Going through personal trauma can be soul-shaking for a lot of people, but for an HSP (highly sensitive person), it easily becomes soul-shattering. As someone who is already more sensitive to both sensory stimuli and emotions, the combination of a physical trauma and an emotional one can feel like you’re a planet thrown off its axis, spinning wildly out of control.
The result is that HSPs react to trauma differently, both while it’s happening and in the aftermath. That means we need to deal with it differently, too — and we need to know what strategies we can use that will actually help us heal as sensitive souls.
Here’s what the experience of life-changing trauma was like for me as an HSP, and what I learned about how to survive it.
When I stared up at those bright surgical lights and the stark white and metal surroundings, I knew I was going to die.
Going Through Trauma as a Highly Sensitive Person
For a highly sensitive person, the very experience of trauma can be sensory overload. At least, it was for me. In 2011, I was getting out of the shower when I heard and felt a pop from inside my body, and then a pain in my pelvis. I did my best not to panic, repeating things loved ones have said to me my whole life: “You’re too dramatic” or “You’re overreacting.” When the pain wouldn’t go away and I became dizzy, overheated, and nauseated, I called my husband to take me to the hospital. I no longer cared if I was overreacting. I only knew I needed help.
In between blackouts, severe pain, and excruciating pelvic exams, I was wheeled back into the operating room a few hours later. I was six weeks along with an ectopic pregnancy, and my fallopian tube had ruptured, nearly all my blood pooling into my stomach cavity. I have never experienced that level of pain before.
When I stared up at those bright surgical lights and the stark white and metal surroundings, I knew I was going to die. In fact, I was in so much pain that I begged for it. I accepted it. In that moment of being completely overwhelmed by everything happening to me and around me, I wasn’t afraid to die anymore — and for me, that’s saying something.
When I woke up after surgery surprised that I was still alive, I knew I would need to heal from the physical pain and the incisions, and that it might take me awhile. But I had no idea the emotional impact the experience would have on me (and still does).
It took about a week for the loss to hit me. I began to replay every moment of that experience in my head. I sat horror-struck, staring at the wall, remembering; trying to understand how and why it happened to me. It has been eight years now, and I still replay it in my head. Not every day anymore, but occasionally I will zone out because I’m overwhelmed with the memory.
Have I healed? Not entirely. In fact, the emotional healing process has been brutal — but also necessary. There are ways to make it gentler. Here’s what I learned along the way, the things I wished I knew eight years ago.
It may not feel like it right now, but you’re more than your trauma.
6 Secrets to Recovering from Trauma as a Highly Sensitive Person
1. Grieving your trauma is not just natural; it’s healthy.
Grieving for my own loss is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life. It’s messy and raw and it takes what feels like an eternity to see progress. But it’s essential. It’s easier to shut down emotionally than to deal with a traumatic life change, but it will always find a way out, and probably not in the way you had wanted.
Sometimes well-meaning people want you to get better faster, which can make you feel that you have no right to keep mourning what happened. As if it will be easier to keep it all inside so you don’t trouble others. Don’t fall for it — it needs to come out. And while that’s true for anyone, as HSPs, we may need more time to process it.
2. We all process trauma differently.
My husband didn’t want to talk about what happened over and over — but I did. It’s like I had no control over myself and, day after day, it would all come spewing out at the worst times. I was filled to the brim with pain, and it needed to escape.
Years later, my husband and I went to counseling. I had always thought that, because he refused to talk about it, I must be further along in the healing process than him. It turned out I was wrong. Our therapist helped me realize that because he had been through such hard things in his life already, he was better equipped to heal and process and move on than I was. While it was the worst thing to ever happen to me in my life, it wasn’t the worst thing that happened to him, and that gave him perspective that I didn’t have yet.
Neither one of our ways of handling trauma was wrong, and neither is the way you handle it — or the way your loved ones do.
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3. It’s okay to be selective about who you talk to.
I had many people reach out and want to know every nitty gritty detail of what happened. At first, I obliged them — even strangers. I actually felt guilty if I didn’t share, as if it was my job to be there for them.
It didn’t take long to learn that not everyone is the right person. There will always be those people who crane their necks to see the crash, and when the crash is your life, that’s violating and intrusive. I learned the hard way that some people just want to use others’ trauma as fodder for idle gossip later — or to make themselves feel virtuous.
If you’re not comfortable with someone and you don’t trust them, you don’t have to tell them a thing. You may not be in control of the terrible things that have happened to you, but you’re in control of who you invite into your life. Surround yourself with people who love you and respect you.
4. Time doesn’t heal all, but it does help.
After dealing with my own trauma, I never liked that old idea that time heals all wounds. I will always have emotional scars from my experience. But time does help you distance yourself from it and allows you to develop skills to better process and deal with it. You may never be completely healed, but give yourself as much time as you need to get back to a place where you can find joy.
Years later, I’m still affected by what happened. It has changed how I see others and how I experience life. Triggers are everywhere; sometimes I can walk right past them and not give them much notice, and other times, I’m overwhelmed all over again.
That’s why healing is a process. For many people, there is no finish line. Or if there is, I haven’t found mine yet.
5. Listen to your body and your heart.
While I was actively grieving, all I wanted to do was lie in the dark and waste the day away. Of course, I couldn’t do that because I had life responsibilities and a job. But, in a sense, that was my body telling me what I needed.
I’ve learned that I do my best grieving and healing by myself without a lot of stimuli around. After my surgery, I didn’t want anything to do with electronics or the mindlessness that can take over. I just wanted to feel it all, and everything else was distraction.
No one wants to get lost in all-consuming pain, but it’s okay to try to understand what your body and your heart are telling you. It’s okay if it doesn’t make sense to others.
If that means withdrawing for a while, it might be how you best recover.
6. Ask for help if you need it.
Sometimes all you need is the listening, non-judgmental ear of someone you trust. I know it’s hard to ask for help — it’s still one of my biggest everyday struggles, but sometimes I need it, and sometimes you will too.
Asking for help when you need it doesn’t mean you’re weak. It doesn’t mean you’re broken. It means you’re hurt and you need love and guidance from someone you trust. It means you’re human.
It may not feel like it right now, but you’re more than your trauma. It may be all-consuming and overwhelming, but you are strong. You will survive. It will be a long journey, but you will get there. Be patient with yourself. You’re not as alone as you feel.