have you ever overreacted?

Like, have you ever been in a situation where emotions seem to take over? Where you reacted based on the way you felt in the moment rather than on logic?

Of course! We all have! It’s part of being human!

But what happens when your overreaction gauge seems to be stuck in the “on position?”

Ask yourself, have you ever gotten upset over something which seems small to others but is a huge deal to you? Do you avoid certain places and people because it’s too much for you emotionally? Do you jump ten feet in the air when you hear loud bangs?

If this sounds like you and you’ve recently (or even not so recently) been through a traumatic event, you might be experiencing a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder called Hyperarousal.

Read on to learn more.

Trauma and Hyperarousal

For some people, like myself, the effects of trauma (CPTSD and PTSD) still exist long after the event. That can include the inability to accurately scale a reaction to a situation at hand because of certain triggers.

It’s something called Hyperarousal which is actually a normal reaction during a trauma. When faced with a threatening situation, your body naturally increases Epinephrine (adrenaline) so you have the power to fight or fly if need be.

It becomes a symptom of PTSD, however, when your body gets stuck overproducing adrenaline and underproducing cortisol (adrenaline’s natural balance) at least a month after the event.

This can make it seem like you’re overreacting to small random things from the outside looking in. But inside, you’re just trying to survive the traumatic event over and over again.

So what does that feel like?

HYperArousal Leads to Hyper-Vigilance

For me, this Hyperarousal felt like being on pins and needles 100% of the time. Like I was an exposed nerve ending someone kept blowing on. I never seemed to get a good night’s rest and when I did sleep, I was subject to horrific bouts of sleep paralysis.

To others, I was sensitive, moody, a little paranoid and overwhelmed by lots of little things. It was hard to get close to me because I was always on guard. This is where another symptom of PTSD called Hyper-vigilance came into play.

Basically, Hyper-vigilance means I’m ultra alert to anything that could be a threat. For me, the threat comes in the form of intimate relationships, which as we all know, are particularly hard triggers to avoid!

To give you an idea of what that means, let me tell you a little bit of my story:

Something was not quite right

It all started with an emotionally abusive relationship that seriously damaged my trust in any future romantic partners.

Flash forward to years later. I’m married to my wonderful husband. But something’s not quite right.

Every time his phone goes off, a sense of dread fills my body. If his mood changes even the slightest bit, I’m instantly in detective mode to figure out what’s wrong. Whenever he’s out without me, I have a panic attack.

Luckily, this relationship is nothing like my last one. But because of the PTSD I incurred, I’m treating the two men like the same person in order to keep myself safe every time I get triggered.

Triggers

For me, my husband’s phone was (and still sometimes is) a trigger. A trigger can be anything that reminds someone with PTSD of the traumatic event. Triggers have this incredible power to throw you right back into the thick of trauma without having to actually be there.

Which is a pretty unnerving experience – I can go from calm, strong and confident one moment to an almost child-like, fear-based state the next, all because of a cellphone ring. I literally fall apart.

Triggers are so insidious because they can literally be anything. They could be familiar sights, sounds, smells, feelings, situations, places or even people that remind you of the trauma.

And often there’s no warning to when they’ll pop up.

Moving Forward from PTSD

So what can you do then? How do you find safety when everywhere you turn looks like danger?

You can do a number of things like avoiding your triggers completely or facing them head on. Or you can learn to live with them. There’s actually no wrong answer, just whatever you’re capable of doing to survive in the moment is fine.

However, if you do feel like you’re ready to move forward here are some things that have worked for me as I struggled through the effects of PTSD.

  1. Know that recovery is possible. Even though it can and does persist for a very long time (especially without proper treatment), PTSD is actually fairly curable with the correct intervention. Knowing that I can recover one day has helped me during some of the toughest parts of treatment.
  2. Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy can be extremely helpful to people struggling with PTSD as well as OCD, phobias, and other anxiety disorders. It’s basically a therapy approach where a counselor can (safely) desensitize you to your greatest fears. It’s worked wonders on my PTSD and my OCD.
  3. Better out than in is a good rule to live by. The more you hold your emotions inside the longer the PTSD will be able to rule supreme. That’s why it’s important to find a release. Emotional outlets like journaling, singing, athletic movement, screaming (not at other people), dancing, yoga, crying, or a combination of coping skills are all extremely helpful in your recovery from PTSD.

Wrap Up

If there’s one big thing I’ve learned from living with PTSD, it’s to go easy on myself. For the longest time, I considered my overreactions a personality flaw. I though I was weak and should just toughen up.

We all know that couldn’t be further from the truth. If you’re dealing with Hyperarousal, Hyper-vigilance or any other symptoms of PTSD, it’s 100% not your fault. It’s just your brain getting stuck in over-drive while it tries to protect you.

Be kind to yourself as you work through the symptoms towards health. You can get there with a little help from therapy, good support, and self compassion, I know it <3

Much Love,

MB

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Mad as Hell Mental Health Rights Advocate. Likes margaritas, long walks on the beach, and JUSTICE.

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