My oldest turned 14 recently. I remember what it was like to be fourteen.
I remember my parents splitting up.
I remember being sexually abused.
I remember being pregnant.
I remember having an abortion.
I remember my best friend dying.
I remember wanting to die.
I have never felt so alone in all my life.
Those who know my history will sometimes say, "It must feel good to know he doesn't have to go through the same thing you did." Yes, it would feel good, if only my mind were completely convinced he is somehow protected from tragedy - but he's not.
Trauma and loss can launch very reasonable people into hypervigilance - a state of increased alertness and being very sensitive to surroundings. It can make us feel very alert to hidden dangers of people or the environment, whether they are real or not, which gives a sense of control... we so desperately want to feel like we can keep the "bad thing" away. There's a physical response to hypervigilance (sweating, fast heart rate, fast/shallow breathing), and it is exhausting and can greatly impact relationships.
For example, my friend, Thanh's, death was the result of the driver overcorrecting and flipping the vehicle they were in. I became obsessed with watching how people gripped and maneuvered the steering wheel, contemplating their speed, and watching for sudden moves from surrounding vehicles. Anger would boil inside me if the driver wasn't as aware or seemed to be taking their responsibility lightly. A few times, I demanded the driver pull over and let me out; even if it was on the interstate - walking was better than riding with them and their dangerous driving. Knowing someone could be taken from me at anytime, hypervigilance ruled my goodbyes. And, dare I ever let someone run an errand or do something in my stead again? NO! Because Thanh was only on that school trip because I chose not to go and she was the alternate - she wouldn't have died had I gone.
Hypervigilance is sometimes perceived as "control issues," when it fact it is a trauma response.
All of my experiences at age 14 brought about some type of hypervigilance. Some waned over time, others improved as a result of my relationship with Jesus, therapy, and participation in Celebrate Recovery, but, when certain circumstances arise, I once again find myself at a heightened state... circumstances such as having a fourteen year old child in my care.
Yes, he has a very different life than I had, but when I consider my circumstances at age 14, I've always assumed those who loved me didn't know about my abuser's actions or else they would have intervened - so if someone is grooming or abusing my son, I might not know. How horrible! How can I protect him if I don't even know? Well, I might know if I stay diligent in digging deeper for any of the signs or if don't let him go anywhere; I can confront anyone I suspect so they know I'm onto them. The possibilities of perceived control are endless.
There is a difference between diligent parenting and hypervigilance. In my case, hypervigilance is tempting because the enemy wants me to believe that if my son is abused, slips deeply into unhealthy romantic relationship/friendships, or begins having sex - then his life is over, and it's all my fault because, as his mom, I am to protect him from these horrible experiences so familiar to me. Forget Satan because truth calls out to me every morning as I seek the Holy Spirit's guidance - though bad things can and will happen to my children, I do not have to parent in fear.
What experiences in your life lure you into hypervigilance? Whether you have experienced death of a loved one, unfaithfulness within your marriage, a business or a church that seriously wronged you, witnessed or experienced trauma, or you are living during a world-wide pandemic, hypervigilance need not be a trademark of your being. Here I share steps I take to protect myself from hypervigilance or remove myself from it if it's slipped back into my life (this is in addition to the steps I mentioned above regarding accepting Jesus, seeking therapy/medical assistance, and participating in Celebrate Recovery).
- Seek Jesus daily. - If you've been following me very long, you probably expected this to be at the top of my list. During quiet time with Jesus is when I often receive conviction about living in fear or that I have moved from diligent to hypervigilant, but I'm not met with shame - instead He gently sheds light on the thing that's stealing my abundant living, and promptly returns with a reminder of the hope I have to be freed from this. Reading Psalm 139 reminds me how intimately God knows me, how often He thinks of me, and how precious I am to Him. By the end of the chapter, I'm inclined to request of God that which was requested by the psalmist in the very last verses of the chapter: "Search me, O God, and know my thoughts; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful ways in me, and lead me in the everlasting way."
- Acknowledge which actions aren't helpful or are being done in fear - then share it. - Satan HATES this, and I mean, seriously HATES this. Once I put something out into the light, it takes all the wind out of his sails. I write down any of my hypervigilant actions (or those in which I'm tempted to do), and I share my fears and my list with someone I can trust. This occasionally leads me to make amends as well. In the case of my 14 year old son, I have apologized on a few occasions for beginning to spiral. This has led to building rather than damaging the relationship. It's an opportunity for him to see me as human (not just "mom), it's resulted in a ton of teaching moments, and I learn a lot about him when I'm responding in humility rather than fear.
- Search for objective evidence. - Sometimes what I fear to be true is actually true or could be true, but I want to pursue it with healthy tenacity rather than destructive fear/control. Sorting (sometimes with the help of my husband or a friend) observations versus feeling is always helpful. What evidence can help me discern whether this is something to pursue (possibly with tenacity) versus finding a way to let it go? A quick search of signs a child is being groomed or abused reveals nothing alarming for my son. Looking at signs of unhealthy friendships or something sneaky going on, he meets a few of the criteria... so I can pursue more answers to those questions by talking with him, possibly setting some boundaries, etc.
- Remember. - Satan is quick to remind me of the past... the trauma, the suffering, but he always leaves something out - the victory. I thank Satan for bringing these things up because it helps me realize how BIG God is. I mean, who can live an abundant life after all this crap?!?! I know who, me. I am walking hand in hand with an all powerful God who loves and cherishes me. Well, guess what, that God is the same one who is walking side-by-side with my son. God has whispered to me many times the same words He said to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness," and this is also true for my son. I don't wish ill-will for him, but I can release him to a God who makes beautiful things out of dust. He is God. I am not.
- Fast rather then "should." - I've learned that self-control and self-discipline have a great deal of value in my life, but I can't just "will" myself to do or not do some of these things. "I should have more faith," "I shouldn't obsess." Rather than force myself to stop whatever obsessive behavior I've launched into, I start by putting it aside for a specific period of time for prayer. One of my clients did this beautifully. She had become hypervigilant in checking the maps app of her husband as a part of their agreed upon accountability since he had previously been unfaithful. Rather than just saying, "I won't look at the maps any more," she scheduled a few hours one day during the week, and she spent that time seeking God instead of the maps. This fast was not for the intention of never looking at the maps again, it was about changing her relationship with the maps and instead build her reliance upon Jesus. She has done this routinely now for several months, and her relationship with the maps app has completely changed.
- Give space for rest. - Not sure I need to say much more. This process can be exhausting. Earlier bed time, slowing my schedule, or just reducing noise all help me get the rest I need during these times, which can also help me keep clarity. If I'm tired, I make stupid decisions.
- Seek professional help, again. - Once I walk away from professional help, I often dust my hands off with "completion," and to return to that help again feels like failure. It's not. It doesn't mean the progress I made last time wasn't genuine or true. Sometimes I simply have new symptoms, and getting professional help/insight is valuable. Back in the fall, I was able to do some EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing); this was so valuable and kept me from spiraling deep into a pit.
Hypervigilance isn't a sign of failure, it is a sign of humanness. In fact, if you're like me, there are times it has "paid off" (it seemingly protected me or saved my loved one from some sort of hurt) - which is why it's difficult to lay it down and to leave it down. I truly believe by taking some of the steps mentioned, I've been more consistent in diligence without all the exhausting and relationship damaging side-effects of hypervigilance. I am still in this process of learning and growing, and, with each step, I am reminded of the Father's love for me.
Share your journey with me. How can I pray for you? You are not alone, and you are deeply cherished and loved.
The Full Original Copy of the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
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