Being hyper-aroused is a common experience for adult survivors. It can include:
- Having a difficult time falling or staying asleep.
- Feeling more irritable or having outbursts of anger.
- Having difficulty concentrating.
- Feeling constantly ‘on guard’ or like danger is lurking around every corner.
- Being ‘jumpy’ or easily startled (Giarratano, 2004a)
A state of hyper-arousal is a natural response to a dangerous situation or threat. Many survivors of trauma and abuse remain in a constant state of alarm because the fight/flight response is triggered repeatedly (Giarratano, 2004b), and without evident purpose (Cloitre, Cohen, & Koenen, 2006). Anger can also be a feature of a survivor's response to trauma and abuse as it is a core component of the survival response. Anger helps people cope with life's adversities by providing increased energy in the face of obstacles.
Anxiety is common among trauma survivors as it is typically generated by experiences that are unpredictable, uncontrollable, or unfamiliar, i.e. the characteristics of trauma, abuse or danger. Anxiety ensures readiness for coping with an unidentified danger (Cloitre et al., 2006) and has an adaptive function. This may be because multiple, unidentified trauma reminders exist in the environment that trigger anxiety, or because trauma causes survivors to psychologically and biologically adapt to ‘living in a dangerous world’ (Cloitre et al., 2006). Teicher (2002) explains that early exposure to stress creates molecular and neurobiological changes, altering neural development so the adult brain can survive in a dangerous world.
In situations of early childhood trauma and abuse, the trauma and shock interferes with the ability to regulate emotions, causing frequent episodes of extreme/out of control emotions, including anger and rage (Linehan, 1993a).
An understanding of the neurophysiology of arousal as well as tools to help reduce arousal can help adult survivors cope better.