How Unhealed Trauma Affects Highly Sensitive People

a highly sensitive person with unhealed trauma looking out the window

Sensitive people may be hit harder by traumatic experiences — but are they also better equipped to recover?

Does this sound familiar? You’re going about your day when something catches you off guard. In a flash, your body comes alive with energy, your head is foggy, your thoughts spin, and your emotions feel huge. Shame or fear may overtake you. You want to lash out in anger, hide, or simply run away. Or you might feel frozen in place, like you can’t make decisions or even move.

If we were to look at what provoked this reaction, something probably made you feel unsafe, either physically or emotionally. This is what psychologists call a “trauma trigger.” 

Some of My Struggles Were Caused by Trauma

I’m a therapist who works with both highly sensitive people and trauma victims, but it wasn’t until I started my own healing journey using a technique called EMDR that I realized I had experienced trauma myself. That’s when it dawned on me: 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 — such as scanning the environment for danger — 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 now I feel safe in the world and in my relationships.

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What Exactly Is Trauma?

When I suggest that a client has experienced trauma, most 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 the word “trauma,” think of a war veteran or a sexual assault surviver.

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

That means trauma can be a toxic boss. Trauma can be a divorce. Trauma can be an unnecessary conflict where someone got loud and angry and nasty. Or trauma can seem to come from something inconsequential, which is actually the straw that broke the camel’s back after a whole series of stressors piled up.

Common 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 many trauma symptoms, and everyone experiences trauma somewhat differently, here are some of the most common symptoms I see in my clients:

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 habits
  • 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

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Why Trauma Matters

You might say, why do we need to call it trauma? The bad experience is over, so why focus on it? Yet, there are important reasons we must recognize trauma for what it is:

  1. We can’t heal from something that remains 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 Highly Sensitive People 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 in a stronger way, including traumatic experiences.

When we have positive experiences, we have the gift of potentially feeling more excitement and joy than non-HSPs. If we’re lucky enough to have a supportive and positive family, community, or work environment, we’ll flourish more than others would. Researchers call this concept “differential susceptibility.”

Conversely, when sensitive people have a negative experience, we may feel more profound fear and hurt than non-HSPs. And if we grew up in an unsupportive environment, we’re more likely to bear the scars from it. So, because of this sensitivity to our environment, we’re more vulnerable to being traumatized by our experiences.

However, the opposite is true, too. Just as sensitive people are hit harder by stress, we also get a bigger boost from support and positive experiences — including the things that help people overcome trauma and heal. HSP expert Andre Sólo, co-author of the bestselling book Sensitive, call this the sensitive “Boost Effect,” and states, “The research is clear that highly sensitive people get more benefit from therapy, mentors, and social support. If you build these things into your life, you won’t just heal, you’ll actually come out with even better outcomes than less-sensitive people.”

Only You Can Say if Something Was Traumatic for You

When we define trauma as anything that is too intense for your nervous system to process in the moment, we can view bullying, being 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 the 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 traumatic for another. 

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. 

Even though I’m a therapist, going to therapy myself 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 still an HSP), but I now have less “free floating” anxiety. I’m triggered less often, and when I do get triggered, I have learned to take time to breathe and think before reacting.

And now, I specialize in working with sensitive people who’ve experienced trauma. I do this work because I know firsthand that healing is possible when we get the right help. You don’t have to “suck it up” and live with the hard things you’ve been through. Trauma healing means accessing the trauma that your body is holding onto and healing it in a way that doesn’t re-traumatize you.

How You Can Start Healing

Are you ready to start healing from trauma? The first step is a simple but profound one: Recognize that you have trauma. Most importantly, know that it wasn’t your fault, you’re not alone, and there’s help for you.

Then, I recommend the following steps, all of which lean into the Boost Effect that Sólo described above:

  1. Seek out a therapist trained in a trauma modality like EMDR or Somatic Experiencing. You can filter for these techniques on sites like Psychology Today.
  2. Start practicing mindfulness and becoming more aware of your physical experiences. Many trauma survivors are disconnected from their bodies, so starting to notice your body sensations is crucial. Trauma-sensitive or gentle yoga can help you come back into your body and start experiencing it as a safe place again.
  3. Practice self-compassion. Healing from trauma is daunting work, so you must approach it with self-love.
  4. Develop safe relationships. Build relationships with people who respond to you with kindness and accept your sensitive nature.
  5. Learn how to regulate your emotions and reduce anxiety so you can bring yourself back to a place of calm after you are triggered.

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

Read this article again. 

Take a deep breath. 

Then take another.

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

Try professional mental health coaching for HSPs. Intuitive Warrior offers expert support to help you build more resilience, regulate your emotions and reduce anxiety.

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