Hypervigilance and addiction recovery

Hypervigilance is a heightened state of awareness in which a person is often flooded by sensory input. It’s a survival skill learned in both war zones and abusive families. Excessively monitoring the physical environment and the people in it is subconsciously driven. It’s meant to detect any threat to self at the earliest possible juncture.

The worst part of hypervigilance is there’s no off switch. It makes relaxation impossible and it deprives us of a sense of well-being. We seek distraction and relief and find it fleeting at best.

The hardest part is learning to feel something we’ve never felt. Safety is a basic human right, but when you’ve never experienced it, or had it taken away from you, it’s just a nice idea that seems unattainable.

Seeking safety is a spiritual undertaking. It requires connection and a shift in awareness. Hypervigilance is constantly scanning for threats. Serenity is knowing that either no threat currently exists or that when there one does that we’re equipped to deal with it. This is not something we can do alone. We need progressively more safe people and safe places.

Keeping it simple, we learn what to take in and what to let go of. We learn that being alone is unmanageable. We need sanctuary in the company of good people, in our homes and ultimately, we build it within our bodies, minds, and spirits, sharing a connection to a power greater than ourselves.

Our ability to heal hinges on our willingness to struggle and be open to new solutions Its easy to perpetuate past patterns. It’s much harder to be real and to ask for what we need.

I work with the most motivated people on earth (people in recovery from trauma and addiction). One of my most favorite people to sort through shit with shared some struggles recently:

“There are sounds and images in my mind that I can’t translate into words. As I seek to be free of them, I have this sense of how things are supposed to be and it doesn’t match up at all to how they are.”

He then sheepishly admits, “I’m having a ton of anxiety right now because I left home without doing the dishes.”

Why is that so hard for you? “Because how I felt when I left affects how I feel about going back.” Right. That matches up to trauma recovery perfectly. How you feel about your home and returning to it is the same with your memories – the good ones are nice and we’re happy to revisit them. The bad ones we’re very anxious about returning to.

Every struggle has an opportunity. He now makes time not only for the dishes, but to spend time relaxing and connecting to his Higher Power before starting his day. Habits, organization, and order facilitate optimally experiencing time, space, peace and people. Awareness reduces hypervigilance.

He’s great at keeping it simple. His take away is “My last glance of a room totally impacts how I view returning to it.” My challenge to him is that his last glance in a mirror can do the same thing.


Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim is the cofounder of Sobernow.com an online addiction recovery program that is affordable and provides complete anonymity