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Hypervigilance & Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

written by: Stephanie Torreno • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 5/10/2011

Hypervigilance can result from a specific trauma in one's life, or be caused by a psychological disorder. This behavior can take on many forms, and can cause such excessive worry that it interferes with daily functioning. Learn more about generalized anxiety disorder hypervigilance in this article.

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    Generalized Anxiety Disorder Hypervigilance

    Hypervigilance is a state of strong nervous energy, or an intense need to keep busy. This feeling can be a natural response after a violent, traumatic event in which the mind and body remain instinctively alert to real or perceived threats. A hypervigilant person often feels extremely anxious, which can cause exhaustion. Additional symptoms of hypervigilance include abnormally increased arousal, a heightened response to stimuli, sleeplessness, extreme anxiety, panic attacks, and obsessive or obsessive-compulsive behavior.

    Hypervigilance can take many forms and can result in many behaviors. Individuals with hypervigilance may check their security in their home and have an alarm system, multiple door locks, window locks, and guard dogs. In dealing with the outside world, these people may cross streets to avoid 'suspicious' strangers, carry defensive weapons, use a police whistle, and have a cell phone programmed with emergency numbers. Not surprisingly, hypervigilance can be an outcome of Acute Stress Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; it can also lead to Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

    GAD causes individuals to excessively worry about aspects of daily life, so much so that it interferes with everyday activities. In people with this disorder, their worry is often out of control and unrealistic for a specific situation. Since the ‘hyper’ in ‘hypervigilance’ means above normal or unreasonable, this condition may logically lead to GAD. This anxiety disorder’s symptoms include ongoing tension and worry, nervousness, restlessness, trouble falling or staying asleep, and being easily startled. Many of the symptoms of GAD can be traced to the symptoms of hypervigilance. Also, like hypervigilance, GAD can result from a violent event or other trauma in one’s life.

    A diagnosis of GAD should be done by a physician who takes a medical history and performs a physical examination. When physical causes are eliminated, the doctor considers the intensity and duration of the anxiety experienced. If worry interferes with daily life, is uncontrollable, is extremely upsetting, and occurs most days for at least six months, an individual may receive a diagnosis of GAD.

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    CBT and GAD

    After a diagnosis of GAD, treatment options can help reduce the symptoms of the disorder. While medications can be used in more severe cases, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be as effective as medications in most individuals. CBT addresses negative thinking and the behaviors of hypervigilance. The five components of CBT for GAD involve:

    • Education – learning about GAD and understanding how to differentiate between helpful and unhelpful worry.
    • Monitoring – learning how to monitor your anxiety, what triggers it, the specific things that cause it, and the severity and duration of it. This will offer you perspective and help you track your progress.
    • Physical control strategies – learning how to breathe deeply and relax muscles progressively helps decrease the physical over-arousal of the “fight or flight” response.
    • Cognitive control strategies – learning to realistically evaluate and change thinking patterns that contribute to the disorder.
    • Behavioral strategies – learning to tackle fears instead of avoiding them. These strategies, including time management and problem-solving skills, will increase feelings of control and lessen anxiety.

    In addition to CBT and medication, if necessary, individuals experiencing intense anxiety should practice self-help methods, such as eating a nutritious diet, avoiding caffeine, and exercising. Meditation and deep breathing also help strengthen the ability to relax.

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    References

    Flanigan, J.C. (n.d.) Hypervigilance & anxiety. Retrieved August 28, 2010, from www.help4trauma.org/hypervigilance.html

    Smith, M., Jaffe-Gill, E., and Segal, J. (2010). Generalized anxiety disorder (gad): symptoms, treatment, and self-help. Retrieved August 29, 2010, from www.helpguide.org/mental/generalized_anxiety_disorder.htm