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?
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.
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.