Hypervigilance and C-PTSD: Why is it so hard for me to let go?
I’m that lady now holding on to the handle as a passenger in fright while someone is driving.
On a bike ride following behind my family, I am terrorized by feelings of panic as I picture them crashing before my eyes.
I am a cautious driver, but sometimes overly cautious, feeling like everywhere I turn could be a potential accident.
I sound fun to be around, huh?
I swear it’s gotten worse as I’ve grown older, but I’ve always had a hard time letting loose and letting go. I guess that’s where alcohol and drugs came in. I could finally relax and stop catastrophizing my life. Thinking and constantly worrying about the worst-case scenarios that could potentially happen (or not).
For years I tried medication to calm my anxious thinking. It was almost like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but for catastrophes—always needing to be ready for the earthquake, accident, or tragedy.
I didn’t know why I lived this way, but over time I am learning more about how brains work and how our bodies react to too much stimuli. We are under a lot of pressure these days and life comes at us, doesn’t it? It is relentless sometimes and at times it’s hard to catch my breath.
I have learned some about our adrenal glands and cortisol (the stress hormone) and how after a while they can misfire and see things that aren’t really dangerous as life-threatening.
Our bodies are smart and they want to save us from danger. Think caveman times. But nowadays we probably don’t need the same survival instincts. Could someone let my brain know that I am okay to chill out?
All of the caffeine people drink and artificial foods aren’t a big help to our ramped-up systems, so for me, a few years ago I had to say goodbye to caffeine. It just caused my already anxious mind and heart to pitter-patter faster than it needed. Trust me, I loved my coffee—it just wasn’t worth amping up my nervous system when I knew I needed to find the peace and calm I desperately craved. I wanted a serene life. I wanted to feel peaceful. I needed to give my adrenals a rest.
I stopped eating artificial and processed foods. I switched to a whole-food, plant-based diet. I meditated. I did more yoga. I journaled more and talked to my higher power. I started to find that connection between my head and my heart that had felt miles apart.
I asked myself what I needed. I spent time exercising, but not breaking my neck this time in classes with loud thumping music and instructors shouting at me to go faster and lift heavier; this time more contemplative workouts while I listened to a meditation or music that spoke to my soul.
I started to connect to my inner child (or children) and apologize to them for all of the times I was just running to avoid feeling. I apologized for not wanting to feel, and instead, trying to control my environment and the people around me so that I felt safe. In doing that I felt the opposite of safe and the catastrophizing made it hard to shut my brain off.
Hypervigilance is real and we owe it to ourselves to get to the root of why we react the way we do to situations. I no longer want to think of all the things that can go wrong. I want to start focusing on all of the things that can go right. Our brains are powerful and imagine if all of my negative attention went to something more optimistic and hopeful. Imagine if I had faith that everything would be okay, that I could trust and relax. That no matter what happens I will have the tools to deal with it at the time.
Better Help has this to say about Hypervigilance:
“When you struggle with hypervigilance, your mind is constantly telling you to look out for danger. You enter a room and always make sure to notice the exits. A slight change in someone’s tone puts you on edge, sudden movements and noises get your heart racing, you’re constantly checking to see if anyone’s behind you. Going through a traumatic event can leave us feeling like we can never let our guard down again. But you deserve to be able to enjoy life without the exhaustion of feeling you always need to protect yourself. Exploring new coping strategies can help you manage your fears in ways that support your long-term health and well-being.”
I definitely know what it feels like to be in fight or flight for an ongoing period of time. I have social anxiety before doing something new, but over time I have learned to talk my brain and body through new situations and have learned to take deep breaths and stay calm instead of having a big emotional reaction.
I no longer stuff the emotions, but I give them a safe place to be heard. I am learning more and more about my reactions and where they stem from. I grew up in a hostile environment and needed to walk on eggshells. I no longer live in that environment and haven’t for 30 years. Thankfully. I still suffer from the anxiety of that environment though and it left a permanent imprint on my psyche.
Learning more about C-PTSD has helped me immensely to understand why I react the way I do when I feel threatened or unsafe—why I am always on high alert.
This is an important topic that sometimes gets brushed under the rug by therapists (at least it did for me). I was always prescribed medication or just did talk therapy, but I think I would have benefited from trauma work and learning about the effects of growing up with a lack of safety.
What is complex PTSD?
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD, sometimes abbreviated to c-PTSD or C-PTSD) is a condition where you experience some symptoms of PTSD along with some additional symptoms, such as:
>> difficulty controlling your emotions
>> feeling very angry or distrustful towards the world
>> constant feelings of emptiness or hopelessness
>> feeling as if you are permanently damaged or worthless
>> feeling as if you are completely different to other people
>> feeling like nobody can understand what happened to you
>> avoiding friendships and relationships, or finding them very difficult
It’s okay to ask for help if you feel you need it. We don’t need to live in shame. Facing these facets of ourselves makes it so much easier for us to live amongst the people in this world. Facing our fears and stepping out in Faith will be a huge step in the right direction for our recovery.
As always I wish you the best on your healing journey and would love to hear from you in the comments.