Could the way you think when creating technical communication be affecting your health? If you find it difficult to relax, are often anxious, and feel extremely risk averse, the answer could be YES. In this post, I’m going to look at how the thought processes we use in our work can become habits that lead to hypervigilance and how that can have a negative effect on our home lives.
Do You Always Think of the Worst-Case Scenario?
Thinking about negative outcomes is an important part of our work. When we are writing instructions, we need to consider not only the correct process, but also what could go wrong if the end user makes an incorrect move. By imagining the outcomes, we can create documentation that keeps users on the right track and prevents them from making costly, potentially harmful mistakes. But thinking of ‘worst-case scenarios’ can become a habit that can impact on our health, something I discovered the hard way.
When I was first told that my job was influencing my thought patterns, I dismissed it as nonsense. But as I learned more, I realised that actually there was something to it. Let’s consider what thoughts go through our minds when we create documentation. We’ll use a simple example of a new combo-box in a software application.
What do we need to know?
- What is the design purpose of the combo-box?
- What is the meaning of each of its options?
- When and why should each of its options be used?
- What happens if the user selects the wrong option or uses the combo-box at the wrong time?
- What are the consequences of using the setting incorrectly? Could someone be hurt, data lost, equipment damaged, resources wasted?
Out of all of these considerations, it is the last two points I want to focus on because these require us to think about preventative measures – what can go wrong and how do we guide users away from these mistakes? To create this preventative documentation, we need to ask about or imagine potential threats and consequences. In each situation, what could possibly go wrong? What would be the worst-case scenario?
If, every working day, we spend time thinking about ‘what could possibly go wrong?’, should we be surprised that the pattern of thinking could become habitual? For some people, myself included, it becomes a process that is difficult to switch off. Over time, this hypervigilance can affect all of our decision-making and also harm on our physical health and relationships.
Hypervigilance in Technical Communication
Hypervigilance is when your mind is constantly on guard, seeking out potential dangers. It is often experienced by people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it can affect anyone. I asked Dr Miriam Silver, a consultant clinical psychologist, to explain:
“When we are over-sensitised to threat, the way our brain works changes. We prioritise risk management over everything else – something that makes sense in survival terms but is very hard to manage in the modern world where the potential risks are multiple and complex, rather than something as straightforward as a predator or risk of falling from a high place. And this can mean that we lose our ability to be imaginative and flexible, and gain a sense of the world as being full of dangers. This hypervigilance for threat means we constantly scan the environment for potential dangers and find it hard to relax or focus on other things.”
And that is exactly what many of us do on a daily basis, only instead of scanning for potential dangers to ourselves, we are imagining the threats to our end users. Is this type of hypervigilance useful to us as technical communicators? Yes, absolutely. If we are sensitive to potential hazards, we can spot them quickly and direct users away from them. The problem comes when this pattern of thought becomes our ‘normal’ way of thinking and starts to affect our life outside work.
“As with most mental health problems, the pattern only becomes a problem when it is excessive. If hypervigilance is stopping you being able to relax or part of more generalised anxiety that is interfering with your life, then it might be worth seeking some help. However, if the hypervigilance is situation-specific to your work role, it might be very helpful and not a problem in your life at all.” – Dr Miriam Silver
Is Your Hypervigilance Excessive?
It’s not always easy to tell if you are suffering from hypervigilance. Like many thinking distortions, it can creep up on you gradually. You may notice that your way of thinking about risk has changed, or that you are very preoccupied with worst-case scenarios. You may notice physical symptoms of anxiety, like butterflies in your stomach, dry mouth, palpitations, dizziness, sweating, or rapid breathing in certain situations. Or you may notice that you are very jumpy.
Some of the most common symptoms are:
- Sleep problems
- Poor memory
- Poor concentration
- Obsessive behaviour
- Low self-esteem and self-confidence
- Feeling under threat or on guard
- Exaggerated reaction to threats and perceived threats
- Starting to feel the whole world is a dangerous place.
Even if you don’t notice the symptoms of hypervigilance yourself, the chances are that people around you will. If you feel you have the symptoms, or someone says you have the symptoms, it might be time to seek help. There are many simple techniques that you can use to control hypervigilance, and I was surprised at just how easy it is to regain control.
Keeping Hypervigilance Under under Control
We’re in a Catch 22 situation – hypervigilance can help us in our work, but if it becomes excessive it can be detrimental to our health and relationships. We must strike a balance where we can turn hypervigilance on and off to suit our needs, but is that possible? Speaking from personal experience, yes it is.
I asked a therapist for advice, and she recommended a technique that worked for me instantly. When you feel that you are being hypervigilant in a situation where it is unhelpful, ask yourself two questions:
- If you had to put money on an imagined event actually happening, would you take that bet?
- How did you make your decision about the bet?
These questions make you assess the likelihood of the scenario, which in turn makes you consider the evidence: Has it happened before? How often has it happened? Are the conditions right for the bad event to occur again? This way, you base your reaction on likelihood and reasoning, rather than oversensitivity to imagined threats.
“A lot of people fear being struck by lightning, whilst nobody runs their life around the equally unlikely belief they are going to win the lottery! By considering the likelihood of the risk occurring I can see whether the risk is of a possible negative outcome that I can tolerate or a probable negative outcome that needs to be addressed.” – Dr Miriam Silver
The therapist also recommended another question, for those cases where the imagined threat is likely to happen again:
- If the event did happen, what would be the outcome? How do you continue if the worst-case scenario occurs?
With this question, the emphasis is on evidence and recognising that the imagined threat, even if it occurs, needs to be put into perspective so that we can regain control. At work, this is usually easy, as we can guide users through troubleshooting steps. In our personal lives, we can regain control by using the same approach.
“Susan Jeffers, the American psychologist and fear specialist, explained that everybody feels some anxiety, but the difference between people for whom anxiety is a problem and those where it is not is their ability to get on and live their lives despite it. Her mantra of “Feel the fear and do it anyway” is a good reminder that anxiety does not need to restrict our lives, and is something we can choose whether to listen to or not. She also points out that people cope with challenging situations all the time, and often better than they would have predicted, so it is worthwhile reminding yourself that if the worst does happen, you will probably cope with it. Dan Gilbert (who has done some brilliantly accessible TED talks) reinforces this point with his overview of the research evidence, where studies have consistently shown that people are just as happy 12 months after negative life events (such as becoming paraplegic) as they are after positive ones (such as winning the lottery) and that people consistently overestimate the impact of negative events.” – Dr Miriam Silver
If you feel that you need professional help to cope with hypervigilance or other anxiety-related issues, the NHS provides a scheme called ‘Improving Access to Psychological Therapies’, which offers free local support for mild to moderate mental health problems. You may be able to self-refer or you can approach your GP for a referral. Your GP may offer individual or group programmes to help manage anxiety, or ‘guided self-help’ where your doctor supports you while you work through a book or computer programme to manage your anxiety.
For more individualised care, you may also want to see a therapist or psychologist on a private basis. Look for membership of a credible professional body – the most stringent is the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC ), who regulate practitioner psychologists (who have a minimum of six years’ training, normally to doctoral level). You can find a suitable psychologist at https://www1.bps.org.uk/bpslegacy/dcp.
This article originally appeared in the 2016 issue of the ISTC magazine: Communicator.