Are You Traumatized...Or Is It High Sensitivity? How To Tell The Difference

Mar 15, 2018

Trauma is a hot topic right now as Oprah just did an amazing segment on childhood trauma. I am so glad that this topic is getting a lot of recognition!

I get a lot of questions in my practice about high sensitivity, trauma, and whether or not one implies the other. I've found that there are a lot of misconceptions going around.

People tend to assume that if you’re Highly Sensitive, you must have been traumatized at some point. Or that experiencing trauma is what makes someone Highly Sensitive. Both ideas pretty well off the mark, and I'd like to shed some light on the truth.

So first things first: let’s recap what High Sensitivity really is±

High Sensitivity is not a disorder. It’s not something that needs to be fixed or healed. If you were born Highly Sensitive, it merely means that you have a heightened sensitivity to the world around you. It’s part of the natural makeup of your brain, and you were born this way. You process life at a deeper level.

As I’ve mentioned throughout different blogs, about 15-20% of the population has this innate trait. But High Sensitivity itself has nothing to do with a traumatic experience. It is just a trait like any other. 

Why is High Sensitivity lumped into the same category as trauma, though, and how do the two situations differ?

Let’s suppose that someone who was not born Highly Sensitive has a traumatic experience. It's entirely possible that this person would notice a jump in sensitivity because of what happened.  But trauma alone cannot turn the average person into a Highly Sensitive one. This is a case of  sensitivity through the damage that trauma does to the brain and your emotional system.

A large amount of the population that sees themselveses as highly sensitive are sensitive because of ADHD, Autism, or trauma. But strictly speaking, they are not Highly Sensitive because High Sensitivity is not a diagnosis on the DSM.

Now, there are many useful treatment options for patients with trauma. But these treatments wouldn't do anything for a Highly Sensitive person. This is because we’re talking about two different situations. Trauma shows up as a disorder/diagnose and thus can be treated. High Sensitivity, on the other hand, is simply a trait. And it does not require treatment. It only requires awareness and management. So basically, if you BECAME highly sensitive during your life….it is not the High Sensitivity trait and we are talking about sensitivity due to trauma.

Now, why are High Sensitivity and trauma confused? And is it true that Highly Sensitive People experience trauma more frequently than their non-sensitive counterparts?

Let's say that you know you're a Highly Sensitive Person, and you've been that way all your life. If this is the case, you automatically experience the world differently than others do.

That means that you feel "all the feels," whether they're pleasant or not. You naturally experience everything more keenly than most, and those intense experiences tend to stay with you longer.

What's more, you’re a lot more likely to store all kinds of energy deep within your system. Sometimes we even store feelings and emotions so deeply in our system that we don’t even know they’re there. And as a result, many Highly Sensitive People experience more physical and emotional pain than others, especially in their later years.

So why do Highly Sensitive People respond this way? Part of the reason is that we don’t have the natural defenses that non-sensitives have. Non-sensitives have "filters" that help them sort out what is relevant to them and what is not, which prevents them from taking on excessive energy. But Highly Sensitive brains are basically like radio antennas that pick up everything. And oftentimes, we hold onto everything we pick up, too.

This is the main reason it's easy to see how Highly Sensitive People's natural responses to intense situations might look for all the world like trauma. But it’s important to note that Highly Sensitive brains are not traumatized brains. That’s the biggest difference right there.

Of course, we Highly Sensitive People can become traumatized, just like anybody else. Sometimes, traumatic experiences can even throw a Highly Sensitive Person into a sort of hyper-trauma. After all, we tend to experience everything to a higher (and deeper) degree, and trauma is no exception.

Elaine Aron has also found that childhood trauma is more damaging to a Highly Sensitive Child than to a non-HS child.
For example, if the Highly Sensitive experience significant childhood trauma we are at particular risk of developing a psychiatric condition as a result of it in our adulthood because, as an HSP, we are likely to:

– relive aspects of our trauma in more vivid detail than average

– experience more vivid nightmares associated with our childhood trauma than average

– have felt particularly anxious/fearful etc in response to our traumatic experiences when we were children, which would have put us at especially high risk of psychologically damaged, which, in turn, can seriously adversely affect our adult lives (in the absence of effective therapy).

– ruminate more about our traumatic experiences than average (which, in turn, will make us more likely to suffer from depression as excessive, negative ruminating correlates with the level of depression we experience)

– suffer from a greater level of damaging over arousal of our nervous systems in response to our traumatic experiences than average

I've experienced my share of intense feelings, and I've also experienced trauma as well. What I’ve found is that as a Highly Sensitive Person, it usually takes more than the traditional “talk therapy” to heal. I've observed that 80% of our healing comes from bringing awareness to our feelings, but the other 20% requires healing at a deeper level. That's where things like energy healing are a godsend.

When you can access the deeper parts of the body and release those trapped emotions with different energy healing modalities, you’re able to heal a lot more effectively. That's why I'm such a fan of integrative therapies, especially for the Highly Sensitive.

So as a Highly Sensitive Person, how do you keep unwanted emotions and energies from getting into your body wreaking havoc behind your back?

One of the best ways is to give yourself a chance your feelings and emotions as they happen rather than letting them build up. Allow yourself to manage your energy as soon as you possibly can, acting as your own filter. That way, you can have a say in what energies you allow into your space. You’ll also be a lot less likely to store those emotions in your body if you send them on their way more quickly.

Does that sound like a full-time job in itself? It's actually a lot easier than you might think. It’s worth it to become present in your body and mind as much as possible, allowing yourself to feel how you feel without judgment. And from there, knowing what not to take personally so that unwanted energy doesn’t take up residence in your body.

Any type of exercise that is designed to connect you to your body and to help you release pent up emotions like yoga or tai chi, will highly benefit you throughout these processes. 

Grounding exercises will also support your mind, body and soul while you are processing intense emotions.

It might take some practice, it's true. But if it helps prevent you from storing unwanted energy, emotions, and trauma, it’s well worth it.

High Sensitivity and trauma isn't the most pleasant topic, but it's one that needs to be understood. If you're Highly Sensitive, you might be more susceptible to intense emotions. But having the trait doesn't mean you're doomed to live in fear of traumatic experiences, either.

True, you might be prone to ‘more of everything’  than the average person. You might find yourself taking on more energy than you bargained for, both dark and light. But you don't have to let the downside of High Sensitivity define you.

Be aware of your emotions and your surroundings. Feel your feelings without judgment, and let go of what doesn't belong to you. Use the tools I shared with you to help you heal any pain or trauma you might encounter. And allow yourself the richness and beauty that High Sensitivity can bring.

Have you ever struggled with this topic? I’d love to answer any lingering questions you might have and help give you even more clarity and insight. Leave me a comment or a question below! I’d love to hear from you!

And have you joined my community yet? Stop by and check out the Vibrant Sensitive Movement on Facebook! Connect with others and celebrate the gift of High Sensitivity right HERE!

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