How Unhealed Trauma Affects Highly Sensitive People

Trauma is anything that is too intense for the nervous system to process in the moment.

Does this sound all too 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.

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:

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

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.

Only You Can Say if Something Was Traumatic for You

When we define trauma as anything that is too intense for the 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. 

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 would recommend the following steps:

  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.

Take a deep breath. 

Then take another.

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

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