Grief: Overcoming the obstacles of hypervigilance and trust issues

“After a traumatic experience, the human system of self-preservation seems to go onto permanent alert, as if the danger might return at any moment.” – Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery

When it turns out that nothing is what it seemed to be. When the “It could never happen to me.” happens to you, it is easy to keep your guard up and slip into a state where you find it difficult to trust that anything is what it is now. You put up walls and become hypervigilant in hopes of self-preservation from the worst.

Hypervigilance causes one to be on very high alert to a possible threat or risk that could cause pain and discomfort.  You feel constantly on guard in an effort to protect yourself from being blindsided again by another traumatizing event. This can interfere with your ability to trust others. Many people also experience trouble concentrating, they are easily irritable and upset. Hypervigilance can also take a toll on your physical health by way of headaches, rapid heartbeat or upset stomach. Basically, all of your efforts to stay in complete control with what is going on around you becomes your own undoing and leads to pain that you are trying so desperately to prevent.

Traumatic events, like losing a loved one can dramatically impact a person’s ability to trust others or feel safe and secure. You often experience the trauma over again in your mind which is associated with anxiety. This can lead to isolation and/or becoming overly dependent on others. All of which can push you to great lengths to create a feeling of safety. You have a hard time believing in others and find yourself playing out the worst case scenarios in an effort to prevent or prepare for it. It is exhausting and can leave you in a perpetual state of fear.


In addition, for someone who has experienced a traumatic event or loss to experience conflict, secrecy, betrayal, criticism or belittlement by a loved one can often lead to low self-esteem and undermined their recovery. If you love someone grieving, remember that they will be highly sensitive and reactive to negative experiences. You will need to handle with care when offering advice so as not to be perceived as a bully or unaccepting of the griever. You will need to think twice before doing anything that could be perceived as a violation, even when you thought your secrecy was preventing undue pain. However, when found out, will turn into something devastating, likely much more than it actually is or should have been. Yes, they have become tender footed and the only way to help them confidently walk through their lives again is to ensure that they feel supported and encouraged. Even when they are fucking up. Which they will do often as they get comfortable with their new normal.

So is that it? Take it or leave it? No, it is not.  Hypervigilance and trust issues stemming from a traumatic event or loss can complicate or destroy your personal relationships.  So what is one to do?

Well if you are the one on constant red alert you need to be truthful with your feelings.  Speaking to a trusted counselor can help you learn to cope and heal. Taking deep breaths to slow your heart rate and calm your nerves will help keep your mind focused and prevent you from jumping to conclusions. Remind yourself that hypervigilance will not necessarily prevent bad from happening.  There is a difference between being vigilant (aware) and hyper vigilant (fearfully aware).  When you  feel yourself going there, it is perfectly fine to speak aloud that you are okay and will be okay regardless of what happens. After all, you have already survived the worst. Remind yourself of that often.

If you are the loved one, then you need to be patient and understanding.  You need to accept that the griever no longer sees the world through rose-colored glasses. That they are going to be naturally suspicious as they work through their fears. It is imperative that you be truthful and honest with them at all times. That you do not hide things or do anything to cause them not to believe what you are telling them. Do not do anything to betray or belittle them. If you do it will only affirm to them their need to be hyper vigilant and exacerbate it. Be apologetic and mean it. No one is going to believe your 100th sorry, so mean it when you say it.  One step back turns into forty for the griever and it will take forty more forward for them to get passed your one step back. So, at all cost, for both your sake, continue to move forward in a positive way with your life, this will greatly encourage them to move forward with theirs.


If you have done something untrustworthy, like cheating, lying and/or sneaking behind someone’s back to hide something. Even if you thought you were doing it to protect them. You have to take the steps to help regain their trust if you can.  Which means, for lack of a better phrase, take your punishment.  If they are suspicious of every chime of your smartphone because you were caught calling or texting someone behind their back, do not get angry with them, that is only going to raise even more suspicion. You did that and by doing so, you proved to them that every ring on that device is potentially a betrayal yet again. If you cheated on them, do not get angry if they question your every move. You did that and by doing so, proved to them that you will do what gratifies your needs at their expense because you do not respect them.  If you lied to them, do not expect them to simply take you at your word. Do not be angry with them if they constantly wonder if you are telling the truth now. You did that and by doing so proved to them that they can not believe what you are saying.

Regaining trust with anyone after any of these things is difficult enough and doing so with someone who has already experienced great loss and trauma is that much more difficult. Over time, the offense can be and should be reconciled but in the mean time you, the offender, are experiencing  the consequences of violating someone’s trust, so don’t be pissed about it.  All is not lost and hopeless. It is just going to take a little more heaving lifting on your part but you may have to accept that the griever may not be able to forgive you and recover from the loss or trauma at the same time.

Trust is a two-way street. It is not all up to one or the other but a constant meeting in the middle, taking your lumps if need be and being brave enough to see the potential, as well. The more you (the loved one) are able to offer security the easier it will be for the griever to feel safe.  The safer you (the griever) feels, the more you will trust, and the less hypervigilant you will feel you need to be.


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