Danger is always looming when it becomes a constant reminder.
Many people who have overcome abuse and trauma have to live in places where they are under continual danger. Abuse, whether mental or physical, neglect, abandonment, or sexual violation, all fall under this category of potential harm. Hyperarousal, the condition of persistent awareness or vigilance brought on by chronic dread, is very demanding on the neurological system.
The amygdala's capacity to differentiate threat signals breaks compromised in those who live in settings of continual risk. Victims of abuse often develop habitual, extreme defensive responses to situations that pose no real threat.
When danger is constant, the brain's warning system (the amygdala) goes off too often, and it trains itself to see any and all threats as serious. When this occurs, the brain is unable to distinguish between genuine and imagined dangers, leading to hyperarousal and a knee-jerk reaction to any perceived threat. As a result of this heightened level of awareness, everyone is on the lookout for potential threats. They start seeing the world through the filter of fear.
Consequently, trauma survivors are always on edge and quick to react with either avoidance or aggression. When confronted with a trigger, the thinking brain (prefrontal areas) immediately shuts down. Individuals with this condition suffer from anxiety, panic, or detachment and are unable to rationally evaluate their responses.
The unique storage and processing of traumatic memory adds more complexity to the already-agitated brain (Van der Kolk, 1994). Traumatic memories, as psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk (1994) says, are preserved as fragmented sensory and perceptual pieces that may be reactivated by seemingly unconnected occurrences in the present, such as the tone of another person's voice or the look on their face. For those who are easily aroused, the present might seem like a distant memory. Instead of looking back on their painful experiences, survivors are living through them all over again.
The chronic, underlying state of "dysregulation" or imbalance in the body that abuse survivors develop in response to ongoing threat can manifest as either hyperarousal and hypervigilance (where a person appears to overreact to every situation) or listlessness and dissociation (where a person appears numb and disconnected in stressful or dangerous situations). Stress on the mind, heart, and body is perpetuated by the aforementioned neurological and physiological disregulation.