Highly Sensitive Refuge
a highly sensitive person has unhealed trauma

How Unhealed Trauma Affects Highly Sensitive People

My emotional reactivity, anxiety, and shame weren’t only about being an HSP — it also had to do with unhealed trauma.

Does this sound familiar?

You’re going about your day when something catches you completely off guard. In a flash, your body comes alive with energy, your head is foggy, your thoughts spin, and your hands feel clammy. Your emotions are huge, overwhelming. Shame, anger, and/or fear overtake you, and you want to lash out, hide, or run away. Or you might feel frozen.

If we looked at what provoked this reaction, something probably made you feel unsafe (physically or emotionally): You felt shamed, rejected, abandoned, or threatened.

The above experience describes a “trauma trigger.” 

Some of My Struggles Were Caused by Trauma

As a therapist who works with both highly sensitive people and trauma healing, it wasn’t until I started doing my own healing through a technique called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) that I realized I’d experienced trauma.

It took many years to recognize that some of my emotional reactivity, anxiety, and shame weren’t only connected to being a highly sensitive person (HSP) and having a sensitive nervous system; it also had to do with unhealed trauma. Once I understood that trauma was the culprit behind my hyper-vigilance (scanning the environment for danger) and some of my intense emotional reactions, I could have more self-compassion and do the work to heal. 

Ten years later, I’ve healed to the degree that my anxiety is minimal, and I rarely have overwhelming emotional reactions. I’m still an HSP who processes my emotions and environment deeply, but I feel safe in the world and in my relationships.

What Exactly Is Trauma?

When I suggest a client has experienced trauma, 75% of people say, “I never thought of it that way,” or “It wasn’t that bad — I wouldn’t call it trauma.” And I understand: Most people, when they hear that word, think war veteran or rape survivor.

While people who’ve gone through the above are certainly trauma survivors, the definition of trauma that I like is much broader: Trauma is anything that was too intense for your nervous system to process in the moment.

Some Symptoms of Trauma

One of the best ways to know if you’ve gone through trauma is to look at your symptoms. While there are a whole host of trauma symptoms, here are some of the most common that I see:

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Intrusive thoughts of the event 
  • Nightmares
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Mood swings

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Avoidance of activities or places that trigger memories of the event
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of interest in pleasurable activities

Physical symptoms:

  • Easily startled
  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Insomnia
  • Changes in eating and sleeping 
  • Aches and pains throughout the body

Psychological symptoms:

  • Shame (a feeling that you are damaged or bad)
  • Denial that certain events happened
  • Irritability
  • Always on the lookout for potential danger
  • Taking too much responsibility for others
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Overwhelming fear
  • Obsessive and compulsive behaviors
  • Detachment from other people and emotions
  • Emotional numbing
  • Depression

Why Trauma Matters

You might say, why do we need to call it trauma? It’s over, so why focus on it?

There are some important reasons we must recognize trauma for what it is:

  1. We can’t heal something undiagnosed. If you broke your arm but are calling it a sprain, you’ll never set the bone. If you know you’ve experienced trauma, you can get treatment specifically designed to heal it.
  2. It helps us understand ourselves. When we can see that our reactions aren’t part of a constellation of symptoms, we start to understand ourselves in a more holistic way, which invites self-compassion, another important component of healing.
  3. That which we keep inside festers. When we realize we’ve gone through something that’s still affecting us, we can start discussing it with safe people (or a therapist). This is the precursor to healing.

Are HSPs More Susceptible to Trauma?

In a word, yes. As highly sensitive people, our nervous systems are more finely-tuned than those of non-HSPs. This means we respond to all stimuli more strongly, including traumatic experiences.

When we have positive experiences, we have the gift of potentially feeling more excitement and joy than our non-HSP counterparts. If we’re lucky enough to have a supportive and positive family, community, or work environment, we’ll likely flourish more than others would.

Conversely, when we have a negative experience, we may feel more profound fear, hurt, etc. than those who don’t have a sensitive nervous system. And if we grew up in an unsupportive environment, we’re more likely to bear scars from it.

Because of this sensitivity to our environment, we’re more vulnerable to being traumatized by our experiences.

Only You Can Say if Something Was Traumatic for You

When we define trauma as anything that was too intense for your nervous system to process in the moment, we can see bullying, being shamed or criticized frequently or publicly, or feeling chronically rejected or abandoned by a caregiver as traumatic. Other examples of things that can be experienced as trauma are:

  • Non-life-threatening injuries
  • Emotional abuse
  • The death of a pet
  • Harassment
  • The loss of any significant relationship

It’s also important to take into account how long the trauma went on. If something distressing happens over and over (such as a chronic illness, neglect, psychological abuse, or living in a country in or under threat of war), it often moves into the category of trauma.

It’s important to note that only you can say whether or not something was traumatic for you. Because our experiences interact with genetics, our nervous systems, and previous life experiences, what’s traumatic for one person may not be for another. 

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I Was Tired of ‘Just Getting By’

At some point, I became tired of feeling “triggered,” overwhelmed, and anxious. My trauma got in the way of fun and spontaneity, and I lived with a sense of impending doom. While discussing trauma in therapy can feel like digging up old wounds, I also knew that burying pain doesn’t work. 

Getting therapy took courage, perseverance, and a couple of years to see major changes. Slowly, though, I began to be less reactive. I still experience life intensely (I’m an HSP, after all), but I had less “free floating” anxiety. I was triggered less often, and when I did get activated, I had time to breathe and think before reacting.

Now, I specialize in working with HSPs who’ve experienced trauma. I do this work because I know firsthand that healing is possible when we get the right help. 

Gone are the days of “sucking it up” and living with the hard things we’ve been through. Trauma healing modalities are able to access the trauma that your body is still holding and heal it in a way that doesn’t retraumatize you.

How You Can Start Healing

The first step is to recognize you have trauma. It wasn’t your fault, you’re not alone, and there’s help for you.

Here are some steps you can take to start healing:

  1. Seek out a therapist trained in a trauma modality like EMDR or Somatic Experiencing. You can filter for these on sites like Psychology Today.
  2. Start practicing mindfulness of your physical experience. Most trauma survivors are disconnected from their bodies, so starting to notice your body sensations is crucial.
  3. Try trauma-sensitive or gentle yoga. This also helps us come back into our bodies and start experiencing them as safe places.
  4. Practice self-compassion. Healing from trauma is daunting work; we must approach it with self-love.
  5. Develop safe relationships. Build relationships with people who respond to you with kindness and acceptance.
  6. Learn how to regulate your emotions and reduce anxiety so you can bring yourself back to a place of calm after you’re triggered.

This can be a lot to take in when you first learn about it, so take it slow.

Read the article again. 

Take a deep breath. 

Then another.

And know that, above all, there’s hope and healing for you.

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