From the time I was ten years old, I walked home by myself from school. My apartment was only half a mile from my school, yet the entire way home I was scared that something would happen to me. What if somebody attacked me? I didn’t have an actual reason why I’d be attacked. Yes, I lived in New York City which wasn’t necessarily the safest place in the world in the 1990s, but I had no evidence that something terrible was going to happen to me as a 10-year-old walking home in one of the most normal middle-class neighborhoods. There were streets at my parents wouldn’t let me walk down, but the most part, living in New York wasn’t dangerous in my personal experience.

But still, I walked with my keys in my fist, so if anybody tried to jump out at me, I would be able to defend myself against them. I know that sounds pretty crazy, but I needed to think of something creative to feel safe. So there I was walking down the street, a 10-year-old child with keys in my hand, it was the only thing that I could do that was in my power. I was hypervigilant, and I didn’t even know what that word meant at the time. I wonder why I was so afraid. Was it movies or TV shows that I watch where people were attacked?

It was probably because of my anxiety disorder; when I became a teenager of my hypervigilance came out even more. I was afraid of danger, and any anything that seemed like it might kill me I avoided. For example roller coasters, they appeared like death traps. I wanted nothing to do with them. And if I became within 10 feet of a roller coaster, I started getting tense, and my heart started pumping. I started to become terrified of them after the first one I rode as a child. I was nine, and I was on a roller coaster and with my brother. It was in Northern California, and it was one of those old wooden coasters that made you afraid for your life, or at least it had that effect on me. I was so terrified that I bit his arm. To this day I won’t go near roller coasters, and I become hypervigilant around them.

When I go to amusement parks as a 39-year-old, I spend my time in the arcade playing video games, which I find to be benign. At least they’re not going to make me afraid for my life. The lives in Super Mario Brothers or Pac-Man don’t make you die in reality. The rickety old roller coaster seems like a death sentence. What if the person operating it doesn’t know what they’re doing?  I don’t want to die because someone doesn’t know how to run the machine they’re hired to make people scream on, which by the way doesn’t seem like a fun time.

To cope with hypervigilance, I try to understand why am feeling so tense. There has to be a reason why I am trying to defend myself whether it’s real or imagined. Sometimes it’s difficult to decide what’s real and what’s not. But doesn’t matter. Because I know that I’m afraid. And my feelings are valid. If I am fearful, I need to examine what’s happening and assess whether or not I need to defend myself.

Anxiety is weird. It makes you feel like you’re in constant threat of something. I’m learning to decode whether my alarm bell system from anxiety is going off for “no reason” or if there is an actual threat. I’m working on these issues in therapy. How about you? Do you deal with instances where you fear for your safety and become hypervigilant