Those who are Highly Sensitive are significantly impacted by the world around them. Sensory processing Sensitivity – the official term for Highly Sensitive People (HSP) involves a deeper level of processing, sensitivity to subtleties in one's environment and high levels of empathy. These traits can have a positive impact when Highly Sensitive People are in nourishing and nurturing environments; in such cases, they're likely to thrive and flourish.
What's more challenging is when HSP experience toxic, chaotic or traumatic environments. This is especially difficult in Highly Sensitive Children – like sponges, they absorb the energy, emotions, and behaviours of others. HSC who grow up in dysfunctional environments experience nervous system dysregulation, resulting in mental, emotional or physical challenges in later life. This can include symptoms of depression, anxiety or physical tension in the body.
There are still several unanswered questions surrounding the relationship between trauma and Highly Sensitive People. Inspired by the work of Dr Gabor Mate, Peter Levine and Bessel van der Kolk, I explore how experiences of trauma in Highly Sensitive People can lead to significant spiritual and psychological awakening.
What is Trauma?
Gabor Mate states, 'trauma is not what happens to us but our response to it.' A traumatic experience is something that is beyond our capacity to handle at the time. We often associate trauma with major crises such as the death of a loved one, a car crash, natural disaster, physical abuse – and these events do fall under the umbrella of significant trauma. However, there are also more subtle forms of trauma, which can have a more severe impact because they are so difficult to identify or label. This includes prolonged neglect, living in an empty or chaotic environment for long periods, poverty, emotional abuse or subtle and persistent bullying. Whatever the experience, if it is too much for an individual to process or handle, our survival instinct has to kick in. We either fight or flee the situation, and when we can't do either of those things, we learn to freeze. In more extreme cases – we dissociate. There is wisdom in this trauma response; it acts to keep us safe,
‘dissociation is adaptive: it allows relatively normal functioning for the duration of the traumatic event and then leaves a large part of the personality unaffected by the trauma.’
— Bessel A. van der Kolk
The trauma response becomes a problem when we continue to live in this state of disconnect for prolonged periods; trauma is a chronic disruption of connection with our true self and source. When we live in a constant state of survival, we might merge with our wounding and come to believe this is the truth of who we are. Healing from trauma is remembering that the traumatised state is not who we really are- it's a learned response programmed into us to help us feel safe.
Unfortunately, the traits of HSP mean that our sympathetic (fight, flight or freeze) response is easily activated under times of stress, and we're more likely to experience prolonged states of the trauma response. However, trauma can be an opportunity for us to turn towards our pain and engage in more profound levels of healing.
After living through extended periods of suffering or undergoing a significant trauma, it's common to become consumed by our wounding and believe that our wounded parts are the truth of who we are. We may feel empty, trapped and alone or depressed, numb and anxious. We can also feel afraid and in a state of hypervigilance. Healing from trauma is a journey of bearing witness to these wounded parts, recognising they are not our true identity, but instead, they are parts of us that split off from our core essence in an attempt to manage the trauma. Healing is a process of offering these wounded parts compassion acceptance and attempting to integrate them into our psyche.
Breaking Open the Ego
Our ego has a significant function; we need it to establish a stable sense of self. At the same time, as described in Buddhism, our 'I' identity is not the truth of who we really are. Many spiritual traditions talk about connecting with our true nature beyond this separate sense of self. Through the practice of mindfulness, we can witness the constructs of our ego – our thoughts, beliefs and habits. As the observer, we reconnect with our divine nature, come back into alignment and remember that we are not separate from each other, but we are each an expression of a collective field of consciousness, a unified intelligence.
Trauma can have a pivotal role in helping us connect with our core, divine nature and an ability to merge with this unified field. It is a type of catalyst that breaks us open and helps us transcend our sense of separateness from the world and each other. This connection and remembrance of our divine nature can be understood as a spiritual or peak experience. If embodied, this may lead to a permanent change of being – a spiritual awakening of some form.
Peak experiences or spiritual awakenings can also occur through practices such as meditation, mindfulness and yoga; when in nature, on retreats, through dance, trance states and more. However, we can also experience spiritual emergence or awakening due to significant trauma.
How can Traumatic Experiences be linked to Spiritual Awakening?
Trauma often results in splitting and disowning parts of ourselves, which can cause a sudden, or in other cases, more gentle breaking open of our ego. In extreme cases, this is labelled as a break-down, psychosis or pathologised as other forms of mental illness. However, these experiences of breaking open can also be an opportunity for us to encounter profound and significant growth, healing and transformation. Trauma becomes a gateway and our wounds a portal in which our true nature is revealed, 'the wound is the place where light enters you' – Rumi.
When we explore our wounds, we find spaces within ourselves that are often absent of love, filled with grief, pain or a sense of emptiness. In these spaces, where the cracks emerge, we begin to see what is beyond and behind our pain and trauma. There is often an opening, which we experience as a softening and a movement into surrender.
According to Christina and Stanislav Grof,
'many of the conditions, which are currently diagnosed as psychotic and indiscriminately treated by suppressive medication, are actually difficult stages of a radical personality transformation and of spiritual opening. If they are correctly understood and supported, these psychospiritual crises can result in emotional and psychosomatic healing, remarkable psychological transformation, and consciousness evolution.'
It is common for us to suppress or deny our suffering and trauma. However, as Christina and Stanislav Grof highlighted, 'moving away from' or numbing difficult experiences can also take us away from significant opportunities to heal.
'It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure'
– Joseph Campbell
Highly Sensitive People have a strong and innate drive for truth and a desire to seek out greater connection with our divine nature. It's my experience that because HSP are more prone to the splitting, dissociation and 'breaking open' of our ego, we are also more likely to enter this portal in which we can encounter a connection with our divine nature. What's crucial is that we continue to lean into our suffering, communicate compassionately, and build a relationship with the parts of us that are wounded and in pain.
We must move towards our wounds rather than away from them. This is a continuous journey, and as HSP we can be even more prone to want to numb or block out what feel like overwhelming emotions or experiences. I encourage you to continue leaning into your struggles, with gentle compassion and without pushing or forcing your journey. This is where our absolute healing and transformation lies and as Highly Sensitive People, we can move from wounded to awakened.