When I was younger, I thought being hyperaware of my body was just an unpleasant part of being alive. Thank goodness I was wrong.
I first experienced being hyperaware of my body during my junior year of college. That was a notable year. For the first time ever, I had a room to myself. It was tiny, but it had four walls and a door I could close if I wanted to be alone.
I was majoring in music, and I’d often come back to my room after an early class, intent on starting a batch of oboe reeds or working on a paper. Perhaps my newfound solitude was giving me the space to notice my own inner experience more. Whatever the reason, the discomfort would start immediately.
My waistband might feel tight. I’d notice a tag scratching the back of my neck. If I had a turtleneck sweater on, I’d feel like it was choking me. My hands would feel too dry, or too sweaty. I could clip tags, loosen pants, change shirts, but no matter what I did, I still felt like I wanted to crawl out of my own skin.
Why was I suddenly hyperaware of my body sensations? And what could I have done about it? I wish I could go back and share my current knowledge with my 20-year-old self, answering her frightened questions about this phenomenon of bodily hyperawareness. I’d have begun by asking her a key question:
“Do you think you might be highly sensitive?”
When I was in college, Elaine Aron hadn’t yet named the trait of high sensitivity. But let’s pretend she had. I’d have asked my younger self what she knew about high sensitivity. If she knew little or nothing about it, I’d send her to take two self-tests: Dr. Aron’s original self-test, and a recent, more nuanced self-test designed by Dr. Michael Pluess and his colleagues and located on their excellent HSP research website, sensitivityresearch.com.
The younger Emily would have answered “yes” to all the questions on Dr. Aron’s self-test. She was, emphatically, a highly sensitive person (HSP.) And she’d have scored a rarified “orchid” rating on the second self-test, putting her at the high end of the sensitivity continuum.
She might already have felt some relief taking these quizzes, learning that a number of her quirks were not weirdness or something wrong with her. She was simply an HSP, which accounted for (among many other characteristics) her insanely keen sense of smell, notable sensitivity to pain, intense emotions, and acute awareness of subtleties of mood, tone, and expression in herself and in other people.
With this new HSP framework of understanding, my younger self would have wondered, “Am I truly hyperaware of my body? Or is this just normal HSP awareness of subtlety?” I would have recommended she explore these questions further by reading Dr. Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person, and by browsing blogs like mine, which flesh out in more detail what day-to-day life feels like inside a sensitive body and mind.
Do some detective work
For my younger self, though, knowledge of the trait wouldn’t have been enough. I can hear her saying, “OK, I get that I’m built to be more sensitive to my body than many other people are. But this hyperawareness of my body is something more than that. It’s driving me crazy. I can’t get anything done when I feel this way.”
In other words, we still had more detective work to do. Our next step would have been to ask more questions: “When does this happen? Do you associate it with particular activities, or places, or situations, or people, or times of day? Or does it go on all the time?”
In my case, we’d have seen that my body hyperawareness kicked in when I was alone in my room, intending to make reeds or write a paper. But was this really about reed making or paper writing? I had spent countless hours before engaging in these activities. Why was I now so hyperaware of my body?
Recognizing signs of hypervigilance
Looking more closely, my younger self and I would have realized the truth: she had been chronically anxious for many years. She—I— had managed to push the anxiety down for periods of time each day. Being in motion helped me—walking, or practicing. So did being around other people, in class or in rehearsal.
But when I came back to my room, alone, I could no longer escape reality. I felt sick-to-the-stomach, tense-in-the-neck anxious. My body hyperawareness was, paradoxically, an attempt to cope with this grueling anxiety.
To understand this, let’s take a look at the difference between awareness of present-moment discomfort on one hand, and global anxiety, on the other. A scratchy tag, for example, creates present-moment discomfort. Tags bothered me then, and they still do. Now, though, I simply grab my scissors, cut the tag out, then forget about it.
Back then, I could (and sometimes did) cut the tag out. But even as I got relief from that particular scratchiness, my hyperawareness would shift to some other sensation. I could loosen my belt, take off my turtleneck, or take any number of actions, but the fundamental sense of restless anxiety would not shift.
Why? Because I was in a state of hypervigilance. Webmd.com explains that:
The article points out that while hypervigilance serves us in dangerous situations, “our brains shouldn’t be in this excited state of extra-sensitivity all of the time.” If you’ve experienced hypervigilance, you know how emotionally, mentally, and physically draining it is.
What causes hypervigilance?
The website Healthline provides a list of common triggers of hypervigilance:
- Feeling trapped or claustrophobic
- Feeling abandoned
- Hearing loud noises (especially if they’re sudden or emotionally charged), which can include yelling, arguments, and sudden bangs
- Anticipating pain, fear, or judgment
- Feeling judged or unwelcome
- Feeling physical pain
- Feeling emotional distress
- Being reminded of past traumas
- Being around random, chaotic behaviors of others
No wonder highly sensitive people are at risk of chronic hypervigilance. Merely by virtue of our trait, we are already particularly sensitive to loud noises, emotional intensity, pain, and judgment. On top of all this, if we carry trauma from the past, including the subtle kind of trauma some HSPs experience, the resulting hypervigilance can act to heighten our sensitivities.
If you don’t know how to re-regulate your nervous system, you can spiral into a vicious cycle. In your hypervigilant state, your focus narrows more and more, fixating on the very feelings, sensations, or thoughts you most fear. This hyper-focus further exacerbates your hypervigilance.
Making friends with a part of you that hates being hyperaware of your body
Needless to say, hypervigilance does not feel good. However, as I would explain to my twenty-something self, you can become so accustomed to this tension over time that you stop recognizing it. Hypervigilance becomes “part of the wallpaper” of your mental décor: it’s always there, setting the tone, but somehow you never see it directly.
For that reason, your first step out of chronic hypervigilance is to truly see it and feel it. “But,” you might ask, “Won’t that just make me even more hyperaware?” You’d be right to be concerned. You will in fact plunge right back into the old vicious cycle, if you observe yourself from the perspective of the scared, hypervigilant part of you. This scared part of you will react to the experience of body hyperawareness by spiraling into more anxiety, as we described earlier.
Instead, you need to learn how to observe all this from the more spacious awareness we call Presence. Presence is that “bigger you” that can observe what is happening in you without judgment. Presence allows things to be exactly as they are…which, paradoxically, creates the space necessary for change to happen.
However, if you are hyperaware of your body, you can’t expect yourself to simply move into Presence and let all those unpleasant feelings be as they are, just by wanting to. It’s natural to hate feeling hypervigilant. So your first step is to turn towards the part of you that just wants the hypervigilance to stop.
Creating perspective for yourself
In fact, this “second layer”—your fear of your body hyperawareness—is the one that creates the most stress for you. The sensations or emotions you are vigilant about will come and go. In the meantime, though, this vigilant part of you stays on duty, nonstop. That’s exhausting.
Over time, though, with patience and support, you can develop a new relationship with this part of you that is vigilant about being hyperaware. As it relaxes, you can be present with the actual body sensations themselves, in a new, accepting way. Immediately you will feel a shift towards more spaciousness and calm.
Increasing your self-perspective will greatly aid this process of becoming more present with your body awareness patterns. As you increase your awareness of your level of tension, you will naturally begin to let go of some of it.
For example, as we’ve seen, when I was in my twenties I was chronically anxious, overstimulated, and dysregulated. However, I would not have described it that way, because I wasn’t consciously aware of all that. I knew I didn’t feel so good, but I didn’t question it. I just thought that was how life was.
All this changed after my first yoga class. I came out feeling so different—calm and relaxed, with a deep sense of well-being—that I couldn’t escape noticing the contrast. I had inadvertently created perspective for myself.
In the course of the ninety-minute class, I had become consciously aware of the anxiety and tension I was carrying most of the time. I was still hypervigilant, but now, I knew it. This was uncomfortable, but now the discomfort had a new, important role. It gave me vital feedback as I embarked on the life-long HSP project of finding and maintaining peace and calm.
Making peace and calm your default
After many years of effort, I can now say that peace and calm are my predominant state of body and mind. I’ve had to learn to manage my level of arousal, regulate my sensitive nervous system, and cultivate a compassionate inner relationship with myself.
If this sounds like an overwhelming project to you, remember that I was missing a key resource to which you have access: your HSP “owner’s manual.” Armed with key information about your trait, you can seek the healing support and skills you need if you notice yourself falling into a vicious cycle of being hyperaware of your body.
Then, over time, you can re-regulate your nervous system so that peace and joy are your habitual state.