Merriam Webster Dictionary defines hyper-vigilance as, “the state of being highly or abnormally alert to potential danger or threat”. This is not to be confused with paranoia, “mental illness characterized by systematized delusions of persecution or grandeur usually without hallucinations”.
Normally hyper-vigilance is a term used when discussing PTSD or someone in a dangerous field of work; however, this term can also be used to describe those of us who experience anxiety disorders. On any typical day I am hyperaware of my surroundings and potential dangers that could be at play. My mind automatically thinks of the worst possible things that “could” happen, however highly unlikely. On a “good” day, I can allow those thoughts to flutter on by and shake them off as if they are just like any other thought. On my hard days, however, it’s not quite as easy.
My hard days often include: racing thoughts, constant “what ifs”, tense muscles, exhaustion, feeling “on edge”, irritability, and headaches. Most days are fairly “good” now, thanks to social support, medications, and therapy. Throw in a global pandemic, however, and my hard days have become my new normal again.
No matter how much I try to relax, turn off the news, or unwind, I constantly feel on edge these days. My shoulders creep up towards my ears, tensed. My stomach is always in knots, and I often sigh deeply just to get enough air, as I realize that I have been holding my breath. It feels as though I’m just waiting. Waiting for symptoms of the virus to HIT me out of nowhere, never knowing when it will strike. I am hypervigilant. Are you?
Hypervigilance isn’t always like you see on the movies. Sure, it can appear as constantly flinching at loud noises and acting out in irritability; however, I want you to know that a lot of the time, the battle of hypervigilance is within, unnoticeable to those around us and maybe even unrecognized by the person themselves.
My battle with hyper-vigilance is within. It’s a constant battle between fearing the worst, and feeling guilt and shame for not having enough faith. It’s not typically an outward struggle (unless illness is involved and then suddenly I’m washing my hands to the point of sores, wiping everything down with alcohol, and having a panic attack nearly every time I leave my house). It’s something that most people don’t notice. This is why it is so important that we check in on our friends during this unprecedented time. Even if our friends may not have a diagnosed mental illness like anxiety or depression, ALL of us are feeling the uncertainty and sometimes even the hyper-vigilance going on in the world right now.
Clinical Psychologist Karen Cassiday stated in an article by the Chicago Tribune, “The thing that makes the coronavirus difficult for people with anxiety is the level of uncertainty,” she said. “We know that when there’s uncertainty, then people with anxiety disorders try and narrow down the field of uncertainty to assume the worst-case scenario.” I would add to that and say that we are not merely trying to “narrow down the field of uncertainty” but we want answers. We want reassurance. We want to know the facts to know that we will be okay.
Moukaddam and Shah state, “Although the effects of the coronavirus on mental health have not been systematically studied, it is anticipated that COVID-19 will have rippling effects, especially based on current public reactions.” We are already seeing the effects of social distancing on those we love. Staying home, sometimes alone, is bound to lead to loneliness in most people. What we fail to recognize is the effects that this pandemic is having and will continue to have on individuals for years to come in regards to anxiety.
If you think about it, most of the world is experiencing hyper-vigilance right now. Please be intentional about reaching out to those you love. Be intentional about sharing how you are feeling about this pandemic. Be intentional about caring for yourself. Be intentional about putting your faith in God. Be intentional about having fun. If you do those things, the hyper-vigilance may not completely disappear, but it will help to know that you are not alone in this.
As a person of faith, I know that anything can happen any second of any day. I know that life could end instantly. I know that no human has any control over anything in this world, yet, my mind constantly fights for any sense of control. And that’s exactly what it is… a fight. A fight between faith in a God who loves me and is trustworthy, and my selfish, fearful, perfectionistic human nature.
I’ve had several people tell me throughout my life, but especially recently to “trust God and give it over to Him because He’s in control.” I know they mean well, but they aren’t telling me something that I don’t already know. I know that God is the only one in control. I know that I can trust him. I know that He is good. It’s not a matter of lack of faith or belief in those things, at least I don’t think it is. I appreciate the reminder, and sometimes it is helpful to be reminded of those truths, but it’s not a cure-all for my struggle, no matter how much I want it to be. God can and does bring me peace in the sense that: I know that He is with me, He will never leave my side, I am loved by Him, and no matter what happens, He’s got this. But that doesn’t always calm my racing thoughts, tense body, and emotions. Sometimes those truths do calm my mind and body, but most times they don’t.
Please know that if someone you love is really struggling with the way things are going right now in the world, just be a listening ear. Acknowledge their fears, talk through them, and if they are believers, pray WITH them, remind them of God’s love and goodness without dismissing their inner turmoil. Chances are if they are a devout follower of Jesus Christ, like myself, and struggle with their mental health, they KNOW God is in control, but they need love, gentleness and to know they are not alone or going “crazy”. Let’s stay home, wash our hands and be there for each other in ways we never knew we needed to be.
Thank you for reading my rambles.
If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out. The resources below would be glad to help you through this.
NAMI HelpLine, please call 800-950-NAMI (6264), Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., ET, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – For youth and adults
(800) 273-TALK (8255)