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.
Note: This post originally appeared on April 5, 2017. It has been updated and edited for clarity.
Emily, why do I want to discount your article? Why do I have such a hard time “cutting some slack” for myself and others? If I embraced your words, I believe it would contribute to my healing process. Why do I resist this information, like I prefer to “punish” myself and others? Sometimes I swear I prefer to be “stuck” and miserable.
Not sure if you will receive this reply Doris, as your original comment was almost 5 years ago, but I will post it just the same. Speaking from my own experience….I am 57 now. At the age of 17 I wanted to die. I had no friends. I did not realize I was HSP and Introvert as a teen. And I guess my parents did not realize I was an introvert either. My parents did not get me any help when I told them of my thoughts. Not even a doctor’s appointment. At the time, neither did I know I needed an antidepressant. My body does not naturally produce enough serotonin. This lack of serotonin results in much much more horrendous emotional and mind health problems than lack of sleep. For the years I wasn’t aware I needed an antidepressant, I did not feel I deserved to be happy and I didn’t want anyone else to be happy. I have had 6 months recently to devote to me and my health . I started walking 20 minutes a day. Now I walk or snowshoe on average 2 hours a day. The happy endorphins provide a long lasting effect of naturally wanting to be kind to myself, and pamper myself, after so many years of internal serotonin imbalance and external societal attempts at shaping me into a person I wasn’t. I am much more serene now. I think it is Emily who has an article on ‘who is hanging the wallpaper in your mind’….it’s all about the opinions and harsh voices of others about us HSPs and how we need to realize these might be the sources of our own harsh attitudes towards ourselves. Anyways, I hope you are well and happy.
Doris, if you have the strong sense embracing these ideas would contribute to your healing process, and you feel resistance at the same time, then you are right, there is some part of you that prefers being “stuck” and miserable…but there’s more: it prefers being stuck and miserable to something (not identified by us yet) that it fears would be way worse, if it WEREN’T stuck and miserable.
In other words, from its point of view, there is a real benefit or payoff to being stuck and miserable. To put it the other way around, this part of you sounds like it is life-or-death terrified of something it believes would happen if you were happy. It is trying to protect you from that “something.”
You can ask your Source about this: “Help me see the truth here, of what I’m getting from being stuck and miserable…help me shine light on this and have compassion for this choice I am making.”
Emily, this content of your article feels “spot on” to me. I look forward to Part 2. Thank you!
Hi Judith, good, this is helpful feedback. I’ve been thinking about trauma in this way for some time but this is the first time I have sat down and tried to articulate it in a coherent organized way. Are you saying you have experienced some of this ‘subtle trauma?’
I wish I could express to you how much validation this article gave me. I only wish I had read it 50 years ago! For almost as long as I can remember, I have experienced “the fog” without having any idea what it was. After studying psychology for awhile, I labeled it “dissociating” and considered myself somewhat broken, or neurotic. Now that I’ve been focusing for some time I realize that something in me is acting as a protector. Just learning that has changed my feeling about it significantly. I no longer have worried about being crazy. Your article has deepened my understanding even more and I feel compassion for myself rather than judgment. I grew up having my mother tell me to stop being so sensitive, develop a thicker skin, etc. I’ve been hypersensitive all my life to environments, odors, sound, other peoples’ energies and so forth. It wasn’t until I read about HSP that I began to shift my attitude to consider that perhaps I had a gift.
The idea that the fog is a response to trauma opened up a whole new level of appreciation for myself. I can feel the healing that it has brought and a new approach to taking care of myself.
Please accept my deepest gratitude,
Mary, you are very welcome. “A whole new level of appreciation for myself” is a wonderful thing. Isn’t it amazing information can lift a whole set of beliefs about oneself…
Hi Emily! This is such a great resource for me, especially right now. Thank you for writing this and for making sure I had access to it. You’re the best!
You are welcome Rae. Understanding how this dynamic looks in yourself can really help with self-care.
This is so interesting. To recognize one’s own ‘flight, fight, or freeze’ reactions in subtle trauma I guess is a priority for HSPs eh? Really for everyone..why don’t they teach this stuff in highschool , or why don’t doctors help patients identify these experiences. I wonder how many people go to a general physician for a physical discomfort , have test after test run, only to find nothing….when the basis is emotional? I will reread this article and more to get a good understanding of how to recognize my own specific reactions. I am becoming aware of my bodily sensations connected to emotions but I guess pausing and identifying whether I am feeling like running away or fighting or freezing provides more understanding to the experience. I’m pretty sure when I feel like fighting verbally my neck muscles tense up. And with that, being HSP, I don’t like to verbally fight or attack someone or their words or behaviour. I don’t even like to speak up for myself in a gentle way. Thank you for the article.
I haven’t had much interaction with medical professionals from my HSP, Introvert, and possibly Empath traits point of view, but the comments of people in general, who know nothing of these traits and the results of not nurturing the needs that stem from these inherited traits, can be troubling. I don’t know how many HSPs have heard something along the lines of …there is something wrong with her….or this mental health problem probably won’t go away ( regardless of if an HSP has a mental health reality or not…being HSP isn’t a mental health diagnosis)…people’s responses to it can cause anxiety, trauma, depression, but there is a difference between the two! I know, because I experience it. I say all this in response to your statement ”’Oh, I’m not crazy, this really IS affecting me and I need help.’ When I hear people make such rude and ignorant comments about me my ‘blood boils’ as the saying goes. Being introvert makes it so difficult to speak up for myself and even when I do speak up, it feels like no one is listening. I hope the younger energetic HSP, Introvert generation will start to take centre stage and really provide the world with an understanding of these inherited traits. I hope doctors and teachers and parents will all be informed. How does one ‘shake off’ the ignorant comments of people who have no idea what they are talking about?
You can turn towards the place in you that is hurt or angered by the comments…this is a skill which takes practice. That’s what Inner Bonding and Inner Relationship Focusing teach you how to do.