Hypervigilance – ‘the elevated state of constantly assessing potential threats around you’. Web Med.
Another way of looking at it is -‘a heightened state of arousal, stress, or sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli. It can cause intense emotional reactions, anxiety, and impulsive patterns of behaviour. It makes us feel alert to hidden dangers – a primal sense of threat, a feeling of treading around on eggshells without knowing why’. Counselling Directory.
Both brief descriptions are talking about some of the feelings related to trauma, whether that’s in adults like soldiers out in war tore areas, or children who’ve experienced early childhood trauma. The impact of being in an unsafe environment is that we can then be looking for danger even when all is calm.
For vulnerable children and young people this hypervigilance can be seen in how they react to certain situations. It may be the constant turning around in class, watching the door, sensitive to noises and smells, overreactions to slight changes in atmosphere and relationships. When a child has been in chaos in their very early years the brain develops differently too. I’ve talked about this many times before, but it’s worth mentioning again. The reptilian part of the brain (survival centre) can be hypersensitive and on red alert most of the time, for example. This can make feeling and being at peace very difficult.
What I want to consider today though is the hypervigilance in the adults who live or work with vulnerable, hypervigilant children. We can find that even if we weren’t predisposed to hypervigilance before, after years of trying to manage the challenging behaviours that come from trauma, we ourselves become unsettled, anxious, on edge and stressed out.
I know this to be true from personal experience, as well as many conversations with other adopters. Being an adoptive parent is very challenging and can impact on your mental health as well as your ability to relax and find contentment. There may be seasons of less challenge, when you feel that things have changed, but the hypervigilance is always there waiting for another hurdle, or to be triggered again by similar experiences.
I have had several conversations with different people just this week about this. I don’t know if this feeling is something birth parents experience too – maybe if they’ve had particularly difficult teenager years for their children, then they can relate. Obviously, we all have challenges and life can be very tough, we all experience bereavement, job changes, relationship issues, money worries. However, the exhaustion that comes from constantly battling for support, being repeatedly mistreated by children who have nowhere else to work through their pain from their past, and the constant worry for the future can be overwhelming at times.
How do we manage this? How can we live a meaningful life whilst creating a space for our children to heal? This may be an unanswerable question, but we must try. There are things we can do to help ourselves but ultimately, we must know that what we have taken on is hard!
I’m often asked to talk to prospective adopters as someone who advocates for adoption. This is hard sometimes as the realities don’t always match the lovely ideal we have in our minds. Adoption is a 2nd choice solution to an unsafe 1st choice. Children must be safe and in the right environments to develop and grow into functioning adults. We are offering a chance for children, but it isn’t easy. Why should it be? Children in care now have, nine time out of ten, experienced terrible trauma – neglect and abuse, that will remain with them throughout their lives. Complex and confusing emotions come with adoption, for all concerned, but primarily for the children. They can’t leave that at our front door when they come to live with us. It is part of their story, and we then are part of that story too.
So, what are some of the things we can do to manage our own hypervigilance and the impact of being in chaotic and unpredictable environments as adopters, or those caring for vulnerable children and young people?
- Develop a strong, diverse, responsive support network. One of the things I will always say to prospective adopters is this – make sure you know how to build a support network around you. The one you have when you come into adoption is rarely there afterwards, but if you can build one then you know you can do that again. We made so many new friends through adoption who understand and give us a sense of belonging. However, you need a diverse group who can meet lots of different needs – practical, financial, spiritual, emotional, and social – all manner of support is needed along the way.
- Be self-aware and listen to your body. Being able to know what is triggering you or why you might feel a certain way is helpful. It might be hard to see sometimes and that’s why we need the first point above too. Doing the work needed on your own history and knowing yourself can really help manage the hypervigilance. I know, for example that there are certain situations that I find harder than others and so I will prepare or make sure I put things in place to manage that.
- Continually practice ways to truly relax. I’m not great at this sometimes. I tend to watch TV too much and sit around and think I’m relaxed. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes that’s what I need, but other times I need to be out in the fresh air, or walk, dance, listen to music, visit people – do things that relax every part of me. I read a book a while ago called Sacred Rest and it looks at the main areas of rest that we need – physical, mental, emotional, social, sensory, creative, and spiritual. They aren’t necessarily what you think, and you don’t have to be a person of faith in terms of spiritual rest, it can be more about feeling connection and contentment. It does address a range of areas that if explored can show where you might need to focus. There is a quiz online that helps if you’re interested – restquiz.com/quiz/rest-quiz-test.
I’m aware as I’m writing this that we are in a holiday time and children are at home with parents so this hypervigilance may be greater, or less, depending on how much stress school evokes. It’s hard to take the time to ourselves in the holiday and sabotage from our vulnerable children can only compound the chaos. So do what you need to do to get through these weeks and hopefully find some moments of peace, joy and connection with your family. After the holidays may be the time to look at your own levels of hypervigilance and how to address those areas, if you can.