On Hypervigilance, Self-Compassion, and Channeling Your Energy For Good (or, Your Anxiety Might Be a Superpower)

“Breathe properly. Stay curious. And eat your beets.” ~Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

What do you want your energy to feed?


This question has been on my mind since I first woke up this morning. Pulling me out of a deep-ish sleep, urgent in its efforts and impatient for me to offer some sort of satisfactory answer to its biddings.

What do you want your energy to feed?

Hmmm. Good question, self.

The implications of this inquiry carry a certain weight for me right now, and contemplating the answer makes me, admittedly, pretty uncomfortable.

Why? Because I have been TIRED lately. And feeling like the energy I do have is being too often squandered in less-than-awesome ways.

Like worrying. And anticipating potentially terrible outcomes.

Or even wonderful outcomes, but then feeling fearful of what that might mean.

And secretly preparing for disaster. In the form of heartbreak or loss or failure in one of the various worlds I inhabit.

The point is:  It’s wasteful. And not really the best use of my talents.

And certainly not the best use of my energy.


I have this tendency towards hypervigilance. Which I have talked about before in describing my experience of and my relationship to anxiety. And the two are absolutely related. Intimately and intricately.

But which came first? I honestly don’t know.

I do know these things get programmed into our nervous systems at very young ages much of the time. And that I likely learned hypervigilance as a survival mechanism long before I ever knew what that meant.

I would venture to guess that many of you learned this trick as well. Either in childhood, or as the result of a traumatic experience later in life.

Why do our bodies adopt this pattern as a way to deal with threats? Real or imagined, tangible or intangible, physical or emotional?

Because, well, it kind of works.


In a weird, counterintuitive but also totally-logical-if-you-really-think-about-it way, worrying makes you feel safe.

Like if something unexpectedly bad happens, you were prepared for it somehow. Like you knew it was going to happen.

Haha! I saw it coming!

Or, at least that’s how it feels. Right?

But the reality is, worry is mostly just a waste of time.

And energy.

And when it reaches the point of almost constant hypervigilance, it can result in some pretty serious fatigue and burnout.

Also:  It doesn’t actually prepare you for anything.


Hypervigilance can be defined as “an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats. Hypervigilance is also accompanied by a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion.”


Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt this way. Or feel this way all the time.

While I can’t actually see you through this here internet thing and you can’t see each other, just know that you are absolutely NOT ALONE with these feelings. There are many of us.

And although our anxieties might manifest in different ways and stem from various places, we are totally in this together.

I know I’ve written about this a bunch, but it continues to be important. Especially because it touches my life daily — both on a personal level outside of my job and on a professional level with the patients I have the privilege of working with in my practice.

And so I am committed to learning as much as I can about this subject, as a way of bringing understanding and (hopefully) insight to both myself and all those I encounter who find it challenging to just relax into their lives and be.

I was recently asked by my therapist to describe how I relate to my anxiety and hypervigilance at this point in my journey.

My response:  At least there’s some energy behind it.

Which is truly how I feel.

It’s not boring and it carries a certain vitality with it.

And — if I’m being totally honest — it makes my life more colorful and interesting than it might otherwise be.


Unfortunately, all that energy can get twisted up and folded back on itself and turn into this self-feeding cycle of anxious feelings and repetitive thoughts that never really go anywhere or become anything.

Even when the thoughts are actually ideas about things I might create or places I might go or people to whom I might reach out for connection.

And so I think that’s why this question — what do you want your energy to feed? — feels so important and potentially profound for my life.

Because I just keep thinking about all the things you or I or we might do if we could just liberate some energy from our inner hamster wheels of worry and anxiety and fear.

In all my research — both purely experiential and also more scholarly — I have come to the conclusion that the number one way to begin this process is to cultivate and commit to self-compassion.

Yep. Self-compassion.


As Cheri Huber says in her amazing book There Is Nothing Wrong With You:  “We learned behaviors when we were very young in order to survive. We were taught to hate those behaviors and to see them as signs of our badness. Yet we must keep doing them because they still mean survival to us. And we hate ourselves for doing them.”

Except that feeling bad on top of feeling bad isn’t helpful.

And punishing yourself because you think your tools for survival — hypervigilance being one of these, and a common one — are the wrong kind, does nothing to bring about positive change.

And so, paradoxically, the best way to start shifting these patterns is to make peace with them.


As leading brain-body researcher, Stephen Porges notes, once we start recognizing that our responses are adaptive and appropriate, “we can recruit our wonderful big brain with creative cognitive functions to develop a narrative that treats our atypical behaviors not as bad, but as . . . often heroic.”


My boyfriend once told me that my emotions — including my anxiety and sometimes all-consuming worry — are my superpower. Which made it clear to me that I need to hold onto him for as long as possible.

But also? I think he’s right.

What if your anxiety is heroic?


Seriously. Consider the question.

And then:  What do you want your energy to feed?

And remember. You’re doing the best you can.