“I feel like I’m walking on eggshells all the time.”
You know the feeling I’m talking about, right?
It’s the one that makes social gatherings exhausting. Instead of relaxing with friends or meeting new ones your inner antenna is triggered and probing the room for tension and conflict.
Or it could be that edgy feeling that follows you to work. The one that has you hiding from your coworkers and paranoid that your boss is gearing up to fire you for no good reason other than he or she can.
If you can relate to any of the above, you’re in good company. The feeling we’re talking about here is called hyper-vigilance and it’s something that many ACOAs struggle with especially in social situations.
The bad news is that some of us, because we know little to nothing about hyper-vigilance, wrongly assume that there’s just something wrong with us and instead of learning how to cope we isolate.
The good news is that with the right information, some compassion and a little patience you can learn to live and thrive alongside that not so fresh – hyper-vigilant feeling.
So if you’ve ever struggled with hyper-vigilance and you’re tired of that chronic, on edge feeling zapping your energy, messing with your relationships, distorting your thoughts and sucking the life out of your social life, today’s post is for you.
You’ll learn 3 strategies that will help you handle hyper-vigilance in social situations like a boss. The advice I’m sharing here is not exhaustive and represents what I’ve learned through my own experiences – that’s why it’s so important for you to jump in the comment section and share any strategies you have for dealing with social hyper-vigilance like a boss.
After you’re done reading, jump in the comment section and share away!
Remember your voice, experiences and insights are vital to this community. And what you have to share is not only unique but it may be exactly what someone else needs to read. And that someone could be you.
Thanks for reading each and every week!
Until Next Tuesday,
#1 Break It Down To Stand On Solid Ground
This first tip – Break It Down To Stand On Solid Ground – is all about understanding where that hyper-vigilant feeling is coming from.
Through the years I’ve learned that one of the best places to start with any behavior I’m trying to understand or change is at the beginning. This approach helps me to see clearly that what I’m going through or experiencing actually makes sense. And as a result I can then take the focus off of the idea that there’s something wrong with me or that the problem I’m having makes me defective in some way.
I can stop beating myself up and start looking for solutions to improve my life.
From an ACOA perspective, hyper-vigilance is rooted in the fear of losing control.
For example, when asked, “What are the most common personal issues with which adult children of alcoholics struggle?” Herbert Gravitz and Julie Bowden in their book, “Recovery: A Guide For Adult Children Of Alcoholics,” said this:
The first and most central issue they (ACOAs) describe is the issue of control…The fear of being “out of control” is almost universal, and strong feelings are experienced as being out of control. Sometimes called “hyper-vigilant,” adult children of alcoholics automatically scan the environment for cues, wanting to know what is in front, behind, to the left and right of them at all times.
No wonder we feel exhausted in social situations, right?
Another angle to consider is the connection between hyper-vigilance and trauma. If you had alcoholic parents that were also violent or abusive in some way this explanation from brainworksneurotherapy.com will make sense to you:
Trauma is broadly classed in two categories. The most commonly recognized is hyper vigilance…A heightened state of awareness is part of the fight/flight response, resulting in a state of chronic hyper-vigilance. This state is akin to being locked into permanent ‘battle stations’; brain resources on constant alert, causing inappropriate or even aggressive actions in everyday situations.
For me, I’ve struggled with both kinds of hyper-vigilance when in social situations. When I was much younger, I’d have intense reactions any time I perceived the threat of violence or was reminded of the violence that went on at home.
For example, I was in the back of my aunt’s car once when the song “Break My Stride” by Matthew Wilder came on the radio. As soon as I heard the first note of that song, I went into a full blown panic attack. Why? Because that was the song playing the night of one of the worst, most bloodiest beatings my stepdad ever gave my mom while he was drunk.
Thankfully, that response has calmed down quite a bit. It still pops up from time to time but it’s manageable and not any where near as intense as when I was younger.
Today, when I’m in social situations, the hyper-vigilant feelings I have are related to control or how out of control I feel. I worry about saying and doing the right or wrong things. If someone appears upset or annoyed I pick up on that right away and assume full responsibility. Like other ACOAs, I scan my environment obsessively for clues just like my phone does when I’ve roamed too far from a cell-phone tower.
Yes, in social situations this can be exhausting and isolating can appear to be the most viable option.
But, and this is a big ol’ but, if you can begin to understand where your hyper-vigilance is coming from you can back away from it and get some perspective. And in that space you can give yourself room to explore your reactions. You can come back into the moment and see that despite whatever’s going on inside your head, nothing bad is happening, you’re safe and in most cases you’re going to be okay.
Of course this is a hell of a lot easier said than done. But once you gain space and awareness because you understand where that hyper-vigilance is coming from you’re already well on your way to doing something about it.
#2 Don’t Leave Home Without Your PIC
PIC stands for your Partner. In. Crime.
When dealing with hyper-vigilance in social situations your PIC can become an invaluable asset.
Your PIC is a person that you trust, respect and vice versa who can help snap you back into the moment. They listen to your fears without judgment. They understand your struggles with hyper-vigilance and they act as a sounding board when you need it.
Ryan, my husband, is my PIC. I know that when I’m struggling in a social situation, when I want to run and hide or when I think the only option I have is to isolate, I share what’s going on inside my head with him and he gives me a calm and understanding perspective to consider.
Before Ryan, I had my cat Poo. I know this may sound a bit wacky but believe it or not your PIC does not have to be a human, it can be a pet.
I discovered this years ago while visiting New Orleans. During a tarot card reading I asked if my cat Poo was my soul mate and her answer surprised me.
She said she wasn’t but then she went on to explain that my cat was in my life to ground me. That whenever I started to feel anxious or insecure about something all I had to do was look at Poo. And if she was calm and relaxed then I had nothing to be afraid of.
Again, I know this may come off as being a bit out there but I have to tell you that even if everything else the reader shared with me was total bullshit, the part about my cat being my PIC was not only true but so incredibly helpful in helping me manage and cope with hyper-vigilance.
Now. If your PIC is furry and has four legs, you probably can’t take him or her with you wherever you go and that’s okay because you don’t have to. Sometimes before I’d go out if I was feeling anxious, I’d check in with Poo and if she was just curled up and calm on the couch then I’d take that as proof that everything was going to be okay.
So take a look around you and keep an open mind. Your PIC may have four legs instead of two.
#3 Practice The Lighthouse Method
If I know I’m going to be in a social situation that’s likely to trigger a hyper-vigilant headache I practice The Lighthouse Method.
Traditionally lighthouses were used to highlight danger and mark safe paths to harbor. And you can create your own lighthouse simply by marking out an out for yourself in social situations.
So here’s how this works. A few weeks ago I was invited to a friends house for a house warming. And although I said yes initially as the party got closer the more I wanted to figure out a way to not go.
Just the thought of being in a room full of people, knowing that my hyper-vigilant radar would be working over time, filled me with dread.
But I didn’t want to cancel so what I did instead was create a lighthouse for myself – a safe out to leave the party when I felt I’d had enough. On that night, Ryan and I left the party after a couple of hours and went to dinner. Dinner was my lighthouse. It was the path that I created for myself that lead me to a place I knew I’d be safe and comfortable in. It gave me the confidence that I needed to go to that party and know I could leave when my hyper-vigilant antennae got tired.
This method can come in handy as you’re exploring and becoming familiar with your hyper-vigilant responses and behaviors. If you know that you have a way out going into a situation then you’ll be less likely to abandon your plans and isolate.
The more you isolate, which I know is so freakin easy to do, the more likely you become to make that your go-to solution. In isolation it’s easy to lose sight of your options, that’s why it’s so important to keep trying and exploring until you find what works for you.
As Margaret Thatcher once said:
You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.