When veterans return home from active duty, many develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after having witnessed or been involved in a traumatic incident. A major symptom of this mental condition is hypervigilance. When people experience this symptom, awareness of their surroundings and environment can be excessive and sometimes obsessive, because they're constantly looking out for threatening situations and searching for escape routes should they feel confronted by dangerous circumstances.

Understanding Hypervigilance

When a veteran is hypervigilant, they're on the alert for hidden dangers they believe are real but are often exaggerated or improbable. In this heightened state of arousal, they can experience:

  • Extreme emotional reactions
  • Anxiety
  • Impulsive behavior patterns
  • Deep, intense feelings of being threatened
  • A need to remain on guard for impending disaster
  • A fight or flight response that may cause aggressive and/or inappropriate responses to normal, common situations

In this heightened state of awareness, an individual will often feel exhausted. Because this PTSD symptom can interfere with sleep, a veteran experiencing hypervigilance may be fatigued, unable to concentrate, and powerless to focus. If deprived of sleep, there might also be intensified feelings of paranoia, which can feed into hypervigilant behaviors. Additionally, hypervigilance can interfere with the ability to perform at work, function on a daily basis, and handle relationships with friends and loved ones.

Triggers of Hypervigilance

For many veterans, hypervigilance can feel as if there's a constant state of tension and uneasiness boiling below the surface. Certain stimuli trigger this PTSD symptom, including:

  • Feeling emotional and/or physical distress
  • Experiencing loud or sudden noises
  • Listening to arguments or people shouting
  • Feeling abandoned
  • Having a deep sense of uncertainty
  • Experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, or reminders of the traumatic event
  • Feeling trapped or cornered
  • Being overstimulated or under-stimulated emotionally
  • Experiencing the abrupt, confusing, or random behavior of other people
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the demands and expectations of friends and family

Understanding PTSD hypervigilanceHypervigilance Triggers Emotional Reactions

One hypervigilance is triggered, it could cause fierce and extreme emotional reactions—some that are elevated to the threshold of panic or alarm. Some of these reactions include:

  • Violence and/or anger
  • Constant worry
  • Intense feelings of unfair treatment
  • Emotional disengagement and/or shutdown
  • Fear that others are judging
  • Negative thinking
  • Judgment of others
  • Feelings of self-loathing
  • Uncompromising thinking

Coping Mechanisms

If a veteran remains in a state of heightened alert for a long time, they may learn to cope by using various strategies called avoidance behaviors and confronting and aggressive behaviors.

Avoidance/Escape Behavior

  • Avoiding social situations
  • Day dreaming
  • Refusing to participate in conversations
  • Refusing to deal with challenging and difficult issues
  • Procrastinating to avoid meeting deadlines
  • Avoiding emotional intimacy
  • Avoiding contact with friends and family
  • Avoiding new situations due to fear and a desire to avoid risk
  • Behaving in a controlling manner that doesn’t allow others to express themselves

Aggressive/Confronting Behavior

  • Acting defensively
  • Acting with violence and aggression
  • Reacting with irregular and unstable mood swings
  • Feeling vengeful
  • Demonstrating an extreme need for order or a need to "make things right"
  • Acting out with intense emotional responses
  • Fearing blame or being shamed
  • Demonstrating a need to search for the truth and/or evidence
  • Demonstrating behavior that corrects others and/or demands they to accept your views 

Cuddigan Law Is Here To Help With Your PTSD Claim

The experienced veterans disability lawyers at Cuddigan Law recognizes and respects the sacrifices veterans made to protect this country. They understand that combat isn't easy, and veterans can suffer from physical injuries as well as psychological traumas, including PTSD and the many symptoms that go with it, such as hypervigilance.

If you’re a veteran suffering from PTSD, we can help you obtain the disability benefits you need to care for yourself and your loved ones. If you need help service-connecting your mental health condition and want to file for disability benefits, contact Cuddigan Law. Our attorneys have supported veterans for years, and we’ll carefully examine your case and advise you on the best approach for receiving the maximum in disability benefits. Call us today, and you’ll speak to an intake specialist for free.


Sean D. Cuddigan
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SSA and VA Disability Attorney in Omaha, Nebraska