Breaking the Chains of Overthinking: A Guide to Emotional Hypervigilance

In the fast-paced rhythm of our lives, do you ever find yourself caught in the unrelenting dance of worry? Does your mind replay conversations like a broken record, scrutinising every word and gesture for hidden meanings? Do you feel tense in your body, whisper of headaches, and yearn for restful sleep that seems elusive?

If this scenario feels familiar, you're not alone. Emotional hypervigilance, a stealthy companion to our daily existence, affects many of us. In this blog about this heightened awareness, let's uncover the signs, delve into its impact on our lives, and discover pathways to a more serene existence. 

According to Counselling Directory member Gregori Savva's article, 'What is emotional hypervigilance?' emotional hypervigilance is "a heightened state of arousal, stress or sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli."

Recognising the signs of emotional hypervigilance

  • Constant worry: You worry continuously, without a break and often about things beyond your control. Because of this, you feel constantly on edge and find it challenging to relax.
  • Overthinking and rumination: You replay your thoughts on a loop in your mind, repeatedly thinking about the same things, especially your problems or worries. It's like having a broken record playing in your head. You might constantly replay a conversation, analysing every word and gesture, looking for hidden meanings or signs of disapproval, even in casual interactions. With overthinking, you might spend much time imagining potential future social scenarios, creating mental scripts for every possible conversation in an attempt to be prepared for any outcome. 

Physical symptoms

The stress associated with emotional hypervigilance can also impact your physical body in the following ways: 

  • Muscle tension: You might notice increased muscle tension, particularly in the neck, shoulders and jaw, making you uncomfortable and even experiencing headaches. 
  • Digestive issues: Stomachaches, indigestion, changes in bowel habits and even irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms. 
  • Sleep disturbances: Emotional hypervigilance often interferes with sleep and might cause insomnia, restlessness and fragmented sleep patterns. You may find yourself waking up frequently during the night.
  • Headaches: Caused by physical tension and stress. 
  • Fatigue: Being constantly vigilant and on edge is physically draining, leaving you tired, low on energy and generally exhausted. 

Even though these are physical symptoms, counselling can give you tools and strategies to effectively manage these manifestations of emotional hypervigilance by giving you the headspace you need to manage your stressors.

Relationship struggles 

When you are constantly second-guessing yourself, not expressing your needs and finding it hard to be present in social interactions, it is no wonder this can impact your relationships. Misunderstandings, conflicts, or difficulty forming connections are more likely. You might then withdraw from social situations and isolate yourself for fear of judgement or rejection.

Some causes of emotional hypervigilance

It's typically a combination of factors that contribute to you feeling this, for example:

  • Anxiety, social anxiety, or specific phobias can lead to constant worry and vigilance.
  • Past trauma such as abuse, violence or a life-threatening event may develop emotional hypervigilance as a defence mechanism. 
  • High levels of stress from work, family, or personal issues.
  • Perfectionism, where you are constantly seeking flawlessness and fear of making mistakes.
  • Sensory sensitivities.

A word on hypervigilance in neurodivergent (autistic and ADHD) individuals

Emotional hypervigilance is not exclusive to autistic and ADHD individuals. Still, it is prevalent, with social and sensory sensitivities and triggers often contributing. Autistic masking, where we hide our autistic traits to fit in better with the neurotypical world, can be conscious or unconscious and is exhausting either way. Intrusive or sudden noises can trigger heightened alertness and anxiety. Overcrowded places, such as public transport or crowded events, can be overwhelming and cause individuals to be on high alert. 

Executive functions are the mental processes that help us achieve our objectives; they help us solve problems, guide our decision-making, and control our actions. Executive functioning differences in autistic and ADHD people mean emotional regulation is challenging, particularly when sensory overwhelm, when our working memory or difficulties with time management make it difficult to complete tasks.

These social and sensory sensitivities and executive functioning challenges can cause stress, anxiety, and emotional hypervigilance.

Finding healthy coping strategies

Perhaps you recognise some of these signs in yourself or your loved ones – what can help?

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques

  • Mindfulness is staying fully present in the moment without judgment or distraction. It can be anything that takes your mind off what has happened and might happen in the future. It's paying deliberate attention to your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment as they are in the present.
  • Deep breathing: Practice deep belly breathing to calm the nervous system and reduce anxiety.


  • Regular exercise: Physical activity can help reduce stress and anxiety. Find an exercise routine you enjoy, whether walking, yoga, or a team sport.
  • Adequate sleep: Prioritise good sleep routines and ensure enough rest, as sleep is crucial for managing emotional well-being.
  • Nutrition: Maintain a balanced diet focusing on whole foods, as nutrition can impact mood and energy levels.
  • Hydration: Drink enough water throughout the day, as dehydration can contribute to stress.

Seeking professional help

It's important to note that emotional hypervigilance can affect individuals in different ways and to varying degrees. The first step is awareness, and if you've recognised any of the signs in yourself or someone you care about, you're already on the path to understanding and healing. Seeking professional help is a critical step. Addressing emotional hypervigilance can involve understanding the underlying causes. Counselling can help with this and support you to find healthy coping strategies that work for you.

In addition, the coping strategies mentioned, like mindfulness, relaxation techniques, self-care, and seeking support from friends and family, can help guide you back to a healthier emotional state. Remember, you're not alone in experiencing this. Many of us grapple with heightened vigilance, and self-compassion and understanding will help you feel healthier and happier – something to be genuinely vigilant about. 

If this resonates with you, explore my profile for more information on how we might work together or to get in touch. Remember, you're not alone in experiencing heightened vigilance. Many of us navigate these challenges, and self-compassion and understanding can lead us to a healthier and happier state. Let's embark on this journey together.