Finding the root cause

Posted on: 12th September 2017

One of the things that makes the Body & Soul approach distinctive is the fact that it looks beyond the symptoms for the root causes of the problems faced by members. So while HIV, adoption and suicidality may not seem on the face of it to have much in common, the reality once you scratch the surface is quite different.


Jane has been in charge of the Children’s Centre at Body & Soul for eight years and in that time has seen hundreds of children pass through her care. Here Jane considers one of the challenges shared by children in our HIV and adoption programmes: hypervigilance.


One of the phrases we’re used to hearing during these times of heightened security risk is ‘be vigilant’: we are encouraged to keep a watch for suspicious activity and to report any such activity to the authorities. Vigilance can be a good thing if it serves a purpose, such as preventing a terror attack, but what when the source of the vigilance is a perceived threat that never goes away? This is when vigilance turns into hypervigilance, ‘a perpetual scanning of the environment to search for sights, sounds, people, behaviours, smells, or anything else that is reminiscent of activity, threat or trauma’. Unless it is properly addressed, hypervigilance can have a serious impact on people’s physical, mental and psychosocial wellbeing.

Hypervigilance is common in children who attend Body & Soul – both those have been adopted and those who are affected by HIV. The obvious question is: what danger are they expecting to encounter in their environment?

  • In the case of children in Body & Soul’s HIV programme, the hypervigilance often stems from their concern for younger siblings. Because of the poor health of their parents, many of our young members spend much of their non-school life looking after brothers and sisters, so they are constantly on the lookout for ways they might come to harm.


  • Children who have been adopted often experience social isolation through the initial separation from their biological parents, which can then be exacerbated by multiple foster placements or moving to an unfamiliar place.  This can hamper their development of social skills and lead them to be smothering in the way they respond to budding friendships. Often they are so desperate for a sense of belonging that as soon as they meet someone who shows them kindness, they are desperate to protect the fledgling connection, and are hypervigilant to anything or anyone that might threaten it. This can manifest as hostility to other peers who they might see as competition in the friend stakes.


For those of us working to mitigate the impact of childhood adversity, hypervigilance is concerning for two reasons: the heightened physiological arousal associated with hypervigilance is a key component of toxic stress, which has a negative effect on the developing brain; and hypervigilance is often a precursor to the fight-or-flight response, with children either running away to escape the perceived danger or behaving aggressively towards the source of the perceived threat – something that can be misinterpreted as simply ‘bad behaviour’ or even misdiagnosed as ADHD.

Children who are in the HIV programme are often isolated by circumstance and don’t have the freedom to socialise outside the family because of the pressures and responsibilities of home life, whereas children who have been adopted often find themselves isolated because of their challenging behaviour stemming from attachment issues. However the basic problem – lack of connection – is the same. This is why Body & Soul is so important; it offers our young members a rare opportunity to forget about the troubles in the rest of their lives and form new friendships with other children who get where they’re coming from.

Tending the Zen garden: the repetitive nature of the pattern making is soothing

Tending the Zen garden: the repetitive nature of the pattern making is soothing

This is also the ideal environment in which to address the problem of hypervigilance, something we do with a range of interventions, including mindfulness and stress-reduction activities such as tending the Zen garden that help to regulate their emotions. Over time this leads to a permanent reduction in arousal and sensitivity to threat. If you want to find out more about these kinds of activities, we have a detailed post here about our approach in the Children’s Centre at Body & Soul.


If you’re interested in joining the team in the Children’s Centre, we are currently looking for an intern. To find out more and apply, follow this link.


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