I work with lots of folks who have been traumatized in one way or another. (Trauma is actually extremely common; from the “big T” traumas of going to war, being assaulted, or being in a natural disaster, to the “little t” traumas of the first day of kindergarten, pretty much everyone can say they have some history of trauma.) One outcome of trauma can be what is known as “hypervigilance,” the perpetual placing of one’s attention outside of oneself to track potential dangers. Like a radar that is constantly scanning the environment, people who are hypervigilant spend lots of energy tracking what is going on outside of them.
Trauma is instant learning. In a car accident, the body learns immediately that cars are dangerous; in a mugging, that a certain type of person or a time of night or a particular street should be avoided. Bodies are smart this way. Since our survival depends on being able to quickly discern what is dangerous from what is safe, it is to our body’s advantage to get this information instantly and thoroughly.
The design flaw in this set-up, however, is that hypervigilance makes us not present. Our attention is outside of us, trying to pick up cues, so that very little time is spent attending to what is going on internally. We are thus apt to miss all the signals our greater wisdom is trying to give us. This is the explanation behind data that suggests people who have been assaulted have a much higher rate of future assaults. They might be scanning the environment for warning signs, but they’re totally missing their internal signals.
Practicing what Katie Hendricks calls the “loop of awareness” can be extremely useful as a way to shift out of hypervigilance while gaining skills in being present. You can try it right now. Breathe in and out, and notice what your body feels like as the breath travels into your body; while you’re noticing your breath, you can also tune into other sensations that are happening internally. Now, while taking another breath, shift your attention outside of you, scanning around you. Loop back in again, giving your body the deliciousness of your full attention; now loop back out, opening your vision so that you see as much of the external world as you can.
Knowing what is going on with you while you simultaneously notice the outside world prepares you to respond to the moment. Then you can really trust yourself that, no matter what, you’re going to be all right.
Are you interested in doing more of this work of consciousness while being in a supportive and rich community of learners? I have several workshops coming up: Essentials, Adding the Body, and more. Get more information at my website, www.JuliaColwell.com.