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Hypervigilance in Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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Updated June 27, 2014

Hypervigilance in Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Hypervigilance: a state of being constantly tense, on guard, and exceptionally aware of the environment.

Some researchers believe that hypervigilance is a feature of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Some research supports this hypothesis, while some does not.

The idea is that our brains become overly aware of things, which can include painful stimuli, noises, bright lights, and general activity. That could explain why our bodies react so strongly to sensation that most people wouldn't experience as painful, as well as why we're sensitive to noise, light, chaotic environments and more.

With hypervigilance, not only do you notice things more readily, you're likely to be unable to divert our attention from them. When something is beeping in the other room, we'll notice it right away, be highly distracted by it, and probably become agitated until it goes away. The same goes for feeling the pressure of a waistband or how a fabric rubs across your skin. Our brains perceive it as a threat, our brains fixate on it, and our phsyiological response is far more extreme than it should be.

My personal opinion is that hypervigilance does play a role in these illnesses, as it does in other conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobias - both of which share some common physiology with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

My Hypervigilance Experience

The human brain perceives a lot of information about our environments that we're never consciously aware of. There are too many signals bombarding our brains at any one time, so there's a filtering process - things considered unimportant are filtered out and we're never cognizant of them. Anything that your mind considers a threat, however, gets extra attention. This can be a highly personalized response, depending on what your brain has learned is a danger.

I have arachnophobia (fear of spiders.) Because of it, I'm almost assuredly the first person in the room who will notice a bug on the wall or something small moving on the carpet across the room. My brain is constantly on alert for them, especially in places where I've frequently seen them. We used to get a lot of hobo spiders (which are poisonous and huge) in our laundry room late in the summer. As a result, I'm always on alert in there, and alert to the point of anxiety in August.

When I see a spider, I want to run away, curl up in a safe place and cry. Since developing fibromyalgia, my response to aggravating environments is similar. A few months ago, I was standing in line to buy something in a small, chaotic store in which an employee had turned on loud, clangy music with an extremely rapid beat.

Fortunately, I was with my husband and when I handed him my items and told him I had to get out of there, he understood. Outside, I sat down against a wall, closed my eyes, and breathed deeply until I was no longer in danger of a full-blown anxiety attack. I can't see the difference between this reaction and what happens when I see a spider.

Living With Hypervigilance

Most parents experience a certain amount of hypervigilance when it comes to our children. When you have a new baby, the tiniest whimper can bring you flying out of bed. You notice small hazards that other people don't, such as an exposed power outlet or a glass on the edge of a table.

It's not healthy to spend too long in a hypervigilant state. Police officers and soldiers in combat zones often do, which is what puts them at risk for PTSD.

Hypervigilance can disrupt sleep, cause avoidance behaviors, and make you jumpy and anxious. Being on alert all the time is exhausting. It can make you irritable and prone to outbursts. Panic attacks are definitely possible.

Given that symptoms list, it seems highly likely to me that hypervigilance is part of our illness - at least for a lot of us. Those who don't have anxiety issues may be an exception.

Do you think you experience hypervigilance? What impact does it have on you? Have you found treatments that help alleviate it? Leave your comments below!

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