Hypervigilance Is Exhausting — Here's How To Protect Your Energy While Staying Safe

Doctor of Clinical Psychology By Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach who received her clinical psychology doctorate from University College London. She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, Business Insider, and elsewhere.
A profile of a young curly girl performed in long exposure

You're tired of hearing this. We are living in strange times. And strange times mean that we do things we aren't used to. We're spending energy worrying about things we've never had to worry about, such as how to keep a safe distance from someone in a supermarket or whether there'll be enough toilet paper. Then we also take on others' worries—anxiety is a pandemic of its own. 

So let's get real. As things stand, we have less energy to deal with the daily demands of life, let alone with playing it by ear as the situation evolves. We're uncertain whether we really need to wear masks, how airborne the new coronavirus really is, or what kind of sanitizer is the most useful. 

The psychology of why hypervigilance is so exhausting.

To begin with, the brain is wired to notice and remember threats and negative things. That's how we survive.

But everything feels like a threat right now. Who knows what that person walking close to us has? And what if we're in a country where failing to social distance can get us fined or prosecuted? That adds an additional layer of worry, meaning more energy incinerated. We're also on the lookout for whether we will have enough supplies in the shops, wondering whether that sneeze came from contact with dust or the virus, or whether our jobs are safe. 

This is what we mean by hypervigilance—we're ever-conscious of threats.

While we may believe we're merely preempting risks and therefore being prudent, the truth is that this hypervigilance can actually train our brains to see danger where it doesn't exist. Our threat detector starts to work overtime, and the world starts to feel like an extremely dangerous place.

Naturally, your fatigue levels are proportionately high.

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How to avoid exhaustion from hypervigilance.

Vigilance is healthy. Hypervigilance is not. It's one of the first things we work with in trauma because when your brain and body are always looking out for threats and perceiving danger where none exists, it means one does not feel psychologically safe. To strike a healthy balance, reflect on these questions regularly:

1. Have you adjusted your habits to prioritize safety?

Do you wash your hands (correctly), wear masks, use sanitizer, or change your clothes when you get home? Making fewer grocery runs, choosing less busy times to shop, or opting for contactless delivery? If so, you've got good safety habits already in place, and you're following the guidelines fully. There's no need to continue to scrutinize every situation for more things you could be doing differently.

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2. What's your psychological immunity like?

Are you eating and sleeping well and doing things to rejuvenate your immune system? Have you learned how to handle anxiety (tip: breathwork can do that almost instantly), or do you sweep everything under the carpet? What unhealthy thought patterns are you training and entertaining? These are all part of building your psychological immunity.

3. What can you do when you feel tempted to go into hypervigilance mode?

When your brain is on hyper-alert, your head will feel like a tornado. It's in these moments—when you're touching the nasty communal pen to sign your receipt at the grocery store, or someone is walking way too close to you on the sidewalk—that you have to return to your body to avoid being swept away by anxiety.

The Complete Guide to Breathwork

Practice this breathing technique for instant stress relief & calm. Take the class now.

Shuffle your feet on the floor slowly so you feel the contact between the soles of your feet and the floor. This is called grounding. 

Next, do some breathwork. Three breaths is all you need for your prefrontal cortex (the part of you that makes decisions and plans) to come back online, as opposed to your amygdala (fear center) reigning supreme. Make sure that when you're breathing in, you are filling your body up with air and not sucking your belly in.

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4. Feel confident in your ground rules.

Establish ground rules for yourself, and stick to them. When will you say something to someone violating your personal space? As a guide, use the social distancing measurement that your state or country advocates. Have a protocol or script ready that you can default to the moment you need them. For example: "Hey, you're too close to me. For everybody's health, please move away." 

In times like this, you are perfectly justified in speaking up. And remember that it is perfectly OK to take this seriously. Some people will think you're nuts, some people will think you're sensible, and others will think you're not sensible enough—you can't please everybody. 

If you're in the moment wondering whether to cross the street to avoid being too close to someone or if you should say something to the person standing too close to you in line, just come back to your ground rules and act accordingly. When you're clear of your ground rules, your script, and your right to exercise these, then you don't drown in your head.

5. What can I reframe?

Sometimes, it's our mindset that drains us. When people get upset by how naysayers dismiss them with "It's all in your head!" I pause and tell them it's partially true. Your head can either bring you to hell or save you.

High-performance coach Vanessa Bennett says we can reframe how we're thinking about all our adjusted habits: "It's good that we have this extra cleanliness now. We can be grateful that we are practicing a new habit that will minimize transmission of any virus."

Spiritual consultants Tay and Val say to spin it this way: "Make distance your declaration of love." We distance because we love our neighbors, care about the elderly, and want our children to be safe. This way, our mindsets around our actions can drain us less.

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6. How can I protect my energy?

I know people who subscribe to live feeds of COVID-19, so their WhatsApp chats are pinging off every few minutes. Too much social media and news amplifies fear. As it is, the more anxious we are, the more likely we are to feed ourselves with these sources, lying to ourselves that forewarned is forearmed. This isn't about cutting yourself off from reality—we can update ourselves about COVID-19, for a few minutes a day—but rather partnering with the reality that scaring ourselves silly is only going to compromise our immunity and energy levels.

Practice these three questions when it comes to worrying: Is it controllable, realistic, and relevant? If not, then learn to let it go.

7. What energizes me?

Just as hypervigilance incinerates energy, there are things that give us energy. 

Gratitude is an excellent way to do so. If you get home and feel like your mind is still spinning from the exhaustion of navigating the outside world right now, try pausing to have a moment of gratitude. List the things you're grateful for right now. The more silly it seems, the better it can be. For instance, being grateful that you've found a car parking lot, or that your favorite coffee place still makes your daily cuppa perfectly, the way you like it. Or maybe your quarantine kitchen is buzzing away, and you're baking all the banana bread.

The more we can interrupt the neural pathways that feed anxiety, and the more we train the pathways that feed joy and gratitude, the more we'll be able to manage those tougher moments gracefully and increase our mental well-being.

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