Survivors often talk about their capacity to assess their environment with greater speed and accuracy than your average Joe (or Jane). Scanning for emotional and physical safety through a heightened attunement to the behavior of others, their emotional states and placing themselves in a position that ensures the opportunity for immediate exit are sometimes habituated ways of being for survivors. Safety is dependent upon the capacity to detect threat (even subtle ones) quickly and correctly and often times, scanning for threat is baseline for a trauma survivor; one doesn’t ever come to a place of complete resting; resting equals risk.
Clients talk about their capacity to assess other people and the safety of their environment as something they are both proud of and fairly attached to. I am often given examples of how vigilance has protected them of injury by providing ample time for fight or flight. This perspective makes sense to me from the standpoint of someone who has endured; it is reasonable to make every effort to avert further injury. And, in all honesty, I am often impressed with the capacity and skill survivors have developed in the appraisal of subtle environmental cues that otherwise go unnoticed. People who have witnessed or experienced unbearable things sometimes talk about this capacity as heightened intuition~a sixth sense.
Arguably, vigilance is a departure of intuition; it kicks in when we no longer trust in ourselves to ensure invulnerability and when we no longer trust that the world is safe. Intuition happens without thought or awareness; it is automatic and requires no effort. I like to think of vigilance as a natural resource; while it is abundant it is not finite. Habituation of external evaluation and anticipation of response tires the body; we were not designed to be alert consistently. Additionally, vigilance could be viewed as a departure from ourselves and our sense of agency. We rely on superheroes and superpowers when we can no longer trust in our own capacity.
I encourage my clients to “save your fear for when you need it” and the rest of the time work towards reconnecting to self, trust in one’s resourcefulness, and to take the risk of resting. This parallels my admiration for the ways in which the PTSD is adaptive and clearly an attempt at returning to an assumption of safety. Counseling, massage therapy, reiki and acupuncture are the various attempts we are making at working towards a place of quiet; the juncture of rest and safety are the mini-moments that uncouple rest with risk and begin to teach the body that we can trust our intuition and give our vigilance a vacation.