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Calm • Anxiety

Might You Be Hypervigilant? A Sombre Questionnaire

We may be a significant way through our lives before it starts to dawn on us – very slowly – just what distinctive people we might be. For a long time, it can seem as though we’re merely a little bit more preoccupied than most; as though our lives were mysteriously somewhat more difficult than anyone else’s. Our friends may make the odd light-hearted remark about our way of being, but we may – through no fault of our own – miss the true scale of the issue. So it can help to have some questions to hand to bring matters into focus. 

To how many of these statements could we readily assent?

— Every day is a trial.

— However much I earn, I worry incessantly about running out of money.

— I find it hard to trust.

— I worry about people turning on me.

— I’m terrified.

— But I’m too ashamed to admit my terror to anyone.

We could ramp up the intensity a little:

— I don’t think that things will – broadly – be OK at all.

— Something is imminently going to go very wrong.

— When I don’t know what to fear, I lapse into unnamed dread.

— Living is an emergency.

— I’m always in danger.

— I’m very tired.

— This fear is so exhausting, I almost look forward (please don’t tell anyone) to being dead.

If we have answered ‘yes’ rather more often than we would like, it may be that we need to consider ourselves in a new light, as a member of that distinguished and not inconsiderable fraternity of the ‘hypervigilant.’

Hypervigilance means – usefully – more than just worried or anxious; it denotes a condition of basic terror at the constituents of existence, an ongoing relentless probing at every apparent positive in search of signs of peril, pain, cruelty and malevolence. Any moment of the week, the hypervigilant person will be concerned with something – an email they sent, a meeting they have been called to, a news item, a frosty colleague – but this rotating litany of panics disguises the chronic nature of their condition. As soon as one worry is solved, it is not just that another will arise, another must do so in order to fit in with a fundamentally precarious sense of the nature of reality.

What lies behind hypervigilance is almost always the past. If it’s hysterical, as the caustic expression has it, it’s historical. The catastrophe the hypervigilant fear will happen has already happened – and yet has been forgotten or not adequately reflected upon, casting a shadow across the entirety of a life. Every new day must be another crucible of fear so long as we lack any accurate sense of what once frightened us out of our conscious selves.

The reason why the state is so hard to diagnose is that the mind furiously insists that every problem it is dealing with in the here and now must be the sole and legitimate cause of our distress. If only we weren’t facing this problem at work or at home, with friends or online, we would be fine, our minds tell us. What we thereby miss is the bizarre-sounding truth that we aren’t principally worrying due to any local cause but on account of an all-encompassing archaic necessity.

We might sometimes need to ask ourselves a rather blunt question:

Has anything actually, truly, gone so wrong of late – outside the confines of our own mind?

Very likely, it hasn’t, but this offers absolutely no reason to celebrate. The nightmare – even if it is unfolding in our consciousness – is no less awful or real-seeming for that. 

It is the very beginning of a solution when we can take on board some of the following:

We aren’t just worried or tense, we deserve to use that grander, more clinical and more emphatic word, hypervigilant.

The true cause of our worry doesn’t lie with the things we are concerned with today but with a backdrop of awfulness we have gone through and forgotten in years gone by.

Worries don’t randomly befall us; we are impelled to worry to appease an inner sense of unease; it’s the only way to find a measure of relief; it may be our finest form of relaxation.

Our life will be a process of replacing one local worry with another until we can work our way back to sympathy for the terrified (small) being we once were.

We should – when we can manage it – laugh darkly for the particular poison we’ve been allotted, and try to find a few like minded souls to spend our time with. There isn’t, on top of everything else, any longer any need to think we might be alone in our suffering.

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