ARE YOU ALWAYS ON HIGH ALERT? Recovering from hyper-vigilance

By Annie Highwater 03/12/18
Hyper alert.JPG

Like many I struggled for years with hypervigilance in group situations. Even still I usually prefer solitude, or a small crowd in safe, familiar setting.

Hypervigilance (caused by stress, trauma and C-PTSD) brings about a state of increased anxiety. Other symptoms include: abnormally increased alertness, a high responsiveness to stimuli, and a constant scanning of the environment.

In other words, you might feel like you always have a police car driving behind you.

I lived in this mindset. I couldn’t verbalize well to others what my internal struggle felt like until I began aggressively working to overcome it. Basically, it was like having a mean voice interloping my own thoughts, always telling me to be afraid, to dread and to not ever forget I was lower than everyone around me.

This internal monologue was with me since I was a small child, often causing me to freeze or become awkward in social settings, while retreating inward—much to the confusion of those close to me.

It isn’t easy for others to understand hyper-aware anxiety; unless they have knowledge and sensitivity to the after-effects of trauma.

Untangling from fearful, condemning thought processes was one of the greatest hurdles of my life. It’s been a journey to rise from the ashes of trauma, dysfunction and chaos—in order to come to a place of peace.

One can live in that mental stress for years. Always wondering who hates you, what you’ve done done wrong, and who might intentionally hurt you.

This was my life. I was almost always on guard, overly self-conscious—while trying to discern who had the power in every setting, and what I could do, say, or not say to feel safe and at ease.

Which I rarely felt.

Traumatic stress, intense family criticism, dysfunction and conflict can make you feel like you are under siege at all times. For me, life at times felt like a tense walk across a tightrope.

It took serious work to recover from that codependent trap.

Heartache and misery (due to dysfunction and addiction crashing through my family a few years ago) led me to finally get fed up and sit down in the midst of my life—to seek healing and peace from trauma.

My goal was to finally deal with myself. And then to recover and rise from the ashes, strong and whole.

Because hyper-vigilance is an after-effect for many who have been traumatized or programmed into codependent behaviors, I am very often asked by others how one overcomes the internal dialogue and extreme alert feelings that come with it.


“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

What worked for me (recovery and growth are a process unique for everyone, there is no one-size fits all), first began when two therapists came into my life socially.

Initially I couldn’t believe they’d want to be friends with me, I felt like I was too nervous and damaged for anyone strong to respect in friendship. But they were kind and sensitive to the struggle of mind I was in.

They each made me feel safe and validated.

Simultaneously they worked to untangle me from the high stress frame of mind I was prone to slip into, which I learned always centered around pre-programmed fear and worthlessness.

For five years the two of them spoke truth, strength, worth and value to me. Gradually I untangled from the mess I’d been and became stronger and more confident.

I became comfortable with kind, healthy introspection and ownership.

That was the beginning. Which prompted me to make an effort toward progress every day.

Sometime later, I took five months of allotted, specific self-supportive time to pause and reflect on all I’d been through. Whether it happened to me or I caused it.

I took this time to journal about painful areas of life. I also read, researched, and did hard, soul searching work.

I was extremely self-protective during that time.

During those months I kept in touch with therapy experts, listened to relevant podcasts, watched Ted Talks and YouTube videos, read pertinent books and articles and I bought a dialectical behavioral therapy workbook.

I did self-supportive things like yoga, taking long walks, regular exercising, prayer and meditation.

I wanted to be healthy and well! So I used every resource possible to heal.

And most important – every chance I got I went to support meetings and listened to others share their experiences and victory over similar struggles.

I also put space between myself and anyone who might be negative or potentially harmful.

When you are trying to get over things, it’s not the time to take on anyone else’s problems or personality issues. Especially if you have a cast of dysfunctional characters in your life. Sometimes you have to take yourself away from everybody in order to process and heal.

Taking time for yourself to become healthy and strong is vital. It’s not selfish! It’s healthy.

Not everyone goes through a gutting process to heal from what they’ve come from. But life throws painful curve-balls to us all, at some point we all need to recover from something. Take some time to focus on yourself, you’re worth it.

While maybe one thing works for someone, several things may be needed for someone else. I can’t advise any one route that fits. You have to find what works for you.

What I do know for sure is that improving messy areas of life will require self-awareness, reflective soul-searching work, and KINDNESS.

Kindness toward yourself, and kindness from a few trusted people close to you.

Kindness added to truth is a powerful healer.

I compare recovery to the thought of turning a ship around. It takes time. It’s a process.

Recovering from trauma and dysfunctional pathology can feel like an autopsy and open heart surgery at once. And then a complete rebuild of your internal hard drive.

I can say for myself, working on recovering is what worked. I finally got free of the wreckage.

Though I can get triggered pretty quick – I can say this, hyper-vigilance does get better with work. It’s not something I regularly deal with anymore. When I do it’s on a much smaller scale.

After doing the work, you start noticing certain things don’t happen anymore. Or if they do, they have a totally different effect.

Triggers become like flies whereas before they were like elephants.

The truth is, I come from a high degree of dysfunction. Addiction, conflict and chaos have run amok through my life. That is part of who I AM. I have no problem owning it, but I refuse to be condemned by it.

That said, I will probably always have high-tuned awareness and a degree of ultra-sensitivity. But now it’s a more helpful, protective version.

These days I discern people, places and situations with wisdom in my favor, versus through a filter of fear and worthlessness.

And that for me is proof that recovery and rebuilding have taken place.

I have to say freedom and peace from torment—feel pretty incredible!

I know what it is to be feral and damaged, but then to have supportive people come along and treat you with enough respect, kindness and value to walk you out of your mess.

I also know the life-altering power of putting time and effort into oneself in order to overcome what has happened in your life.

A full recovery is possible for anyone.

Recovery works if you work it, you’re worth it—so work it!

Still learning,


Author of Unhooked

Book 2: “Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and Heartache” coming soon

Recommended reading:

The Road Back to Me – Lisa A. Roman

Get Out of That Pit! – Beth Moore

In the Meantime – Iyanla Vanzant

Rising Strong – Brene’ Brown

Author Annie Highwater is a Writer, Speaker, and Family Advocate. She is a life-long researcher of Behavioral Science with particular interests in family pathology and concepts of dysfunction and conflict. In 2016, Annie published her memoir, "Unhooked: A Mother’s Story of Unhitching from the Roller Coaster of Her Son’s Addiction." Her story is especially relevant in helping us all understand the personal challenges facing parents and family members, and how family dynamics both help and hinder the recovery process. Annie is in the midst of completing her second book, "Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and heartache" which will be out in Summer of 2018.

Join the conversation, become a Fix blogger. Share your experience, strength, and hope, or sound off on the issues affecting the addiction/recovery community. Create your account and start writing: