Understanding the Biology of Hypervigilance

Understanding the Biology of Hypervigilance

The pandemic has increased the amount of times we are in situations in which we are hypervigilant. Hypervigilance is an elevated alertness to our surroundings. In the workplaces, hypervigilance means working from a threat-based perspective, treating all situations as if they may be dangerous and life threatening.

Hypervigilance is not an emotional state, it's a biological state. When we sense danger, our automatic nervous system activates and creates automatic internal changes. Our peripheral vision increases, our hearing sharpens, our reaction times are faster, our heart rates elevates, our blood pressure increases, and we have more energy.

Sometimes the automatic response is immediate and intense, such as when we have a near accident in a vehicle. We can hear our heart pounding in our ears. It can take several hours to return to normal after a significant scare. Not all hypervigilance states are that extreme. Sometimes the alertness is constant and less intense, such as in a working environment that requires intense focus for long periods of time.

Many of us find our jobs now require hypervigilance due to COVID. We must follow new threat-based policies which demand hypervigilance of our surroundings. We must maintain a safe distance from co-workers and the public, wear masks if unable to do so, and disinfect surfaces frequently while washing our hands several times a day. We watch closely for symptoms of COVID in ourselves and others, and constantly assess whether we should be isolating.

When we are hypervigilant, we feel alert and energized due to the physiological changes that occur. When we go home, we begin the recovery period. Recovering from being hypervigilant for 8 or more hours a day can interfere with our time off. We often feel detached, tired, unmotivated, and lethargic. Rather than reconnecting with those we love, we want to isolate and be alone. The recovery period may last 16-24 hours, depending on the intensity of the hypervigilance.

If you are working in an environment that requires hypervigilance, either from COVID, or the nature of your work, it is possible to minimize the impact of hypervigilance. You can minimize the impact by taking several small breaks during the day to give yourself time for mini recoveries. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, listening to calming music, or using a five-minute meditation app can give your body a chance to recover throughout the day.

When we are stressed, our breathing becomes shallow and we don't get enough oxygen to feed our cells. Five minutes of deep breathing a few times during the day, can increase our oxygen input and decrease fatigue.

Often when stressed, our muscles get tight. Purposefully tightening our muscles to the point of fatigue, then relaxing completely, can release the tension and remind us to ease up on our muscles. One way to do progressive muscle relaxation is to move through the body, one muscle group at a time; first starting with the face, moving to the shoulders, arms, chest, stomach, buttocks, and finally the legs. When you are finished, you should feel nicely relaxed.

There are many apps you can download on your phone to help you remember to build relaxation into your day. The apps can be set to remind you to take your break and can walk you through a short meditation or breathing exercise. Popular apps are CALM, Breathe2relax, and Headspace. There are many free apps out there so look around until you find one that works for you. If you find that too much of your time is spent in detached, exhausted recovery mode, your EFAP provider can offer tools and suggestions for balancing work and home life.


Jenny DeReis, Psych, RCC

Walmsley, EFAP