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What is feeling on edge?

Feel on edge in crowds? Overwhelmed by an unexplainable sense of panic? Do you find it hard to stop thinking about safety? Are you on a short fuse?

Feeling on edge is also called hypervigilance, a symptom experienced by some Veterans who have returned from war or experienced traumatic events during their time in the military. Hypervigilance is a state of being on very high alert — constantly "on guard" —  to possible risks or threats. It may be the result of an experience in a combat zone, a noncombat training exercise, or another type of traumatizing event in your military or civilian life.

“When I went out for dinner, I always wanted to have my back to the wall and be able to see the door from where I was sitting.”

Your military training taught you the importance of being observant and alert when you need to be. Hypervigilance goes beyond that — it can interfere with your ability to enjoy life or even just get through the day. Some people have trouble concentrating, feel irritable, become easily upset, or react strongly to sounds and sights around them. Other symptoms can include physical effects like a pounding heart, headache, or upset stomach.

Hypervigilance can also contribute to sleep problems or the avoidance of places that make you feel uncomfortable, like busy grocery stores, social gatherings, or sports events. It may also lead you to distrust other people or try to control their actions, putting a strain on your personal relationships.

If I’m feeling on edge, what can I do about it right away?

  • Breathe deeply.
  • If you’re with other people, tell them what you’re feeling so they can try to help you work through it.
  • Try grounding yourself by focusing on details of your surroundings or neutral physical sensations, such as the feeling of your feet on the floor.
  • Practice relaxation exercises, such as taking slow, deep breaths.
  • Get up and move around, have a drink of water, or wash your hands.
  • Calmly remove yourself from the situation.

Talking to your family and friends can be a first step — turn to them whenever you are ready. They may be able to provide support and help you find treatment that is right for you. You can also begin letting people know when certain places or activities make you uncomfortable.

Take the next step: Make the connection.

Every day, Veterans who served in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard connect with proven resources and effective treatments for dealing with symptoms like hypervigilance. If hypervigilance is affecting your health and well-being or getting in the way of your relationships, work, or daily activities, you may want to reach out for support. Consider connecting with:

  • Your doctor. Ask if your doctor has experience treating Veterans or can refer you to someone who does. If you feel comfortable enough with your physician, he or she may be able to help you find tools to manage hypervigilance even without direct experience with Veterans.
  • A mental health professional, such as a therapist
  • Your local VA Medical Center or Vet Center. VA specializes in the care and treatment of Veterans.
  • A spiritual or religious adviser

Explore these resources for more information about Veterans feeling on edge.

Learn more about what you can do if you are experiencing specific concerns related to hypervigilance, such as social withdrawal, stress and anxiety, and posttraumatic stress.

National Center for PTSD
This website provides information, resources, and practical advice for Veterans, their family and friends, and the public when dealing with trauma.
www.ptsd.va.gov/public/index.asp

AfterDeployment
This website has wellness resources for Veterans and Service members, including information and self-help tools for posttraumatic stress and other issues they commonly experience.
www.afterdeployment.dcoe.mil

Moving Forward: Overcoming Life’s Challenges
Moving Forward is a free online educational and life-coaching program that teaches problem-solving skills to help you better handle life’s challenges. While it’s designed to be especially helpful for Veterans, Service members, and their families, Moving Forward teaches skills that can be useful to anyone with stressful problems.
www.startmovingforward.dcoe.mil

Vet Center
If you are a combat Veteran, you can bring your DD214 to your local Vet Center and speak with a counselor or therapist — many of whom are Veterans themselves — for free, without an appointment, and regardless of your enrollment status with VA. In addition, any Veteran who was sexually traumatized while serving in the military is eligible to receive counseling regardless of gender or era of service.
www2.va.gov/directory/guide/vetcenter_flsh.asp

VA Medical Center Facility Locator
Hypervigilance may be related to other health conditions that need attention. VA provides world-class health care to eligible Veterans. Most Veterans qualify for cost-free health care services, although some Veterans must pay modest copays for health care or prescriptions. Explore your eligibility for health care using VA's Health Benefits Explorer tool and find out more about the treatment options available to you.
www2.va.gov/directory/guide/home.asp?isflash=1