High Awareness: What Every Military Spouse Should Know About Hypervigilance

All relationships encounter hardships and military relationships are definitely faced with higher adversity than most. This post will be the first of several that I plan on writing on how military spouses can get a little more understanding on how we feel when we return from a dangerous environment.

As I finished reading one of the posts that I was currently working on, my wife looked at me as if something was missing from it. I asked her what it was and she said; “when are you going to start talking about how deployments affect the family?” She went on to remind me how helpless she felt because she didn’t know how to help me during that period. It seemed fitting to explore; after all, she was the one who had witnessed firsthand how my bouts with anxiety and a year away from each other took a toll on our relationship.

It is kind of funny how things work out because just a couple of days ago I had a conversation with a military spouse that was concerned about some of the behaviors that her husband was exhibiting. She explained that something as simple as a kiss goodbye while he was sleeping could startle him. I could relate to this behavior as I experienced the same “jumpiness” in similar situations.

When I returned from Iraq in 2011, I got so caught up in the excitement of being back home with my family that I forgot about the importance of slowly transitioning into my role at home. I should have had a little more awareness about this since I had advised countless soldiers to do the same. It’s a mistake that so many service members make because of the anticipation of going back home to a “brand new life”. For me it was starting my Masters in Social Work and getting back to my job at the hotel. Before I realized it, I was caught up in my daily routine and totally forgot about taking the time to make that transition.

The first time my wife noticed something different about me is when she tried to kiss me while my back was turned. I reacted by spinning around and getting in a fighting stance. She got scared and was concerned because we were always very affectionate to each other. I never reacted that way before I left. Why now? In another instance, I jumped out of our bed as I experienced a sharp pain in my chest and mistook it for a “heart attack”. I was so frightened that I called 911 and was sent to the ER. After several tests they’re only conclusion was that I had anxiety due to stress.

This continued for several months and the concerns started to grow. I began to get more information about anxiety and almost everything pointed towards hypervigelance. Hypervigilance is referred to as the experience of being on an increased awareness that may be caused by fear or anxiety. Because service members are on constant alert due to the dangerous environment they live in while they are deployed, when they return it takes them time to return to a normal state of awareness.

The first thing I want to point out is that hypervigilance is not a diagnosis. It is mainly caused by stress and anxiety. Hypervigilance can be manifested in several different ways such as being easily startled, dilated pupils or an obsessive avoidance of any possible perceived threat. People with PTSD can suffer from chronic hypervigilance that can lead to severe panic attacks and flashbacks.

Moving Forward

I have never really depended on taking medication for anything, so I tried to rely on natural ways to ease my anxiety. I modified most of my eating habits and started incorporating anxiety-fighting foods such as avocados, almonds, spinach, oatmeal, bananas and papayas to my diet. The next thing I found that helped me to get a good night’s sleep was yoga. I began doing several poses to release the anxiety and stress from the body and ever since I started I’ve slept without any problems. It is now part of my daily routine as I do them in the morning and at night before I go to bed. The last thing I found to be very helpful for me was mindfulness meditation. Meditation eliminates all of the racing thoughts we have during our daily lives. It is a skill that anyone can learn with practice. We just have to begin with small steps and use a little guidance before we can do it on our own.

What Can Spouses Do?

  1. Be aware of the signs: Since I never was the type of person to be jumpy or nervous, my wife mistook it as not wanting to be touched by her affectionately. Please realize that this is not something we can control and if you have an understanding of the symptoms you can work together in minimizing additional stress and anxiety.
  2. Oversee their diet: For the most part (there are some exceptions) spouses are the ones in charge of buying and cooking the food we consume. Make sure to stay away from foods high in sugar and caffeine and try to look into foods and beverages that help fight anxiety and stress. These can include chamomile tea, salmon, turkey, avocados, dark chocolate, asparagus, and spinach.
  3. Encourage them to try something different: Not many service members are willing to try yoga or meditation on their own. There has to be a push from somewhere. Try to get them information on how mindfulness meditation and certain yoga sequences work against anxiety. There are many good Apps available for meditation. The one I use is called Stop, Breathe & Think. It has a tutorial and you can start with 3 minutes and work your way up. As for yoga, I’m already planning a post on the sequences I use so please stay tuned for that.
  4. If all fails, get help: It may take some people a little more time before they begin to notice any progress. If a couple of weeks pass and there isn’t even the slightest change in your loved ones behavior, seek professional help. This can be done through the VA, Vet Center or in a possible critical situation you can call the Veteran Crisis Line, which is available 24/7 by dialing 1-800-273-8255