In order to survive in the wilderness, a little caution is necessary. Imagine a snake bites you during a hike. The next time you return to the woods you'll scan the area for danger, tread lightly and prepare yourself for flight.
As town and city dwellers in 2019, we’re seldom up against snakes or bears or lions, but still I recognise in myself and others an often debilitating type of 'hypervigilance', or constant awareness of surroundings, perceived social cues, emotions and more. However, rather than serving as a survival mechanism, this hypervigilance is twisted to the extent that it's no longer advantageous. Instead it can be detrimental to our overall wellbeing.
"Hypervigilance acts like a faulty smoke alarm, constantly scanning and detecting threats that are not there or unlikely," says clinical psychologist Dr Joe Oliver. "Though not a diagnosis in and of itself, hypervigilance is a common symptom of anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder."
I first recognised the symptom in myself while reading Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City. In the book, Laing examines what becomes of the human psyche when cut off from the herd by considering her own experience of loneliness and that of artists such as Andy Warhol and Edward Hopper. She recalls struggling to communicate verbally with strangers: "The intensity of my reaction – sometimes a blush; more often a full-blown past of panic – testified to hypervigilance, to the way perception around social interaction had begun to warp. Somewhere in my body, a measuring system had identified danger, and now the slightest glitch in communication was registering as a potentially overwhelming threat."
My body and mind are also hypervigilant of types of danger which rationally I’m aware are not there. In the dreaded group circle setting, I await my turn to introduce myself. My palms are sweaty and my heart is pounding. I can feel myself receding into myself and my cheeks growing hot. I am rehearsing what I will say inside my head, but I know my voice will be hoarse. Worse still, in the heat of the moment I’ll forget words, or my anxious mind will speak for me and deliver an awkward tangent. During and after speaking will come the scanning, the overanalysis of the situation coupled with this persistent worrying about subtext: "Does that person like me or dislike me? They keep interrupting – is what I’m saying not interesting? When I mispronounced that word or went on that strange tangent, I saw their expression turn – everything will now go wrong and they will judge me."
In theory I don’t care about being liked or disliked. At the same time, I think feeling ostracised from the herd is a universal fear, given our dependence on others. "Anxiety and fear are the key drivers, but hypervigilance also works to maintain anxiety and fear," says Dr Oliver. "If someone [is] perfectionistic, they are more likely to be hypervigilant." My friend Bea, 32, often worries that people don’t like her: "I keep thinking over what I said or did. For the most part I read too much into tone and body language. I mine for details. I’ve always been self-conscious to the gaze of other people. I think perhaps because I don’t want tension, so I seek ways to make a conversation flow even if that means feeling uncomfortable myself. If it doesn’t work, I feel I am doing something wrong."
Competing in a volatile, uncertain and unpredictable job market where there is an increasingly limited supply of good positions and repeated rejection is likely is exactly the kind of scenario to foster hypervigilance, says Dr Oliver. In a job interview, you are there to be scrutinised. You say the wrong thing and you can feel it; you modify your behaviour accordingly, blush as a consequence of this hypervigilance, and lose your composure. You're not offered the job, which instead is handed to a more confident candidate. It can be a vicious cycle, because often, due to the self-perpetuating fear that people won't like you, your fears come to pass. This can lead to avoidance. Through fear and hypervigilance, I have turned down opportunities.
Alice, 25, does not suffer from an anxiety disorder but struggles with hypervigilance in interviews: "In a recent interview, I was convinced it was an absolute disaster and I think this did impact me by making me nervous and not fully flesh out my answers. I’m not always fully engaged with the question, as I’m almost listening to what I myself am saying. I will also quite carefully analyse what the interviewer's visual cues are."
Often with hypervigilance, we convince ourselves we are experts at reading tone and body language. Not so, says Dr Oliver: "Of course, it may be the case that we have read the person’s tone or body language correctly, but most of the time, when we are anxious, or hypervigilant, we are incredibly bad at reading subtle nuances. Ask: 'Have I got my anxiety glasses on and is that all I’m seeing right now?' This can make our fears lighter."
I have come to think of my mental health issues as an entity separate from myself. Our ancestors had other names for them: 'daemons', 'evil spirits'. They are seldom connected to our rational selves and sense of identity, and are ultimately unhelpful. Says Dr Oliver: "Often, it’s useful to simply notice ourselves engaging in overanalysing and let it go. Give that side of us who worries a name: 'Wendy the worrier' or 'Ms Overanalyser'. This helps us to catch our mind in flight more easily."
Hypervigilance – like anxiety – often leads the sufferer to feel like a backseat driver to a bad driver. We tell them to slow down, but they keep swerving, accelerating and braking where it’s not necessary. Who wants to get back in the car with a bad driver? For years I avoided getting in the car with mine. But if you never get in that car you realise you’re not really going anywhere.
In a bid to regain control of the steering wheel, I’ve found it can help to get a real sense of where I want to go. I’ve recently been working on a project for which I know I will have to speak publicly and network offline. Naturally through that stronger sense of purpose, I feel less scared to get in the car with my hypervigilance, knowing I’m ultimately in charge of the destination. Dr Oliver’s advice for dealing with situations that foster hypervigilance supports my experience – he recommends asking "What’s important to me here?" and using it like a compass to guide you.
This greater sense of purpose, coupled with self-care, has helped me in interviews too. "When a mistake is made, and the pressure kicks in, our minds can tend to get critical," says Dr Oliver. "It makes sense sometimes to modify behaviour some of the time, but usually the trick is to find ways to continue and persist." With this in mind, I focus on my strengths. I remind myself to slow down and breathe. I also remind myself that everybody makes mistakes.
Lately I’ve paid attention to the tone and language employed by people who are eloquent public speakers. Transcribed, a stream of consciousness is often a chaotic mess of unfinished sentences, mispronounced words and longwinded tangents. That’s why transcribing a conversation word for word seldom makes for good dialogue. What always strikes me is that these eloquent speakers keep going despite the potholes along the way. This confidence ensures no one else notices.
See, that’s the thing about hypervigilance. No one has thought this through as much as you have. When you blushed, it didn’t linger in the minds of those around you. When you stumbled on a word, the person who likely noticed the most is yourself. In an interview, an ill-explained idea can make you feel you’ve failed, when perhaps in your interviewer’s eyes you were still going strong until your evident dip in confidence. By learning to identify and ignore the fears that don’t pose a real threat, perhaps we can be a bit kinder to ourselves. Then we too can be confident, if imperfect, humans, who persist despite the uneven nature of the road.