Anxiety and Hypervigilance

As we continue our look into developmental anxiety I want to discuss with you a nearly inevitable aspect of this problem. I’ll introduce the subject by way of illustration.

The animal kingdom is a predator-prey world. Roughly translated, this means if you’re a critter there’s something out there that very much like to have you for dinner. And unless you’re a strict herbivore – you’re thinking in kind.

(Just last week a woman was telling me of how she and her husband had a pet trout in their backyard pond…until one day they watched in horror as a hawk streaked down, clinched the unsuspecting fish in its talons, and flew off with it. Dinner!)


Animals are genetically wired for this predator-prey world of theirs. Watch a rabbit in your yard the next time you are relaxing on your deck – or a squirrel, or a bird.

Non-domesticated animals are constantly on the lookout for a predator. Note how their heads are in near constant motion because they are visually tuned to the prospect that something may be lurking nearby that would love to chomp them in an instant. Note their sensitivity to sound – and to movement. Animals, you see, are designed to be hypervigilant.


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Humans are not.


However, raise a child in an environment that is somehow unsafe or turbulent and he or she begins to feel threatened, precarious, in danger.

He will develop the same kind of hypervigilance one sees in animals. Inside he will begin to feel fidgety, at risk… anxious.

She will be hyper-alert to her environment. What often is taken by others as her being “observant” is something else in these cases. She is conditioned to be on the lookout for potential dangers and threats to her sense of self and/or safety. She is hypervigilant.
It is dangerous.


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It’s dangerous because we aren’t designed to live a predator-prey existence. What is perfectly normal for a woodland animal will wear a human being out!

Hypervigilance causes chronic stress in humans, which is just about the most dangerous condition we can put ourselves in. And it’s exhausting.


Later in this series we will be talking about tools to combat anxiety, but let me just say this for now. If you recognize hypervigilance in yourself, the first thing I would suggest is that you become aware of its mechanics from the brief information I’ve given you above.

Realize… and constantly remind yourself… that your old map from childhood is outdated. You are no longer powerless and dependent.

Let your new mantra be: I am confident and capable in this situation. I have choices. In the unlikely event that I am threatened, I will take care of myself. Repeat this to yourself throughout the day.

Regularly practice relaxation techniques and then apply them as you are going into a situation where previously you would have been hypervigilant.

In short, do something you were unable to do as a child – take charge of yourself and remember that you are adequate to the situation.


Next time we’ll look at another aspect of developmental anxiety – one that usually coexists with hypervigilance.

‘til then,


Dr Michael Ruth, Growth Resources, Personal Growth