What Is Somatic Hypervigilance?
Somatic hypervigilance is a physiological response to danger or threat. It’s a reaction that occurs when your body senses something dangerous, such as an intruder, predator, or even just a loud noise. You may experience somatic hypervigilance while driving at night, waiting in line at the grocery store checkout counter, or even during sleep. The term “hyper” means to be alert and active, so it’s not surprising that your body would react with heightened awareness if there was anything out of place.
The word “vigil” comes from the Latin verb vigilare which means to watch over or guard.
So what does all this mean?
Your body reacts to danger by activating certain parts of its nervous system (neurons) in order to prepare itself for action. These neurons fire off signals to other parts of your brain, causing you to feel different sensations. For example, if your muscles are tense because of fear, they will start contracting and releasing hormones like adrenaline. If you’re anxious about something happening to someone else, your heart rate increases and blood pressure goes up. And so on…
It’s important to note that these reactions aren’t always negative; sometimes they actually serve a purpose! If you’re hiking in the woods, for example, and you hear the snap of a twig off in the distance, your body will trigger this response. Perhaps it’s just the wind, but that snap was loud enough to potentially be a sign of human presence.
Better to be safe than sorry, right?
How to Recognize It
If your body is experiencing somatic hypervigilance, you may notice your heart rate increase, skin get clammy, or muscles become tense. You may also feel nervous, anxious, or on edge. There isn’t a single way that people exhibit these symptoms, but there are a few common behaviors that can help identify them.
1. Startle Easily
This is a pretty common response to danger. If you’re in a situation that makes you uneasy, or even if you’re just sitting quietly and suddenly hear a sound that wasn’t expected, your body may react with a startle reflex. This is an automatic response that happens in less than a second.
People who suffer from anxiety may startle at loud noises or when they’re surprised by someone. This is sometimes referred to as a “startle response.”
2. Looking Over Your Shoulder
Feeling like someone is watching you?
It might not be paranoia; it might be somatic hypervigilance. It’s a natural survival instinct to check over your shoulder to see if anything (or anyone) is sneaking up on you. This happens on a regular basis for most people, especially in big crowds.
For people with social anxiety or PTSD, however, this behavior may happen even when there isn’t an immediate threat. For example, looking over your shoulder when you’re sitting in your parked car at night may indicate that you’re having paranoid thoughts about someone following you.
3. Nervous Habits
Do you bite your nails, twirl your hair, tap your foot, or do anything else that could be considered a “nervous habit?”
These habits may reflect an internal restlessness or tension. It’s common for people to engage in these behaviors when they’re feeling anxious.
For example, a person who bites their nails may do so because they’re under stress or feel uneasy about something. These habits can be difficult to break, even if the reason for them is eliminated.
4. Emotional Behavior
It’s normal to feel emotional in certain situations. For example, it’s only natural to feel sad after a break-up, or angry after getting into an accident.
However, depression or negativity that persists for weeks or months may be a sign that something else is going on. These feelings may hint at larger issues at hand, such as PTSD from a traumatic event. If you notice a change in your emotional behavior patterns, it’s best to speak with a doctor or mental health professional.
Have you ever felt so terrified or panicked that you couldn’t move?
This is known as “paralysis,” or more medically, “paralyis.” This can happen during a trauma, such as a car accident, or during an extreme panic attack. In most cases, it’s a temporary condition, but in some instances, it can be permanent.
If someone is suffering from paralyis, they may be unable to speak or move for extended periods of time.
6. Lack of Motivation
Feeling sad or depressed without any identifiable cause may indicate a need for help. If you’ve been feeling down for weeks or months at a time, especially if it interferes with your ability to perform everyday tasks, you may be suffering from depression. This is the most common mental illness in the United States, and it effects people from all walks of life.
7. Physical Complaints
It’s not uncommon for people to experience physical complaints that have no medical cause. For example, some people may feel stomach pains that turn out to be nothing more than stress. This is a common phenomenon in people who have anxiety or depression.
While it’s always best to be safe and see a doctor if you’re experiencing physical pain, it may be beneficial to keep track of these complaints. Note when they happen and how they make you feel. If the pain is persistent and you can’t identify a cause, it may be time to talk to your doctor.
8. Sleep Disorders
Lack of sleep can have a significant impact on one’s life. Not only can it make you grouchy, tired people are more prone to accidents. Ongoing sleep deprivation can also make one more susceptible to diseases and weaken the immune system.
While everyone gets tired every once in awhile, it’s important to try to get a good night’s rest on a regular basis. If you suffer from ongoing sleep deprivation, it may be due to another underlying issue such as depression, anxiety, or a sleep disorder.
It’s important to remember that it’s never too late to seek help for your mental health. It’s also important to note that alcoholism and drug abuse are considered “external” factors that can contribute to mental health disorders. If you’re suffering from any of the above symptoms, it’s best to seek help from a medical professional or licensed mental health specialist.
Sources & references used in this article:
Hypervigilance to pain: an experimental and clinical analysis by G Crombez, S Van Damme, C Eccleston – Pain, 2005 – journals.lww.com
Attention processes in the maintenance and treatment of social phobia: hypervigilance, avoidance and self-focused attention by SM Bögels, W Mansell – Clinical psychology review, 2004 – Elsevier
Hypervigilance for fear after basolateral amygdala damage in humans by D Terburg, BE Morgan, ER Montoya, IT Hooge… – Translational …, 2012 – nature.com