Does this sound familiar?
You’re going about your day when something catches you completely off guard. In a flash, your body comes alive with energy, your head is foggy, your thoughts spin, and your hands feel clammy. Your emotions are huge, overwhelming. Shame, anger, and/or fear overtake you and you want to lash out/hide/run away. You might feel frozen.
If we looked at what provoked this reaction, something probably made you feel unsafe (physically or emotionally): you felt shamed, rejected, abandoned, or threatened.
The above experience describes a “trauma trigger”.
I’ve been there
As a therapist who works with both Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) and trauma healing, it wasn’t until I started doing my own healing through a technique called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) that I realized I’d experienced trauma.
It took many years to realize that some of my emotional reactivity, anxiety and shame wasn’t about having a sensitive nervous system; it had to do with unhealed trauma. Once I started understanding that trauma was the culprit behind my hypervigilance (scanning the environment for danger) and some intense emotional reactions, I could have more self-compassion and do the type of therapy needed to heal.
Ten years later, I’ve healed to the degree that my anxiety is minimal and I rarely have overwhelming emotional reactions. I feel safe in the world and in my relationships.
What exactly is trauma?
When I suggest a client has experienced trauma, 75% of people say, “I never thought of it that way” or “it wasn’t that bad- I wouldn’t call it trauma”. And I understand: when they hear that word, they think war veteran or rape survivor.
While people who’ve gone through the above are certainly trauma survivors, the definition of trauma is much broader than that.
Here’s the definition I like: trauma is anything that was too intense for your nervous systems to process in the moment.
What are some symptoms of trauma?
One of the best ways to know if you’ve gone through trauma is to look at your symptoms. There are a whole host of trauma symptoms, but here are some of the most common that I see:
You might say, why do we need to call it trauma? It’s over, so why focus on it?
There are some important reasons why we must name trauma:
Are HSPs more susceptible to being traumatized than non-HSPs?
In a word, yes. As highly sensitive people, our nervous system is more finely-tuned than that of non-HSPs. This means we respond to all stimuli more strongly.
When we have positive experiences, we have the gift of feeling more excitement and joy than our non-HSP counterparts. If we’re lucky enough to have a supportive and positive family, community, or work environment, we’ll likely flourish more than would a non-HSP.
Conversely, when we have a negative experience, we’ll feel more profound fear, hurt, etc. than those who don’t have a sensitive nervous system, and if we grew up in an unsupportive environment, we’re more likely to bear scars from it.
Because of this sensitivity to our environment, we’re more vulnerable to being traumatized by our experiences.
This definition of trauma changes everything
When we define trauma as anything that was too intense for your nervous systems to process in the moment, we can see bullying, being shamed or criticized frequently or publicly, or feeling chronically rejected or abandoned by a caregiver as traumatic.
There are a couple types of trauma worth looking at:
1.“Little t” trauma
This refers to experiences that don’t fall into the category of clearly recognizable trauma. “Little t” trauma include non-life-threatening injuries, emotional abuse, the death of a pet, harassment, and the loss of significant relationships, to name a few, and the experience is extremely upsetting and overwhelming to the person experiencing it.
A caveat:the term “little t” trauma can sound like it’s minimizing the significance of an experience; I’m using it here with the opposite intent. Because traumas that fall under this category have often been minimized, this “little t” term (albeit flawed) is meant to validate that there’s a broader range of traumatic experiences than was previously recognized.
2. Chronic trauma
This is another overlooked category of trauma. If parental rejection, criticism, emotional abandonment or abuse was a frequent part of your childhood, the impact is devastating. It can result in internalized shame, low self-esteem and relationship difficulties.
Chronic trauma can involve chronic illnesses, neglect, psychological abuse, domestic violence, or living in a country in or under threat of war. The impact of living in upsetting circumstances long-term leaves a profound mark- even more so if it goes on while we’re growing up.
Trauma is contextual, subjective and can’t be ignored
Only you can say whether something was traumatic for you; no family member, friend or therapist can tell you what was/wasn’t traumatizing.
Because our experiences interact with genetics, our nervous systems, and previous life experiences, what’s traumatic for one person may not be for another. The question is whether an experience was overwhelmingly upsetting for you.
Discussing your trauma can feel like digging up old wounds that you spent a lot of energy burying or avoiding, but burying pain doesn’t actually work. Because trauma’s been woven into our nervous system and has (literally) altered our brain, it changes the way we see the world, whether we realize it or not. Unhealed trauma causes us to limp through life rather than truly enjoy our lives.
At some point, “just getting by” wasn’t an option
I was 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.
Getting therapy for this took courage, perseverance, and a couple of years to see major changes. Slowly though, I began to be less reactive. I still experienced life intensely (I’m an HSP, after all), but I had less “free floating” anxiety. I was triggered less often, and when I did get activated, I had time to breathe and think before reacting.
This informed what I do now
Now, I specialize in working with HSPs who’ve experienced trauma. I do this work because I know first hand that healing is possible when we get the right help.
Gone are the days when we had to “suck it up” and live with the hard things we’d been through. Now, trauma healing modalities are able to access the trauma that our body is still holding and heal it in a way that doesn’t retraumatize you.
How can you start healing?
The first step is to recognize you have trauma. It wasn’t your fault, you’re not alone, and there’s help for you.
Here are some steps you can take to start healing:
This can be a lot to take in when you first learn about it, so take it slow.
Read the article again.
Take a deep breath.
And know that above all, there’s hope and healing for you.
Brooke Nielsen, LMFT
Brooke Nielsen, LMFT has dedicated over 10,000 hours to supporting Highly Sensitive People as a psychotherapist and global HSP consultant. She practices psychotherapy in Boulder, CO and specializes in working with sensitivity and healing of trauma (EMDR). She's also the founder of Intuitive Warrior, an online platform offering resources and support to Highly Sensitive People worldwide. An HSP herself, Brooke went years feeling overwhelmed and anxious before learning how to support her finely-tuned nervous system. She considers it a joy and an honor to get to pass that knowledge and support on to others.
You are a gift to the world. You aren't alone. We need you here.