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Stay Safe by Being Alert, Not Anxious


I was watching the new CSI Las Vegas when someone asked a retired CSI character being hunted down if they were being hypervigilant. His answer was no, that he wasn’t going to live in fear, but that he strongly intended to stay alert. This seemed like a vital distinction to both stay safe and not make yourself crazy doing it.

Hypervigilance is when you live in fear 24/7, when you’re constantly—consciously or unconsciously—scanning the horizon for new threats even when you’re safe and when you’re unable to turn off the threat sensor in your brain. As it turns out, hypervigilance doesn’t work very well because it produces too many false positives. For example, my client George always expects people to reject or abandon him because he grew up in several foster homes. You can’t blame George for wanting to brace himself against hurt and avoid it, but he’s so on guard that he often misinterprets data and sees rejection of his fragile self when there isn’t any. In fact, most people enjoy and like to be with him.

At the other end of the spectrum are people with high expectations of others in spite of these expectations not being warranted. Because they, themselves, are nice and trustworthy, they assume others are too, leaving them often feeling like victims when they get taken advantage of. For instance, my client Sophia wears very revealing clothing to bars and then complains when men come on to her. Her insistence that she has an absolute right to wear revealing clothes and her resentment that doing so has consequences makes it hard for her to learn from experience and become wiser.

So, if you’re not hypervigilant and don’t wish to walk around in la-la land thinking all will be well, what are you left with? I’d say, as the TV character I mentioned did, you’re left with alertness. The Oxford Language Dictionary defines the adjective alert as “quick to notice any unusual and potentially dangerous or difficult circumstances.” The key words here are “quick,” “notice,” “potential danger,” and “difficult circumstances.”

When you’re alert, you’re not looking for trouble, but you know it might occur. You recognize trouble for what it is as soon as you spot or feel it because you take things as they come and are firmly grounded in reality. You don’t pretend you don’t see something, ignore the obvious, or rationalize that everything’s okay when it’s not because you wish things to be different. You’re curious about what makes people tick and make judgments about their actual actions, not how they should be or how you’d like them to be. This allows you to avoid being hypervigilant while having the tool of alertness at the ready to help you determine friend from foe and safety from danger.