We used to be able to trust our eyes and ears. Our brains were reliable tools that operated (so we thought) with objectivity and logic. We could trust our guts, our womanly intuition. And then, suddenly, horrifically we learn that our senses have not been telling us the truth, have been faulty or offline. Our intuition has been fooling us (or maybe we fooled ourselves into not listening to it). Our brains have turned into out-of-control locomotives, racing down the tracks of some dark, unfamiliar land and we are helpless to stop it. We feel crazy. We can’t stop thinking about a thousand “what ifs” and “I should have seen this” and mind movies and “oh my God!!! Make it stop.” And we can’t stop crying. Randomly. In the grocery. Driving to pick up the kids at school. Hearing a song on the radio. We’re afraid to watch the TV in case something triggers us. We are standing in the tall grass and we know the lions are coming for us. Suddenly, the whole world is a danger zone.
Post-infidelity we become hyper-vigilant and hyper-sensitive. Bright lights, loud noises, crowded spaces, everything makes us jump out of our skin or fall to our knees. It is a natural response to such a massive threat to safety. We have been traumatized and old reptilian parts of the brain kick in, trying to keep us safe from future harm. We overthink everything. As more details come to light, in a process quaintly dubbed “trickle truth,” we attempt to create a narrative that makes sense. When I was with our daughter at the nephrologist, trying to determine why a 16-year-old would have kidney stones, you were on a “business trip.” When you were in the basement playing that song, it wasn’t for me.
We start looking for clues everywhere. We turn into sleuths, searching online, on their phones, asking questions, checking in, examining credit card and phone bills, installing questionable tracking apps. We start analyzing every word, every facial expression. Did he blink and look left? Was what he just said true? What did he leave out? What is he hiding? Why didn’t he check in when he said he would? What doesn’t add up? We scour books and articles for any clues that might tell us what the hell is happening and how to make it stop. And we think and think and worry and think and worry and brace for impact. We don’t want to be fooled again. We are constantly on watch.
It’s exhausting. There’s no one to spell us when our watch is over, so we are constantly alert to the possibility of more lies and deception. We don’t sleep. We don’t eat. It’s not sustainable. All these activities, all the sleuthing wears us out and they get in the way of taking care of ourselves. Our instinct is fight or flight. But if we are constantly scanning the horizon for new threats, we can’t slow down and listen to what our bodies, our gut, is telling us about right now.
Tuning in to ourselves is the first step toward stopping the crazy train of hyper-vigilance. How do you do this? Be still and take slow, deep breaths. Pause, note what is happening (my heart is pounding, I’m sweating, I’m panicking), label it. When I say label it, I mean acknowledge the feeling or emotion or fear. When you give the thing a name, you have power over it (and not the other way around). Search for objective evidence before reacting (and if you can’t, if you’ve been triggered, be kind and gentle with yourself about it). Be mindful. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. But to do this, you need to slow down and listen. The final step to working with and through hyper-vigilance is to set boundaries with the person (or people – I’m looking at you in-laws of the world) who trigger you.
Boundaries are about what you will and will not tolerate. It’s a way to hold ourselves and others accountable for acting with integrity and treating us with respect. Boundaries work best when you are clear on the consequences if certain lines are crossed. Boundaries take the place of hyper-vigilance because they do the same job. They keep an eye on things but with boundaries, you can eat, or take a nap, or run, or visit friends, or meditate because boundaries will be on duty, so you don’t have to be.
Recently, I had another little rumble with over-thinking and hyper-vigilance. I got more information (ref. trickle truth above). It was really disappointing, more deception uncovered, and it made me wonder: Was I over thinking? Did he mean what I think he meant or did I misunderstand? Is he really that manipulative? Is it on purpose? Is my bias now leading me to see everything as evidence for the conclusions I have already drawn? And I see this over-thinking playing out in a cycle of depression and losing the threads of my self-care regimen. I’m tired so I make less time for running, so I eat poorly, so I feel tired, so I make less time for the gym, so I start to feel less worthy and stress about my weight, so I eat poorly so I feel too tired or sad to work out. It’s a self-perpetuating doom loop.
Once I notice, I can pause, note that I am over-thinking and try to bring myself back to the present. Right now, I am OK. Right now, I am breathing. Right now, I have a roof over my head and enough to eat. Right now, there are people who love me. Right now, I can choose to go for a walk. Right now, I can soak in the tub, take a multi-vitamin, eat an apple, call a friend. I can make a choice that puts my care and feeding first. And can you too.
Because ultimately, all the FBI level, hyper-vigilance in the world isn’t going to stop a person from cheating, if they choose to do so. It isn’t going to stop us from being hurt in the future (because good news! if you are alive and human, life is going to be both amazing and painful, sometimes at the same time). It isn’t going to change the past, no matter how much we wish it would. We can only, in the end, control ourselves. When we stop trying to control those who have hurt us, we release ourselves from so much suffering.
It’s hard. You’ll stumble. You might have a good day and then suddenly notice on a walk that you are 15 minutes into rehearsing a rant at the OW. It’s OK. Here’s your opportunity. Pause. Breathe. Notice. Breathe. Label. Breathe. Let it go. Breathe.