Leftist commentary from a mouthy bitch

Hypervigilance is not normal.

One common trait/habit shared by many sexual assault survivors, regardless of whether they knew their assailant or not, is hypervigilance.

Hypervigilance is defined as “the condition of maintaining an abnormal awareness of environmental stimuli” per Merriam-Webster online. It frequently goes hand in hand with exagerrated startle reflex. Not exagerrated in that you purposely overplay them, but exagerrated in that things that shouldn’t make you scream, like say, finding your room-mate in your living room or your husband who you knew was home walking into the bedroom behind you, will make you scream if you aren’t expecting it.

However, hypervigilance rapidly starts to feel normal.

It took me years to figure out that it isn’t. Largely through having to point things out to my husband that I immediately noticed, particularly people’s expressions, anything moving near us, or the positioning of exits in relation to where I am. Years of me saying, “How do you not notice this?” “How do you walk into a restaurant and not immediately assess where the exits are?” finally drilled it through my head that he honestly doesn’t notice these things because he doesn’t feel his safety depends on it 24/7.

And even thought hypervigilance would most probably NOT have helped prevent what happened to me or most other aquaintance rapes, you still find yourself engaged in it afterwards. It’s like your brain decides it should notice everything, all the time in order to keep you safe.

When I’m out in public, particularly when I’m alone, but even when I’m not, I notice who is around me, how close/far they are around me, their expressions, what they’re holding, what they’re doing, what they’re wearing, how close are we to a vehicle/alley/closet/empty room of some sort… You get the idea.

So frequently when we’re out, I’ll get twitchy, or I’ll snort because I’ve spotted a walking fashion faux pas. And he’ll ask me what’s got me tense/snickering, and when I try to tell him he’ll frown and say, “I didn’t notice that.” Which used to lead to me saying, “How do you not?” but anymore I just sort of stifle a sigh. Because I realize that he doesn’t have the hypervigilance issue, and he doesn’t need to. He’s a big guy. A big (former SHARP) skinhead guy. His default expression when dealing with strangers in public is pretty close to a scowl. He’s scary looking.

Sometimes I worry that hypervigilance makes me appear rude, because even when I’m talking directly to someone, I don’t look solely at their face. My eyes dart all over, watching everything and everyone near me, particularly if it moves. I tend to start at motions in my peripheral vision, or at the very least, whip my head around to see what’s there. It was a great trait when I was working in a bar as a bouncer and bartender. Trying to maintain professional demeanor in an office, not so much.

But, as I’ve come to realize, it’s a perfectly “normal” reaction to surviving sexual assault. It seems to be a reaction to “How could I have let this happen?” So don’t feel bad about your own hypervigilance. You’re not being “untrusting” or “suspicious.” Your brain is just trying its best to protect you, regardless of how rational or realistic it is that hypervigilance would have helped in the first place.

4 comments on “Hypervigilance is not normal.

  1. ravenhart
    October 28, 2008

    Nice observation, and dead on.
    I do get criticism quite a bit though. Usually blamed for being ‘too negative’ or not being trusting enough.
    Trust is a word I do not trust. 😉 Although I do believe in the laws of attraction (being negative brings negativity, etc.) I also know that I didn’t expect what happened to me, I didn’t ‘draw’ it, and it came out of nowhere. So I don’t feel at all bad about being very careful to stay under the radar in most aspects of my life.
    And I also have a very hard time looking someone in the eye, even those I love. I am always afraid I might see something in them that I don’t want to see. Plus, if I look into their eyes, they can see into mine. And I usually don’t want them to go there. It takes a very special person for me to lock gaze with, trusting that they can really see me. There aren’t that many out there.


  2. morinon
    October 28, 2008

    In my experience, hypervigilance is simply taking something that was previous unconscious and bringing it to the conscious mind. In a dangerous world, where dangers can come from many sources and in many forms, hypervigilance is a survival trait.
    Different people express their hypervigilance in different ways, usually depending on the circumstances that awakened it in them. I’ve known some military folk who were constantly aware of everything around them after being in a few ambushes, yet didn’t obviously show it. Everything casual in their movements.
    I’m not always hypervigilant, but when I am, I tend to do my best to keep everything calm.


  3. spurnnedhistory
    October 28, 2008

    Hypervigilance is a common reaction to many a traumatic situation, especially situations where there was no control over the situation.
    It’s also one of the earliest symptoms of post traumatic stress.


  4. rae_beta
    October 28, 2008

    Wow. In a weird venn-diagram overlap, this is EXACTLY how food allergies have conditioned me to handle social environments.


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This entry was posted on October 28, 2008 by in Uncategorized.

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