Hypervigilance and the Traumatized Adopted Child
If you have never experienced hypervigilance, then you might not understand how your traumatized adopted child interacts with the world. Most traumatized children experience some form of hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is pretty much like being in sentry mode. You are on the lookout for trouble so you will not be caught off guard when it comes.
Some people with hypervigilance get another diagnosis that is really just a symptom of the hypervigilance. For example, my sister, who was traumatized as a child, has been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder because she cannot let down her guard to take a test in a crowded room. She must be able to identity the source of every noise. So, whenever someone flips a sheet of paper or clears his throat, her attention is pulled to that noise rather than the test.
After failing several tests in college even though she clearly understood the material, she talked with her professors about what to do. She was screened by a mental health professional and diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. This got her a private testing room. Immediately, her grades went up because there were no distractions in the room.
I never had any issues with taking tests, even though I experienced the same traumas that my sister did. Instead, my hypervigilance affects me at night. I sleep alone (much to my husband's chagrin) because I cannot sleep with another person in the room. Any noise whatsoever startles me awake. I sleep in a room scented with vanilla to calm my startle reflex, and I run either an air purifier or a humidifier all night long to drown out any noises. I do yoga and meditation to relax before bed.
Despite these efforts, I am still jerked awake regularly by simple noises, especially any noise that sounds like a door. I will go from being relaxed and about to doze off to being instantly awake. The simple sound of someone touching the door handle causes me to feels as if I took a shot of adrenaline. My heart is pounding, and I am instantly awake. After this happens, it takes me a while to calm back down and fall asleep.
I know of no "cure" for hypervigilance. I have done years of healing work. I know that I am now an adult and safe. I have not been abused in decades. I have added so many tools to my toolbox to help me relax and sleep at night. Nevertheless, my hypervigilance continues to rear its ugly head.
If I am still this way in my late thirties, just imagine how a traumatized adopted child must react when the abuse happened much more recently. The child cannot help his reaction. It is like expecting a police officer just to chill out in a crowded room. Once you have known trauma, it is hard to "unring the bell."
Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt