Nearly 1 in 3 people are wired to feel everything deeply. So what does that mean for trauma — and for healing it?
Most, if not all, of us will experience trauma at some point in our lives, simply because we are human. Trauma is not just the threat to life as was previously thought. Instead, it can be any instance that disrupts safety and forces us to reorient and adjust to a new reality.
Some forms of trauma are small “t” — including major life transitions and chronic stress. But when we think about the negative and long-term impacts of trauma, what we are most often thinking of is large “T” — trauma including things like assault, rape, natural disaster, war, mass shootings, loss of a loved one, or personally witnessing another’s endangerment.
In essence, trauma reshapes how we see the world; at times, it can completely change the course of our lives.
How Trauma Affects Highly Sensitive People
About 30 percent of the population tests as more sensitive than average, according to Michael Pluess, a behavioral scientist at Queen Mary University of London. Known as highly sensitive people (HSPs), they are wired at a biological level to think, feel, and experience the world more deeply. This is a survival advantage that allows sensitive people to process more information about their environment and notice things that others miss. In animals, high sensitivity can be what saves a creature from the jaws of a predator. In humans, it’s more likely to show up as creativity, innovation, empathy, and depth of emotion.
But this ability to feel more deeply can have downsides, too — and profoundly changes how HSPs experience trauma.
HSP survivors of trauma tend to feel like the black sheep or the outsider in their family, because they were more negatively impacted than their non-HSP siblings. Based on the “dandelion vs. orchid” theory by W. Thomas Boyce, M.D., there are two different kinds of children: the “dandelion” child — hardy, resilient, healthy — who are able to survive and flourish under most circumstances, and the “orchid” child — sensitive, susceptible, fragile — who, in the right environment, can thrive as much, if not more, than other children. This speaks to why HSPs who experience trauma can be “hit harder” than their non-HSP counterparts. The following are specific ways HSPs are more impacted by trauma.
The Connection Between Hyperarousal and HSPs
Hyperarousal is a common issue that occurs for most survivors of trauma — and, for highly sensitive people, because they feel things more deeply, the experience is intensified. At times, it can even become detrimental. Symptoms of hyperarousal include:
- Risky or destructive behavior
- Hypervigilance (an elevated state of assessing potential threats in the environment)
- Heightened startle reaction
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
Considering that HSPs tend to be more hyperaroused as it is, trauma can exacerbate the likelihood of becoming overwhelmed and overstimulated. It can be difficult to determine whether someone who has experienced past trauma is a highly sensitive person if they also have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is triggered by a scary event.
The reason for this is because many of the symptoms of PTSD are also found in the HSP scale, an assessment used to identify how sensitive someone is. For example, some features that occur in both are:
- Being easily startled
- Avoiding large crowds
- Needing to withdraw to have relief from stimulation
- Discomfort with loud noises
- Avoiding violent movies and TV shows
For sensitive people, the world can already be overstimulating. So when trauma occurs, it compounds the impact of the highly sensitive person’s previously heightened nervous system.
The Connection Between Compartmentalizing and HSPs
After enduring trauma, HSPs are more likely to dissociate, trauma-split, or hyper-compartmentalize. What this means is that, in order to survive, they will effectively shut off certain emotions or facets of their personality in order to feel less so they can function more.
A well-known example of this would be dissociative identity disorder (DID), otherwise known as multiple personality disorder. Each identity controls a different part of the person’s behavior. Working with a therapist is important so that the person can reduce the frequency with which they switch personalities and identities.
Other common forms of compartmentalizing that are common for HSPs include ignoring difficult or raw emotions by controlling the environment around them while engaging in a “flight” response (vs. “fight”), as Pete Walker explored in his book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.
Those in flight mode may appear high-functioning, as they are always on the go. But, eventually, they will crash. Hyper-compartmentalizing emotions often results in basic needs being ignored, which can not only lead to mental health issues, but also medical/health issues being overlooked.
For HSPs who have endured trauma, compartmentalizing can feel like the only way to survive, but there are many healthier — and more compassionate — options.
Knowing how trauma impacts a highly sensitive person is a good place to start. The next step is to gain knowledge about how to cope with the impact trauma can wreak on the HSP nervous system. You do this by learning ways to thrive and become more resilient.
3 Ways Highly Sensitive People Can Cope with Trauma
1. Remember that education is power — know what you experienced so you can heal and regain your power.
For trauma survivors, it is important they understand what they are experiencing (or have experienced), so they can regain power they lost as a result of the trauma. By this, I mean knowing what is happening and why. For example, it helps to understand what triggers you have and how the body reacts to them as a result of trauma — this can help reduce stress and anxiety.
Since conscientious thinking is common for highly sensitive people, learning about your trauma can fulfill the need you have to seek out answers to life’s great mysteries. Education is so crucial for recovery that, in mental health therapy, the first step of trauma work involves psychoeducation. This provides a language to describe what you’re going through.
If therapy is not an option, there is a lot that can be learned from trauma-focused support groups, blogs, podcasts, and literature. One of the most widely read books regarding trauma, The Body Keeps the Score by Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, is a good place to start.
2. Limit negative news on TV, online, and on social media.
After an HSP has endured trauma, it can be helpful to limit the news (especially negative) being watched or read, particularly during times of incredible unrest in the world and in relation to things that are out of our control.
It can help to set boundaries with friends and family, too, to let them know you are avoiding (or limiting) your intake of the news, as many people tend to spread the distress they experience from negative news by talking about it with others.
For some, completely cutting the news out is either not an option or it feels uncomfortable. This is due to the strong pull HSPs have toward social justice and wanting to care for the world. In these cases, it can help to set parameters and limit consumption to times of optimal arousal — and not during times of heightened levels of stress.
3. Spend time with others while being patient with your progress.
When recovering from trauma, it is important not to rush the process. Rather, practice mindfulness and acceptance for where you find yourself in the journey of healing. When you do feel ready, however, one of the most powerful ways to process trauma is in the presence of others.
Trauma can disrupt the sense of safety a highly sensitive person has around others. Some ways to work through this may be attending a support group for trauma survivors or joining group activities that help regulate your vagus nerve, which is responsible for telling your body whether or not you are safe. Some ideas include singing in a chorus or a self-defense class.
While these ideas can have a positive impact on recovery from trauma, they are not always easy to do. If possible, try practicing authenticity about how you are feeling and share your struggle with at least one person you can trust.
If the thought of sharing your trauma story with even one person feels like too much at this time, other good options are online support groups, listening to podcasts, finding self-help books that resonate with your experience, or working with a mental health therapist who is well-versed in trauma and HSPs.
Hope for Highly Sensitive People with Trauma
It is important to remember that healing is not a linear path — rather, it is a dynamic journey that will change over time. The journey for HSPs can also feel longer and more arduous than for others. But it is important to remain patient and loving toward yourself. Self-compassion is not only going to help reduce the negative impact that trauma can have, but it is also exactly what you need — and deserve.