Hypersensitive Fight or Flight Response

Recently, in a session with my councillor, I learned that something new about myself. Something that I’d always sort of brushed off as being “normal,” or at least somewhat normal. I certainly never associated it with anxiety, even after I found out I had anxiety. If anything, I thought maybe it was a sensory processing issue. Turns out, it is actually a symptom of anxiety.

I can’t even remember now why it came up. I think I just mentioned it while talking about something else, but I forget what specifically triggered me to mention in the first place.

This particular thing is apparently very typical of people with anxiety, and I have had this for as long as I can remember. It’s something a little more outwardly obvious than the majority of my other symptoms, but no one ever thought that maybe there was an underlying cause for it.

So, what is this mysterious thing I am talking about?

Well, I don’t know that there’s a name for it, but basically it is that I am very aware of my surroundings. ALL THE FREAKING TIME!

It has to do with the “fight or flight” response. When you’re in danger, your senses become heightened, making you more alert. And people with anxiety, tend to be in that fight or flight mode, more often than not.

Some experts believe people with anxiety have a hypersensitive fight or flight response. That is, it activates without much provocation or with no provocation at all. [source]

Okay, you may be wondering, how is that outwardly obvious? And by “outwardly obvious”, I mean that other people can see your reaction. It’s an external/physical reaction rather than an internal/thought/worry reaction. Generally what most of my anxiety is internal, meaning it’s my thought processes that are my main anxiety symptom. I don’t really have panic attacks which would be fairly obvious to others around me. (I’ve had what I refer to as panic attacks, but I am not 100% sure that they actually technically are, but at the very least they are anxiety attacks, but I can usually hold it in until I’m alone.)

Well, it causes me to get distracted very easily.

The best example I have for this is when I was in school, whenever we were doing something in class where everyone had to be quiet (ie. silent reading, tests and exams). Every time someone shifted in their seat, dropped something, used an eraser and brushed the eraser dust off their desk, turned a page, coughed, sneezed, or got up from their desk, I would notice.

It sounds insignificant, when you spell it out like that. The problem comes in when simply noticing these things breaks you’re focus. Every. Single. Time. It can get annoying very quickly when you are completely unable to tune these minor distractions out.

I never understood how some people could finish a test so quickly. Or that someone tapping their pen on the desk was not distracting.

I often found that having my headphones on with music playing would help with the auditory distractions, but it actually made the visual distractions worse because I couldn’t hear the sounds they made, and then suddenly something pops into my peripheral vision and I have to look.

On thing I mentioned to my councillor was just a reflection on the frames of my glasses can distract me. I always have to turn my head to look because movement in the corner of my eye can sometimes look like a bug, which freaks me out, or it could indicate someone walking up behind me.

I had to laugh while we were talking about this too because it made me think of one of my former coworkers who had an insane talent for tuning things out. To the point where she would forget to eat lunch until almost the end of the day and it was super easy to scare the shit out of her. You could walk up beside her, where you think she’d see you in her peripheral vision (I know I would!) and just stand there, beside her desk and she wouldn’t notice. Our boss did that to her once. Apparently he stood there for a few minutes before she realized he was there, and she almost jumped out of her chair when she noticed. (I wasn’t there, but I’d accidentally snuck up on her enough times that I can totally picture it.)

Anyways, when you’re writing an exam or trying to work and all these little things are a distraction for you, it causes you to take that much longer to get things done. Throughout my education, there were several times where I wouldn’t be able to finish a test in the time that was given. I was definitely never the first one done, in fact, I was often one of the last 5 (out of 30-ish) people, very rarely finishing before the maximum time limit.

For some reason, that never indicated to anyone that maybe there was something else going on. I know I was super annoyed by it, but I just thought it was something that was considered normal-ish. Actually, I did worry that maybe I had some kind of learning disability. I actually did have sort of a test with someone in my high school because I had complained to a bunch of people that I read too slow, but she said I was normal. Looking back now, I think it was simply a matter of minor distractions.

Even when I’m having a conversation with someone, little things will distract me. If we’re in a public place, people walking by, someone having a loud conversation, or people laughing loudly will distract me. Although those things won’t necessarily take me completely out of the conversation I am in. Sometimes its just an internal awareness, but other times, I will turn and look, without even thinking about it. No matter what it is, though, I will still be aware of it, so my focus and concentration cannot be 100% on the person I am talking to, which can probably come across like I am not listening or I don’t care about what we’re discussing.

It’s not even those particular situations. It’s every situation. I notice everything.

There are times when this can be a good thing, though!

I have a very strong attention to detail, which is good to have working in the web design and development industry. Little things like something being off by 1 pixel or an animation or movement of an element being jittery or starting or stopping at not quite the right time will catch my attention, often before others notice. Only problem is those things tend to annoy the shit out of me, so I have to fix them, and sometimes I can’t get passed whatever it is until it’s completely fixed.

Has anyone else experienced this? Have you figured out how to get your fight or flight response to chill out? Let me know! I’ve love to get more perspective on this.

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