Hypervigilance: What You Should Know
Vigilance is, as defined by Webster’s, “1. Keenly watchful to detect danger; wary; and 2. Ever awake and alert; sleeplessly watchful.” Hypervigilance is an even more acute state of being super aware, to the point where nothing else in life matters. When someone is hyper vigilant about someone or something, that person does not and cannot think of or do anything else but stand guard and on the lookout for what they fear the most, whether that is a person, or event, or group such as the government or the authorities.
Hypervigilance and Mental Illness
Hypervigilance is a common symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). People suffering from PTSD have been so traumatized by an event or series of events that they become hyper vigilant about detecting future events of the same kind as if they could prevent it from happening. It is the fear of the traumatic event happening to them again that keeps them on constant lookout, often times to the point of paranoia. People living with PTSD are not the only patients who are hyper vigilant about certain things. One of the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder is a heightened sense of anxiety during the manic part of the manic depressive cycle. This hyper mania can go hand in hand with Hypervigilance, particularly in cases where the patient’s Bipolar Disorder is not well controlled by medication. Another group of patients that suffer the same symptoms are those living with Social Anxiety Disorder. They live in constant fear of being socially ostracized or embarrassed to the point that they become hyper vigilant about staying inside their homes, too traumatized to risk being humiliated in public. This degree of anti-social behavior is all anxiety and fear based, and can be especially prevalent if the symptoms of the underlying mental illness are not being treated properly with medication.
Hypervigilance and Drug Abuse
Another category of patients in which Hypervigilance is present are those whose brains have been fed mind-altering drugs. Cocaine, crack cocaine and meth are some examples of drugs that can cause or worsen hyper vigilant behavior. People suffering from addiction to these drugs are often hyper vigilant as a side effect, i.e. keeping their drugs hidden, obtaining drugs for future use and avoiding detection or arrest for possession by law enforcement. Drug addicts often exhibit this hyper awareness to extreme levels, to the point of sheer fear and paranoia. This hyper awareness is partially an effect of the drug itself, and partly in the mind of the user which is used to being fed the drug and cannot bear the thought of having to live without it. Drug users are shackled by addiction and make nearly every decision based on whether they can get high again or not.
Hypervigilance and Violence
Someone who is obsessed with guns and violence can be susceptible to Hypervigilance, to the point that they have convinced themselves that it is their duty to carry out certain tasks. They are convinced that because they have access to a weapon that it is their responsibility to be on “the lookout” for threats. The threat could be the government, or law enforcement, or even people of other races. In recent events, a young African American male named Treyvon Martin was targeted, shot and killed by a man named George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman was part of his “neighborhood watch,” and took that position to the extreme by carrying a gun. He was showing signs of Hypervigilance when he targeted the unarmed teenaged Treyvon Martin, confronted him, shot and killed the boy who had nothing on him but a package of Skittles. George Zimmerman was allowed to walk, having convinced a jury that he shot only in self-defense. Zimmerman has been arrested and detained more than once since Treyvon’s death for domestic violence and threatening to shoot his female partner. People with a propensity for violence believe that acting on hyper vigilant impulses is their right and their duty, but the reality is that this attraction to violence and violent behavior is an illness in itself. This is where the term “vigilante” comes from. George Zimmerman is every bit a hyper vigilant narcissist, a vigilante, and accused of being a racist one at that.
Being in a hyper state of mind of any kind is highly uncomfortable for the patient. It is often the cause of agitation, insomnia, panic attacks, heart attacks, hypertension, and the list goes on. Adding drugs or homelessness or poverty into the equation puts both the patient and potential victims at risk. The public’s awareness of mental illness is very poor. There is a staunch stigma attached to mental illness in this country to the point that people who are suffering are quietly shunned, ignored, and swept under the rug by the system when they come seeking help. We should want people who are suffering to come out and ask for help. We should be willing to do what it takes to get them help. But if they are too scared of being locked up or mistreated or not empathized with then they will never trust in the system to help them. What they will do is continue to make news headlines. Did you know that on average there has been one school shooting per week since the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut? Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter who killed twenty children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School was suffering from mental illness, as was his mother with whom he lived and from whom he obtained the guns used in the shootings.
There have been so many school shootings and mass murders in the last year that the FBI is training teachers defense tactics to protect the children in their care. Companies are selling products like bullet proof backpacks and Kevlar mats for children to take to school to be more protected. The violence is out of control, or as President Obama has stated, “violence (school shootings and mass murders) have become the norm.” Andrew Solomon wrote an article recently for the New Yorker titled The Reckoning that brings to light the role that mental illness played in these acts of violence, and reiterates why it is so important to address mental illness proactively and constructively and getting people the help they need before tragedy strikes. If you or someone you know is showing signs of Hypervigilance, you have a responsibility to pay attention to that as a possible warning sign. Do they show other signs of mental dysfunction? Are they anxious about every day, non-threatening things? Do they talk obsessively about defending themselves against a known or unknown attacker? These are all signs that there could be an underlying mental illness that may manifest itself in hyper vigilant behaviors. People who are mentally ill are the most difficult to get treatment for, because ironically, a symptom of many mental illnesses is believing that the patient is the normal one and that everyone else is sick or out to get them.
What is America Doing to Protect You?
The Obama administration, the President himself, has sworn, given his word that he and the US government are going to do whatever it takes to address the topic of mental illness and its relationship to mass violence. One measure that has been taken is the mental health parity act in which the Affordable Care Act (ACA aka Obamacare) is addressing mental health with renewed energy and resources. The goal of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) is to make certain that anyone diagnosed with a mental health or addiction has the opportunity to receive the same insurance and health care benefits as any other non-psychiatric disease or disorder. Before the MHPAEA, doctors’ visits and copays were different or limited to a certain number of visits per year, making the treatment of those with mental illness more complicated than any other type of illness. The MHPAEA along with the ACA is paving an easier road for patients with mental illness, making it easier than ever to seek and get reliable care for their illness. This was a giant step forward for Healthcare in the US.
How to React to Hypervigilance
If you are close to someone exhibiting signs of Hypervigilance, it could be a warning that something deeper is wrong with them. If they are mentally ill and not receiving treatment, or abusing drugs, be warned, they could be dangerous. But turning a blind eye and doing nothing is not the answer. There are hotlines you can call if you or someone you are close to needs help. These hotlines are listed on HealthyPlace.com and help is readily available. Services are provided by such organizations as NAMI, the National Alliance of Mental Illness and MHA, Mental Health America just to name a few. And they are listed by State which makes finding assistance for you or someone you know even easier. These hotlines are meant to be a safe place to call. The professionals on the other end of the line are dedicated to helping anyone and everyone who needs mental health support and care, without stigma, or judgment. Many of the resources they provide are free of charge for those without insurance or who cannot pay. The Obama administration has promised to and has made great strides and progress when it comes to addressing and caring for the mental health of US citizens. Getting help has never been easier, and you may be saving someone’s life by taking action. It is something to consider.