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Hypervigilance and the Traumatized Adopted Child

faitha's picture

By faitha - Posted on 12 April 2008

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."

Related Topic:

Hypervigilance after Child Abuse

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

John's picture

My youngest is hypervigilant. He has both PTSD and RAD. He knows he is safe, and that the people who mistreated him are thousands of miles away. He has attached to me and knows that he is loved and is important. While the condition is somewhat less intense, it is very much there, from what you are saying Faith, it sounds like any progress will be very slow. I think he feels stress more than most people, unfortunately, it has resulted in some physical problems. Wouldn't it be nice if there was some super pill, one dose and gone forever, unfortunately, real life is rarely that simple. John

faitha's picture

Yes, my experience has been that progress in letting go of hypervigilance is slow. I honestly don't know how to let it go because it has been a part of who I am for decades. I have made marked progress in that I can now sleep through the night and sleep soundly. That was not a case a few years ago. However, I really wish I could let go of the "sentry mode" when I lie down to sleep at night. I am not sure if I will ever fully drop that mode because I don't know how.

- Faith


We must BE the change we wish to see in the world. - Ghandi

Joanne's picture
faitha's picture

I know this is completely off topic, but I must rise to the challenge of being tagged!!

Joanne from tagged me to share 10 quirky things about myself. Here are my ten:

1. I have a pen obsession. My favorite pen is made by Rose Art. They are the BEST!!
2. I cannot sleep without a heavy blanket, even in the summer.
3. I cannot sleep if I feel any cool air on my back (hence the need for the blanket).
4. The only color lipstick I own is black.
5. I have one color of clothes hangers that can only be used in my closet. It really bothers me if anyone else in the house uses my hangers.
6. I check my alarm clock exactly three times before going to bed.
7. I carry a sweater or jacket into restaurants all year round because I am always cold.
8. I cannot rest if there are dishes in my sink.
9. The toilet paper roll must feed from the top. I have to resist the urge to “fix” other people’s rolls.
10. I cannot remember to bring food home from a restaurant. I have left an entire pizza sitting on the table. I simply cannot process the transportation of food home from a restaurant.

- Faith


We must BE the change we wish to see in the world. - Ghandi