Imagine. Every day upon waking, the “calvary” of your resources gear up. As you lay in bed, you feel the energy, bordering on anxiety, that tells you it’s time to head out for battle. Even though ‘the war’ has been over many years, physically you wake up in a state of alert for what will happen next. This apprehensive state you have become so accustomed to is hyper-vigilance, and will be your constant companion until you collapse into bed later that night.
Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors.
Hyper-vigilance is like situational awareness on steroids. When habituated, the person gets stuck in a survival strategy designed to protect them from the outside in. This outward extension has it’s foundation in past experiences and often traumatic events which keep the nervous system in an activated, hyper-attentive and externally focused state. Long after the event has passed, the tendency to protect lives on, now generalized to every day occurrences that trigger concerns for safety, belonging or dignity.
A cost/benefit analysis of this strategy might demonstrate both pros and cons. Finding and neutralizing threats before they find us can actually help us to be thorough. However, (as a colleague and friend once said) “I can also see the cost – it’s scary and exhausting to always be on the lookout for problems.”
“Just stop for a moment and see what you have given your mind to do. You said to your mind, “I want everyone to like me, I don’t want anyone to speak badly of me. I want everything I say and do to be acceptable and teasing to everyone. I don’t want anyone to hurt me. I don’t want anything to happen that I don’t like.” And of course your mind said, “I’m on the job, I will work on it constantly!” (Michael Singer/The Tethered Soul)
More on the con’s and why I am motivated to write about this: I’ve written more than a few articles on reactivity and resilience as it relates to leadership, and I’ve reflected on why these are important themes for me. Like most, I’ve experienced traumatic events in my life, and woke up to find myself disengaged from my own resources and connection due to this tendency. I’ve also had extensive experience coaching and working with and for leaders who are unaware of the adverse consequences this can have on their physical and mental capacities, and their ability to detect and react properly to threats. Increasingly, and particularly with women leaders, I see the connection between hyper vigilance, perfectionism and self-censoring, and how that limits their aliveness and abilities. Swimming in the deep end of this pool has been a gift in many respects in learning how one can transform hyper vigilance and return home to resources that enable us to live in a truer and more expansive way.
Attention is a finite resource, so you cannot be aware all the time and you cannot be aware of everything.
The Body Never Lies. How hyper-vigilance “shows up” somatically differs from person to person. The client may report a lack of vitality, and their body may show constraint and tension. Their smile may appear forced, their eyes retracted and their breath shallow and jaw locked. Their attention and gaze may be intense, or appear frozen. The point is not to self-consciousness and control, but to explore with an open curiosity what the body is is revealing, as Ignoring a pattern not only takes a lot of energy, it, it keeps us from moving forward. More importantly, these observations can be doors to transformation when they reveal beliefs and narratives that drive behavior and outcomes.
“Living In My Body Is A Luxury I Can’t Afford”
The way out is the way in. I’m thinking about a particular client who shared that she was continually ‘three feet ahead of herself,’ and that living in her body was a luxury she couldn’t afford. She believed that both relationships and her success in business would be negatively impacted if she slowed down and connected with herself, not just her thoughts and ideas, but her desires, wants, values and what made her feel most alive. Through exploring the beliefs that triggered her and cultivating a practice of daily prompts to center and be present, she gradually became aware of how her body responded when she was over-extended (tight lower back and neck pain, shortness of breath). This awareness became a signal for her to return to practices that enabled her to be present, purposeful and compassionate even under pressure. The sense of safety and dignity that could never be be established in a lasting way externally was becoming an internal reality.
We’re all interested in how to create a really good, rewarding and successful personal and professional life. In order to do this, a good relationship with our self, our body, our mind and future is needed. “Creative outcomes are only as good as the underlying state” (Steve Gilligan) and what makes this state possible is awareness and connection with our resources.
Think of it. We have an extraordinary intelligence that we can point in any direction, and that brings insight and wisdom to help solve problems and reorient us to the world. We actually possess the creative potential to create our experience from moment to moment. Even more spectacular, our resources provide is with an internal navigation system that aligns us with our purpose and consciousness, that like an alarm clock, keeps waking us up and bringing us back to the present moment. We are truly wired with amazing capacities if we chose to embody them.