If you are highly sensitive, you’ll benefit from an understanding of subtle trauma. Once you recognize the signs, you can seek support if you need it.
I found myself thinking about trauma responses last week after my partner caught a possum in our Havahart trap. The possum was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our intended target was a massive, wily groundhog whose vegetable-stealing, flower-mutilating offspring had been sending us into frenzies of helpless rage every summer.
This time, the possum didn’t “play possum.” It trundled off as soon as my partner opened the trap door, unlike an earlier capture when the possum feigned death even after the cage was open. It didn’t rouse itself and trundle off until a full 20 minutes later, after my exasperated partner shook it out onto the ground.
HSPs and non-HSPs respond differently
Neither of these possums is likely to have lasting trauma from being trapped: animals can literally shake off stress before trauma develops. For humans, that’s trickier to do…and it is even trickier for highly sensitive people (HSPs) than for non-HSPs.
Why the difference? Trauma arises when a person’s coping resources are utterly overwhelmed and there is no way to release the resulting systemic stress… and highly sensitive people are more prone to overwhelm generally than non-HSPs because we process more deeply, feel more intensely, and are more susceptible to our environment.
To make matters worse, we may then be judged by others who don’t get overwhelmed the way we do. If this happens often enough, and if we don’t understand our sensitive trait, we will begin to judge ourselves as well, wondering what is wrong with us. Either way, we are left with no way to release and process the stress we’ve experienced.
I’m not suggesting HSPs are walking trauma magnets. However, your sensitive trait makes you more vulnerable to subtle trauma, so it’s a good idea to include basic knowledge of the trauma response in your self-care repertoire. Otherwise you may end up settling for an unhealthy and unnecessary level of chronic stress.
From personal experience and through my work with clients, I’ve gained familiarity with the signs of the systemic overwhelm caused by subtle trauma. I share some of my observations here in the hope that they will support you in three ways:
- Recognizing that trauma exists on a spectrum of intensity, and that it can be subtle
- Acknowledging subtle trauma in yourself, if you have it
- Getting help for subtle trauma
1—Trauma signs can be subtle
When my nervous system begins to overload, I get a sensation in my head of fog rolling in. I struggle to form coherent thoughts. I feel stupefied. From the outside, you might see my expression become oddly fixed. My eyes glaze over, and I look like I’m not quite all there.
What does this kind of overwhelm look and feel like for you? We each need to learn how to recognize how critical overload manifests in ourselves. This moment of recognition is crucial. Without it, you don’t even think to seek help. You simply endure.
If you’ve experienced what I call dramatic trauma— a bad car accident, an assault, a war, or sexual abuse—it’s easier to recognize your trauma reactions for what they are, because you know their source. There’s a clear event you can point to, and the effects on you are clear.
However, the causes and effects of trauma are not always so clear or dramatic. The phrase “traumatic event” is used so commonly that we can easily forget that events themselves may not be traumatic. Trauma happens when our coping resources are completely overwhelmed. No doubt, a single event can have this effect. However, we can also suffer “death by a thousand cuts.”
In that regard, the causes of subtle trauma can vary greatly from person to person. Perhaps you dealt with harsh teasing at school every day, and as a result you felt chronically overwhelmed. Depending on the support you received then—or didn’t receive—you may have developed a traumatic reaction over time from the cumulative effect of many seemingly undramatic events.
2—It’s important to acknowledge these effects
If you’ve been told too many times that you are “too sensitive,” you may have coped by learning to ignore or deny your feelings. If you have no dramatic event to explain your reactions, you will discount or deny your subtle trauma responses in a similar way.
I discounted these signs in myself for many years. Finally, with the compassionate support of an EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) therapist, I realized that the strange, unpleasant sensations I’d felt during serious conflicts—as if my eyeballs were mounted six inches inside my skull and my face had turned to stone—were manifestations of the freeze reflex.
From this experience, I learned that it is one thing to have a basic understanding of trauma. It is another thing entirely to recognize it in oneself. When I’m in the freeze reflex, my prefrontal cortex is offline. I’m in survival mode. My thinking is severely impaired.
Worst of all, I don’t realize how impaired my thinking is. Trauma reactions render you unable to assess your own state of mind. That’s why we really need the calming presence of another human being to heal. In the presence of their calm nervous system, we begin to re-regulate ourselves. And their perspective can help us begin to shift ours.
Simply understanding what is going on will give us some relief immediately, as we realize, “I’m not crazy! This really is affecting me. I need help.” Einstein taught us that we can’t solve a significant problem within the consciousness in which it was created.
This is certainly true for trauma, including subtle trauma. Once we are able to see and acknowledge the effects of the trauma, we are on our way to that shift of consciousness that is necessary to heal it.
3—You can get help for subtle trauma
I now know how to recognize my “fog rolling in” symptoms. If I pause and acknowledge the fog, I can stay conscious and sit with it. If I’m with my partner, he may be the first to spot that glazed-over look in my eyes. He’ll stop and say, “Em? Am I losing you?” Either way, my awareness helps me retain enough presence in myself to hold this subtle trauma reaction instead of being completely taken over by it.
However, I needed help to learn how to recognize those signs in the first place. And there are still times when I can tell I’m going into a trauma reaction, but I simply can’t muster enough presence to be with it. In that case, skilled professional help is essential.
Fortunately, there is good support out there for this subtler version of trauma. What you need depends on how intense your reaction is. If you need support, you can read more here about my experiences with each of six trauma-supportive modalities.