Hyper-Vigilance – Time To Burst The ‘Safety’ Bubble

A recent study suggests pregnant women become “hyper-vigilant” towards the end of their pregnancy in order to keep their unborn baby as safe as can be.

The research from Anglia Ruskin University looked at peripersonal space – the individual sense space around a person – and tested how a woman reacts during her pregnancy. 

Scientists used audio-tactile testing to investigate how the part of the brain that is aware of personal space was affected as the pregnancy developed. They found that, while it was unchanged during the first two trimesters, the boundaries were expanded during the third trimester as the woman’s body stretched to accommodate her growing baby.

It is a fascinating revelation and it’s easy to understand why this would be the case; it makes absolute sense. The woman is on the watch for any danger to her developing baby; all her senses are on high alert; she is careful, wary and on the lookout for any threat. She has reverted to her animal instinct, using the part of her primitive brain – the amygdala – that deals with emotions and is responsible for alerting her to danger. 

So, for an expectant mother, being hyper-vigilant makes sense. There is a very clear point to it. 

But what about hyper-vigilance in other circumstances, when the need may not be there?

Hyper-vigilance was good for our ancestors who had to be ever-aware of their surroundings and what was going on that might be a threat to their survival. The amygdala was crucial to their survival skills. It gave them the instant fight, flight or freeze reaction that could mean the difference between life and death. 

It is useful still, as 96 Harley Psychotherapy’s founder Dr Robin Lawrence explained: “You’re walking down the road reading your smart phone and in a world of your own. You’re not thinking about what’s going on around you and are about to cross the road, when, for some explicable reason you stop. And just as you come to a sudden halt at the edge of the kerb, a big red bus goes by. 

“If you’d stepped out, you’d have been badly hurt at the very least. As it is, you’re standing still with shock, your mouth’s dry, your heart’s racing and you’re not sure what’s happened. 

“But you’re all right. You’re alive. And that’s because of some deep-down warning system within – your amygdala – was was doing its job well and looking after your survival.”

So far so good, but now we come to the more difficult part. 

We no longer operate within the same world as our ancestors and, all being well, our survival skills should have expanded to incorporate a greater need for reasoning and understanding that we need to use in our modern world.

For this, we need the pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brain that works out the best reasoned and calm way to respond to a present situation.  

The pre-frontal cortex gets messages through the hippocampus – another key part of the brain connected with our emotions – the part of our brain that stores past memories and information and guides us towards our response. 

Interestingly, studies suggest people with anxiety problems – of which hyper-vigilance is one – have a smaller pre-frontal cortex than those living within a “normal” range of anxiety levels. 

The good news is that it develops with use so the more a person uses their reasoning and “in the present” thought process, the easier the process will become and the less reliance the individual will have on the amygdala and its impulsive response. 

Hyper-vigilance is believed to be connected with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a reaction to something that was perceived to have been terrifying, out of control and perhaps even threatening to a person’s life. For example,  imagine a soldier who’s been under fire in battle and remains forever stuck in that heightened sense of awareness, unable to move from that terrified state into a place of reasonable normality. 

It may indeed have been the case at a particular time for an individual or it may have been a childhood recall – accurate or not – when one’s very survival did literally depend on another person. 

So, if a person is hyper-vigilant as almost a “default” position, their response to life may in fact be detrimental to them, the opposite of what they are trying to achieve. If they are permanently on the lookout for trouble, they will be forever reacting emotionally, impulsively or inappropriately because they have not worked out what is the right way to react for the situation that is happening in the present, at this moment.

Hyper-vigilance carried into adult life is not a good idea. It has the potential for reverting us to a child-like state where we are a being full of emotion but have lost the reasoning skills that help us develop into fully-fledged thoughtful and capable adults. 

So, while we admire nature’s ability to allow an expectant mother to use the temporary hyper-vigilance qualities she is gifted to protect her baby, we need to remember that, on a permanent basis, it is no way to live. 

By Lulu Sinclair

Image of pregnant woman by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

Image of a highly alert meerkat by Manfred Richter from Pixabay