I started thinking about trauma responses last week when my partner caught a possum in our Havahart trap. He meant to catch the massive, wily groundhog whose vegetable-stealing, flower-mutilating offspring send us into frenzies of helpless rage every summer. (My spiritual practice brings me calm in many situations, but it evidently contains a groundhog exception clause.)
This possum didn’t “play possum:” he (or she) 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. Not until my exasperated partner shook him out onto the ground did he rouse himself and disappear into the trees.
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 HSPs than for non HSPs.
Why the difference? It’s straightforward: trauma arises when a person’s coping resources are utterly overwhelmed and there is no way to release the resulting systemic stress. Sensitive people are more prone to overwhelm—the garden-variety kind and the full-system-shutdown kind— because we process more deeply, feel more intensely, and are more susceptible to our environment than non-HSPs. Worse, if others around us appear unaffected by a situation we find intensely stressful, we may even be judged for being overwhelmed, leaving us with no way to release and process the stress.
This doesn’t mean we’re walking trauma magnets. It does means it’s a good idea to include some trauma awareness in your HSP self-care repertoire so you don’t settle for an unnecessary level of chronic stress. The observations I share here come from my direct personal experience. I hope that they might support you in three key areas: recognizing that trauma exists on a spectrum and can be subtle; acknowledging it; and getting help.
1. Trauma signs can be subtle
I’m not trained in trauma treatment: what I know, I know from dealing with signs of systemic overwhelm in myself. One of those is a sensation of fog is rolling in to my head, causing other people’s words to make no sense. Experiencing this kind of reaction has sensitized me to it in others. This moment of recognition is of key importance because without it, you don’t even think to seek help. You simply endure.
This recognition is more straightforward when the trauma is dramatic: if you were in a car accident or a battle or were beaten or sexually abused, there’s a clear event you can point to, and the effects on you are clear. You know about it and you are on the lookout for it.
However, for me and for HSPs I’ve worked with, the causes and effects of trauma are not always so clear or dramatic. The phrase “traumatic event” is used so commonly that it is easy to forget that events themselves are not traumatic: trauma happens when our coping resources are completely overwhelmed by an event.
It’s important to understand that this varies greatly from person to person. For you, dealing with harsh teasing at school every day may have overwhelmed your system in this way. Depending on how you were supported with this (or not), trauma can arise over time from a number of seemingly undramatic events.
For all these reasons it’s important to understand what the subtler manifestations of fight, flight, and freeze look like for you. Your functioning can be significantly affected long before you get to the stage of being curled up in a ball acting dead, like possum #2, and the chronic stress caused by unresolved trauma can drain your joy and leave you feeling unsafe in the world.
2. It’s important to acknowledge these effects
Some HSPs have heard “you are too sensitive!” often enough that they’ve internalized a habit of ignoring or denying their feelings. If you are used to doing that, you are likely to do the same with the subtler manifestations of trauma. The absence of a dramatic causative event may push you even more to discount and deny any effects you are feeling.
I discounted the signs subtle trauma in myself for years and only learned to recognize it with the compassionate support of an EFT couples therapist. Until that moment, I had no idea that the weird unpleasant feeling I sometimes felt—a sensation like my eyeballs were mounted six inches inside my skull and my face had turned to stone— was the manifestation in me of the freeze reflex.
From this, I learned that it is one thing to have a basic understanding of trauma (fight, flight, and freeze reactions, etc) but it is another thing entirely to recognize it in oneself. When I’m in the freeze reflex, my pre-frontal cortex is offline. I’m in survival mode, my thinking is severely impaired and even worse, I don’t realize how impaired it is.
This is a great example of Einstein’s maxim that you can’t solve a problem in the consciousness in which it was created. With trauma, including subtle trauma, you really need help. I found this to be a big relief: not relief (yet) from the trauma itself, but the relief of, “Oh, I’m not crazy, this really IS affecting me, and I need help.”
This takes support and practice, but once you’ve done it, you “get” it and have it forever.
3. There is excellent help out there
With my “fog rolling in” symptoms, I now know the feeling from the inside and can pause to be with it when it happens. If I’m with my partner, he sometimes spots it first: he’ll look me in the eye and say, “Em? am I losing you?” Either way, the recognition 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 in to a trauma reaction but I just can’t muster enough presence to be with it. In that case, professional help is a godsend.
Fortunately, there is good support out there for this subtler version of trauma. What you need depends on how intense your reaction is. In the next issue of The Listening Post I’ll describe my experiences with each of six trauma-supportive modalities and how they’ve helped me.