Hypervigilance vs. Awareness

Where is she looking? What does she see?

Being “aware” is a natural state for me. I think anytime an individual loses one of their five senses, they learn to compensate by being more aware of things around them. When all five senses are working, input is sent to an individual’s brain about their environment, people around them, etc., to help them determine if any action should be taken. However, when a sense goes “missing” as the result of acquired disability, accident, or illness, individuals have to learn to compensate.

Now that I have Chloe (my hearing assistance/balance assist dog partner from Fidos For Freedom), I have changed from a hyper-vigilant state to simply being more aware of my surroundings. You see, now I depend on HER. If I’m watching my partner as I should, she hears and then sees things I often miss. I’ve learned to pay attention to her body language and cues, as well as visual focus and reactions to stimulus around us (such as a sudden, loud noise). Do you know my blood pressure has gone down since I’ve been matched with Chloe? Hypervigilance is a negative state of being.

Psychologists define hypervigilance as an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity coupled with an exaggerated intensity of behaviors in response to possible threats. Hypervigilance is often accompanied by a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion. People who are hyper-vigilant often stay in an abnormal high state of arousal and respond to stimuli by constantly scanning and detecting possible threats. Individuals with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) often exhibit hypervigilance. Why then would a person who loses a sense,  struggle with hypervigilance? I do not believe that people with acquired disabilities start out being hyper-vigilant. I think it evolves after an individual experiences something very negative as a result of having lost a sense. For example, I do not remember the exact day and time – but I do know that in June of 2003, I was shopping in a retail store and was stunned by the reality of how dangerous being deaf can be. I was scanning the shelves for items and a person evidently needed by. I didn’t hear the “excuse me” or whatever was offered to let me know I was in the way. The woman pushed passed me fast and I ended up flat on my face on the floor. I rolled over and looked around to see her standing there indignant (and not at all apologetic) demanding, “Why didn’t you move?”

“I’m sorry – I’m deaf”, I replied. She had the good grace to at least blush, pushed her cart and hurried away. I was so shook up that I left my cart where it stood, gathered my things, and left. I vowed from that day forward that I would do everything in my power to make my invisible disability more visible. I went through a fairly stressful number of months after the incident and became hyper-vigilant whenever I left the house. I stayed in a state of exhaustion because of it. Enough time went by that I eventually learned to relax a little and just work at picking up good awareness habits. I wear my hair up so that the technology I use is visible. In 2005, I was implanted with a cochlear implant that served to reduce my tension even more since I re-gained the ability to hear. After I was matched with Chloe, “being aware” became even easier. In training, an oft repeated phrase we hear is, “Trust your dog”. In the beginning it is very difficult to do because we are not accustomed to doing so. It takes practice to eventually instill the HABIT of trusting our dogs.

I got a lot of flack this last fall from extended family members for taking my dog to the hospital with me when my daughter had emergency surgery. My family members who do not live with me do not understand that Chloe isn’t a “crutch” – she’s a tool. I use Chloe to be more safe and more aware of my surroundings. My husband and I very rarely go someplace without Chloe. However, occasionally we do go to places where we leave Chloe at home for her safety. These places may include: ICU areas of a hospital, zoos (where animals may become agitated since they want to eat Chloe), or to places that may have guard dogs (such as jails, etc.). When we occasionally go to amusement parks, I do not ride fast rides because of my balance issues. However, someone with an assistance dog may determine that these places are not good for the dog to be either. You can’t exactly put a dog on a roller coaster! So when I happen to be without Chloe, my husband has noticed that I am startled more easily because I don’t have anything alerting me to things I miss on my own.

I do not take Chloe with me to stores, church, and restaurants when I’m visiting my parents. They do not welcome the attention she draws. It is their home and I respect their wishes. I’ve had folks tell me, “WE will be your ears and watch out for you. You don’t need Chloe”. However, when I’m counting on people to cue me it never actually happens. People ignore many sounds that are just background noise to them. I’ve noticed that my parents can be having a conversation and stop on the curb while I just step right out into the road, unaware that a car was coming because they blocked my view of that direction. I have to be much more careful. I’ve also noticed that as a result of having a balance disorder, I stumble more when Chloe is not with me. In throngs of people, individuals “bump”, “crowd”, and invade the space of people around them because they are in a hurry. When I have Chloe with me, people notice and take care to stay outside my immediate perimeter. I’m rarely jostled or bumped when Chloe is with me. As a result, I fall and stumble less.

So Chloe does reduce my anxiety and create a different kind of awareness. I’m aware of HER. I depend on her. Having said all of that, having an assistance dog is not for everyone. In some ways it is like having a really smart toddler around. She investigates things with her nose, and yet I don’t want her to put her nose on every thing we come across. So I have to remind her “head up, Chloe” and be aware of things at her eye level. For example, because it is Easter season, going to Wal-mart means I need to be aware of all of the stuffed bunnies and ducks often at her eye level. Stores put them there so a child will say, “Mommy? Can I have this?” Well Chloe would like them too! So I have to be aware of her at all times.

At Fidos For Freedom, teams do a “meet and greet” activity. I HATE THEM. This activity is very hard on the people there who have a hearing loss. The idea is that you put your dog in a safe place and then communicate with another person or a couple of different people in a group. When you have a hearing loss though, you have to see the person’s face if you are in a large, noisy room filled with other groups of people talking. So it is difficult to make sure Chloe stays “safe” and STAYS PUT while actually carrying on a conversation. The activity is one of those “necessary evils” we endure so that we know what to expect in public – in REAL life.

I have heard people with hearing loss bemoan how difficult it is to carry on conversations when there is a “hub bub” of chatter around them. Sure, I may have a special program on my cochlear implant to help eliminate background noise, but it is not perfect! It is hard to concentrate on the speaker! Add to that trying to make sure your partner is in a safe place, only adds to the stress level a bit. So although Chloe eliminates much of the stress in my life, it can add to it as well. I don’t know that there is a good solution for “group meet and greet” for a person with hearing loss also partnered with a dog. (I’m open to any ideas though – grin).

Ok? SO?

Today’s post comes as the result of an email I received last week. With the person’s permission, I asked to blog about her question. “How do I know if an assistance dog would help me? Is it more trouble than it is help?” These questions are important ones if the person is thinking about training for an assistance dog. Some others you may need to ponder:

1. Am I OK with the attention having an assistance dog draws to me in public?

2. Am I OK with people stopping me and asking what the dog does for me?

3. Am I OK with having to pack a “bag” to go anywhere in order to make sure I have the things needed to travel with a dog?

4. Am I OK with occasionally being confronted and denied access?

5. Am I OK with having to care for and groom a dog daily?

6. (Because of #5), am I OK with having to invest in stock in LINT ROLLERS?

These questions and more are important things to consider if you are thinking about getting an assistance dog.

For me, the #1 benefit is that I am more relaxed and at ease in my awareness. I no longer feel the need to be hyper-vigilant and I’ve learned to trust my dog.

Where Can I Get One?

Self-training or Hiring a Trainer:

Countless owners have “self-trained” their dogs to perform specific tasks. There are pro’s and con’s to doing so. Private trainers can be expensive, but they can custom tailor a program for the specific needs of a person with hearing loss. Unfortunately, many dogs wash out before they can become service dog material, and a person might go through several dogs before finding one that is right for the work. Self-training is difficult, and also runs the same risk of washing out several dogs before finding the right one. But many who have self-trained their dogs have a strong bond and partnership as a result of this work. Usually, people who self-train have very good mobility or caregivers to help out, have had one or more service dogs in the past and have had some training experience, even if only with their own dogs. Individuals can hire a trainer as well and some of these trainers assist in “puppy selection”.

Some links to get started:

http://www.dogpawsability.com/

http://sdog.danawheels.net/ot-adog.shtml

http://www.amazon.com/Teamwork-II-Training-Manual-Disabilities/dp/0965621618

Training Organizations:

There are numerous organizations from which a person can get a “program” trained dog. A list compiled by Assistance Dogs International, can be found at:

http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/membersstatecountry.php

Another list can be found at: http://wolfpacks.com/products/servicedog/trainers.html

Many programs offer training and a dog at little to no cost, as they depend on the generosity of donors, sponsors, and volunteers. Others have ways in which you can help to raise money for the dog being trained for you.

Every state has similar requirements for a hearing assistance dog, but I always carry my ADI guide to Assistance Dog Laws. A copy can be obtained at: http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/guidetodoglaws.php

Feel free to email me if you have additional questions!

Sincerely,

Denise Portis

© 2011 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

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4 thoughts on “Hypervigilance vs. Awareness

  1. Denise, what a wonderful post. Even though my dogs are not trained hearing dogs, I do watch them and depend on them to give me cues while I’m at home. I try to be “aware” of my surroundings at all times as well. I always say that my eyes are my “ears,” too. We are a product of our experiences and tend to be more cautious and less trusting after unpleasant ones.

    One thought, though…are “hyper-vigilant” persons more likely to expect “perfectionism” from others and their environments? I like to have everything in its place and sometimes get frustrated when persons are inconsiderate or forgetful when they know I have a hearing loss.

  2. What a powerful post this is, Denise! You’ve done such a great job articulating the importance of the work Chloe does and also what this means to you. I was really taken by your description of how you negotiate Chloe’s presence when you are with your parents – did that take quite a bit of time to work through?

    1. Thank you Teresa. When I’m at my parent’s home, I usually do not take Chloe out with me. They are not comfortable with the attention her presence draws. When they are at MY home, however, they have learned to grin and “bear it”. They do love me, but they do not completely understand hearing loss, life with hearing loss, and assistance dogs. They are “old school” I suppose and change is not easy for them.

  3. I get people mad at me when they say something to me when my back is turned . My loss of hearing is not profound as you but talk fast or with an accent sometimes I miss things. I unfortunately have a strong fight or flight to loud noises or if I am scared as when I would be pushed like you. I have learned to curb it. My border collie used to watch out for me when I was outside
    Mowing the lawn .
    Take care. I am glad you are here.

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