“No treatment or supplement is going to fix this,” said Brendan, my physical therapist. He was speaking specifically of my decades-long habit of holding tension in my back, neck, and head-a habit that creates pain! He went on to explain his belief that the root cause of this and many other health problems is “hyper-vigilance.” I felt the need to ponder and explore that idea. I didn’t find the term “hyper-vigilance” in the dictionary, but “hyper” means excessive, above, overmuch. “Vigilance” means watchfulness, being on the alert, especially in order to guard against possible harm or error. And the definition of “vigilant” is someone who is tirelessly on the alert.
Being “tirelessly on the alert” inevitably leads to being just plain tired! Hyper-vigilance creates a preponderance of stress responses (often called “fight or flight”) and is never conducive to the relaxation response vital for rejuvenating and healing the body. In my life I can see evidence of hyper-vigilance when I’m trying too hard, never letting up, pushing beyond my strength, being over-conscientious, and hanging on to the false belief that I should be able to do and say exactly the right things to keep everyone happy.
Brendan further explained to me that hyper-vigilance is an ego-based need to keep all the balls in the air, and to prove worth by “doing” and by getting approval. He also discussed the idea that hyper-vigilance is a mind-set only changed with spiritual help and a lot of mental and emotional work (and that most of the work is actually a process of “letting go”). What does a person need to let go of in order to transcend the dangers of hyper-vigilance?
Let Go of perfectionism
I wonder if perfectionism and hyper-vigilance are not synonymous. I can see so many parallels: trying to do everything “just right.” Trying to avoid mistakes rather than remembering that mortal life is all about making mistakes, learning from them, repenting of them. Both perfectionism and hyper-vigilance forget that our kind Father provided a Savior for us because He knew that it would be impossible for us to navigate the murky waters of this telestial world without making mistakes.
Father gave us weakness that we may be humble (see Ether 12:27). He caused a veil of forgetfulness to be drawn over our minds that we would start fresh and new and have everything to learn. Father made our probation here all about how we respond to difficulties and flaws and imperfections in ourselves and others. He had no expectation of perfect actions and choices NOW-only that we continually progress in that direction so that through the cleansing power of Christ we will eventually reach that goal.
Let Go of feelings of over-responsibility for the happiness of others
This letting go means to quit over-emphasizing the importance of our personal contributions. No one else’s salvation or success depends solely on our influence. We play such a vital part with our young children, but God’s plan for and ability to guide and help them far surpasses our own and includes many other people. Being “hyper-vigilant” with grown children often results in the message that help isn’t help when it isn’t asked for. The success of a ward function never depends solely on one person. We all play roles that are important but only contributory. The Lord always has in place numerous backups-numerous sources of help and inspiration and good influence so that His purpose will be fulfilled. We can do our best, then relax and trust His plan.
Here’s another example: the two books I have written as a comfort to those who have lost a loved one to suicide are only two of thousands of resources that the Lord can lead people to for help and comfort in the aftermath of suicide. Over-stressing my own importance in the whole scheme of things or being over-conscientiousness in my efforts to reach those who need my books could definitely make me hyper-vigilant.
Let Go of over-zelousness
To be “over-zealous” means to be overly eager or overly interested in something. In a devotional address Cecil O. Samuelson delivered on September 7, 2010, when he was president of Brigham Young University, he referred to Zeniff, the only man specifically called overzealous in the Book of Mormon. Then he said, “The Lord is aware of the tendency of the natural man and natural woman in all of us to be overzealous about some things and as a result be slothful and neglectful about others.”
He referred to King Benjamin’s great address where he spoke directly and clearly to his people about their tremendous responsibilities in living the gospel as he had taught it. He saw that they were anxious to be not only good and obedient but also to do everything their prophet-king and the Lord asked of them. Yet he said, “And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man [or a woman] should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.” [Mosiah 4:27]
Brother Samuelson also referred to the counsel of the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith, “Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength and means provided to enable you to translate; but be diligent unto the end.” [D&C 10:4] He concluded, “Be clear in your priorities, in your understanding, in your faith, and in all your endeavors . . . Do what you do with wisdom and order. Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength and means, but be diligent always.” Following such counsel can relieve us of the burdens of hyper-vigilance.
Let Go of things which have proven impossible
While in some cases we may just need more help from the Lord, it may also be that that is not part of our assignment at all. Let Go of anything that depends on another person who may not want the same thing or may be in a position where it is impossible for them to give what you want. Hyper-vigilance would have us hang on when we really need to let go.
Let Go of fear, especially fear of pain and fear of the future which can fuel the fires of hyper-vigilance
We can, instead, give it all to God, trusting that He will walk with us through whatever comes. We can determine to live in the NOW and do the best we can with just this one moment since that’s all we can control anyway.
Let Go of the false belief that worth depends on accomplishment
Think of newborn babies, who can do absolutely nothing but eat and sleep, and how precious they are. The worth of a soul is just as great when they are incapacitated, old, or sick. Remembering that one beautiful principle can protect us from the many dangers of hyper-vigilance.
Let Go of misery
Misery is always optional and usually caused by believing things that are not true. Sorrow can be a real response to the facts of the situation. But misery comes from stories we tell ourselves about those facts. Hyper-vigilance is based on stories, not truth, so is a perfect formula for misery. We can let go of that misery by leaning on God’s strength, not our own, trusting in His power and plan and accepting His will.
Let Go of humanistic ideas
Our society is full of the philosophy that everything depends on you, that you are enough, that you have what it takes to do anything you want if you just try hard enough, or use enough mind control. Hyper-vigilance is fed by humanistic lies. The fact is man is nothing without God. (See King Benjamin’s sermon.) And humanism, like Korihor’s “management of the creature” philosophy, is actually anti-Christ. Only Christ is “enough.” Only through His Atonement and through having His Spirit to be with us can we have any power that matters. Letting go of humanistic ideas will free of many hyper-vigilant tendencies.
Let Go of self-set priorities
How? By putting our focus on our “Errand from the Lord.” Hyper-vigilance so often includes trying to walk on water that we aren’t commanded or even expected to walk on, which always leads to frustration and failure.
Many times in my life I’ve noticed that feeling overwhelmed and pulled many directions at once comes from lack of focus on the “one thing that is needful.” When I’m focused on asking for and receiving guidance, then focusing on whatever it is I feel the Lord wants me to do at the moment, all the rest fades into the background, and the guilt for all I’m not able to do disappears.
It’s as though taking my “marching orders” from the Spirit allows me to gracefully let go of all the rest of the checklist, knowing I am choosing the good part, the better part. For instance, whenever I’m involved in a writing project that is the direct result of inspiration, I have a blessed relief from the ordinary push and pull of life and am able to focus and let go of everything else.
Let’s look at an example of that principle in the life of our prophet, President Monson. I think it’s safe to say that no one in the world has heavier responsibilities than he does or more potential priorities tugging at him. Yet when his beloved wife, Frances, was injured or gravely ill, he told later of being at her bedside. When she needed him, he was there. No matter how many meetings or responsibilities he had to postpone, no matter how many other people may have had needs he could have filled. His wife was his first priority, his “errand from the Lord” at that time. I don’t believe he sat at her bedside agonizing over all the tasks he was leaving undone. I believe he focused on her, talked to her, prayed for her, expressed loved to her.
It is interesting to notice that when any Church leader is being led by the Spirit he or she focuses fully on the person (or audience) immediately before them, and does not give off vibes of being hurried, fragmented, or worried. Hyper-vigilance is not part of their persona. We can work to live in that same calm way.
We can each day learn to avoid the dangers of hyper-vigilance by listening to the Spirit’s calm voice of peace and letting go of attitudes and actions that are contrary to it. When we feel the Spirit, everything falls into place and nothing else really matters. When we take the time to be quiet and tune our mind into the right spiritual channel, the clear direction of the Spirit can relieve the carping voice of hyper-vigilance.
Author Note: check my website darlaisackson.com for details about my latest book of comfort for those who have lost a loved one to suicide. While my last book (After My Son’s Suicide) was written strictly to the LDS audience, this one, Finding Hope While Grieving Suicide, is written to anyone who believes in God and the Bible. If you know anyone whose life has been impacted by a suicide, now there is something you can give them that may truly help. Here is the cover of the new book: