Hyperarousal

Medically reviewed by Elaine Luo, MD on April 20, 2017Written by Erica Cirino

What is hyperarousal?

Hyperarousal is a primary symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It occurs when a person’s body suddenly kicks into high alert as a result of thinking about their trauma. Even though real danger may not be present, their body acts as if it is, causing lasting stress after a traumatic event.

PTSD can affect people of any age, including children.

What are the symptoms of hyperarousal?

The symptoms of hyperarousal include:

  • sleeping problems
  • difficulties concentrating
  • irritability
  • anger and angry outbursts
  • panic
  • constant anxiety
  • easily scared or startled
  • self-destructive behavior (such as fast driving or drinking too much)
  • a heavy sense of guilt or shame

In children, sleeping trouble is often a symptom of hyperarousal. They may experience frightening dreams about the traumatic event. Children may also try to re-enact the traumatic event or parts of the event when they play.

Hyperarousal symptoms are typically accompanied by:

  • flashbacks (vivid memories of a traumatic event)
  • a “numbed” emotional state
  • attempts to avoid triggers that might cause thoughts about a traumatic event

What causes hyperarousal?

The most common events resulting in the development of PTSD include:

  • exposure to trauma during combat
  • physical abuse during childhood
  • sexual assault
  • physical assault
  • threats from a person carrying a weapon
  • a vehicular or sports accident
  • natural disasters
  • robbery or mugging
  • fire
  • kidnapping
  • torture
  • plane crash
  • a life-threatening medical diagnosis
  • terrorist attack

Who is more likely to experience PTSD?

People of all ages are susceptible to experiencing PTSD. Yet, some factors appear to make a person more likely to develop PTSD following a traumatic event. These include:

  • experiencing an intense or long-lasting trauma
  • experiencing trauma early in life, such as abuse in childhood
  • working in a job that exposes you to possibly traumatic events, such as a soldier, firefighter, or emergency medical technician
  • being diagnosed with existing mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression
  • having substance abuse problems, such as with alcohol or drugs
  • lacking a strong social support system (family and friends)
  • having a family history of mental health disorders

When should you seek help?

If you’re thinking of hurting yourself, you need to call 911 or your local emergency number right away.

If you’re experiencing hyperarousal or other PTSD symptoms, you should see a doctor. They’ll perform a physical exam to make sure no underlying medical disorders are causing your symptoms. They may also perform a blood test, depending on what other physical symptoms you have.

If your doctor suspects you’re experiencing PTSD, they’ll refer you to a mental healthcare provider, often a psychologist or psychiatrist. Psychiatrists are able to prescribe medication, while psychologists aren’t.

Can PTSD cause complications?

An important part of living with PTSD is understanding the side effects it can cause, and finding ways to cope with those complications. PTSD can disrupt many aspects of your life, from your career to your relationships to your health. It can also increase your risk of other mental health issues, including:

What treatments are available for PTSD?

PTSD is often a lifelong disorder that can’t be eliminated completely. But it can be managed in a way that minimizes symptoms, including hyperarousal, allowing you to live your life to its fullest. PTSD is mainly treated with talk therapy (psychotherapy) done in an individualized, group, or combined setting. Sometimes mental healthcare providers will also prescribe medication. These treatments help alleviate symptoms in several ways:

  • improving your self-confidence
  • giving you a more optimistic outlook on life
  • teaching you coping mechanisms to deal with your PTSD when you’re experiencing symptoms
  • addressing other issues related to your traumatic experience, such as other mental health disorders and drug or alcohol abuse

Common types of psychotherapy include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: This type of therapy helps patients recognize thinking patterns that cause their PTSD symptoms, such as negative self-image and thinking a traumatic event will occur again. It’s often used along with exposure therapy
  • Exposure therapy: A type of behavioral therapy that helps a patient confront situations and memories that are traumatic — in a safe way — so that they can learn to better cope with them. Virtual reality programs are often used.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): This is a combination of exposure therapy with a guided series of eye movements that help a patient work through traumatic memories and change the way they react to them.

Drugs can also be helpful in treating PTSD. These drugs have the potential for serious side effects, so it’s important to work closely with your mental health care provider when discussing your symptoms and effectiveness of your medication. They will try to give you the best medication or combination of medications for your situation. It can take several weeks for these drugs to work.

Medications commonly prescribed to PTSD patients include:

  • Antidepressants ease symptoms of depression and anxiety that often accompany PTSD, and may also make it easier to sleep and concentrate.
  • Anti-anxiety medications ease extreme anxiety. These drugs have the potential for abuse, so they’re usually only used for short periods of time.
  • Prazosin (Minipress) can help reduce or stop nightmares in people with PTSD.

What is the outlook?

PTSD is a mental disorder that usually lasts for life. But proper treatment, keeping healthy, and having a strong support system can vastly help in reducing symptoms, allowing you to lead a full and happy life.

Proper self-care is extremely important in managing PTSD. Be sure to follow your treatment plan. It may also help to learn more about PTSD and your hyperarousal symptoms, which can help you to better communicate with your mental healthcare provider and cope with symptoms internally.

Taking good care of your body will also help reduce your symptoms by keeping you physically healthy. This includes

  • getting enough sleep
  • eating healthfully
  • exercising
  • relaxing

Physical illness or strain can exacerbate mental health disorders. Avoid substances like alcohol and drugs, particularly if you’re prone to abusing them.

Having the right support can also make it easier to keep symptoms at bay. Spend time with people you care about and who care about you. You might also want to consider joining a PTSD support group, which you can find online or through your mental healthcare provider.

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