Trauma & the Highly Sensitive Person
Adapted from Sensitive Refuge
What Exactly Is Trauma?
Most people, when they hear the word “trauma,” think of a war veteran or a sexual assault survivor.
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.
Are Highly Sensitive People More Susceptible to Trauma?
In a word, yes. A highly sensitive person's nervous system is more finely tuned than those of non-HSPs. This means they respond to all stimuli in a stronger way, including traumatic experiences.
When they have positive experiences, they have the gift of potentially feeling more excitement and joy than non-HSPs. If someone is lucky enough to have a supportive and positive family, community, or work environment, they will flourish more than others would. Researchers call this concept “differential susceptibility.”
Conversely, when sensitive people have a negative experience, they may feel more profound fear and hurt than non-HSPs. And if they grew up in an unsupportive environment, they are more likely to bear the scars from it. So, because of this sensitivity to their environment, they are more vulnerable to being traumatized by their experiences.
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
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 an overwhelming 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. After enduring trauma, HSPs are more likely to 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.
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”). 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.
How 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 that they understand what they are experiencing (or have experienced), so they can regain the power they may have lost as a result of the event(s). This can be achieved by 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 trauma can fulfill the need 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.
2. People process trauma differently.
Some people don't want to talk about what happened over and over but some people do. As a result of what some have been through in life already, they are equipped differently to heal and process. Life experiences and how we "come into the world" sometimes inform the healing journey.
3. Listen to your body.
Some people need to heal by themselves without a lot of stimuli around. They just wanted to feel it all, and not be distracted. Some people need to absorb and process things in smaller chunks--only letting a little bit in at a time. Others still, may want to be surrounded by others and share their journey.
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.
4. Ask for help if you need it.
Sometimes all someone needs is the listening, non-judgmental ear of someone they trust and others need more professional support to guide their journey. 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 guidance from someone you trust. It means you’re human.