This is a question I've been asked and which I've come across in my work with HSPs over the years. How do you know if your sensitivities (both physical and emotional) are down to being a HSP or down to past trauma? On the surface, there does seem to be an overlap; easy to startle, hyperarousal to name a few. If you're resonate with this question, you might feel confused as to the support you need to seek in order to move forward.
What is trauma?
I remember when I first heard the word trauma after a therapist had referred to my own experiences of having a panic disorder. I remember being shocked that it was viewed that way as I saw trauma as a huge, life changing event (s). So let's see a definition. The UK trauma council defines it as "'a distressing event or events that are so extreme or intense that they overwhelm a person's ability to cope, resulting in lasting negative impact." (https://mentallyhealthyschools.org.uk/mental-health-needs/trauma/trauma/#:~:text=The%20UK%20Trauma%20Council%20defines,') However, after reading 'How to do the Work' by Dr Nicole lePera, it appears that there are different types of trauma. What you might hear referred to as big T trauma and little t trauma. Dr LePera talks about how she has "yet to meet a person who has not experienced some level of trauma in their life" and so for the sake of this blog post, I will be focusing on the research between big T trauma and PTSD, which is the result of experiencing a severe traumatic event / traumatic events.
On the surface, there appears to be similarities in someone who is considered highly sensitive and those who have PTSD; being easily startled, experiencing hyperarousal which is a physical and emotional reaction to your external environment. For HSPs, this might look like feeling overwhelmed, sweating etc because of being in a noisy room and feeling the need to leave and get some air. So are these reactions and sensitivities the same for HSPs as for those who have PTSD?
Let's look at the research
In a study conducted by Acevedo, Aron, Pospas and Jessen in 2018, they looked at the fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging which measures the blood flow which occurs with brain activity) of over 27 peer reviewed articles on people with ASD, schizophrenia and PTSD.
Through their research, they found some similarities that went across both which were based around the parts of the brain which control attention, reward processing, reflective thinking, motor and cognitive control which the researchers felt showed "individuals with high (versus low) SPS may be more susceptible to PTSD and other adverse reactions following trauma exposure" (https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rstb.2017.0161) SPS in this context is another way of describing a HSP.
However, they also found that parts of the brain which 'lit up' or were activated in HSPs were deactivated in those with PTSD. These parts of the brain were around self-reflection, empathy, calm and self-control which is where being a HSP is different. This shows that HSPs do experience hyperarousal but that they also return to homeostasis; a feeling of calm. It also shows another big difference; HSPs are able to feel empathy.
The biggest takeaway
The biggest difference in being a HSP and having PTSD in the research, was self-regulation. People who are HSP process things deeply, they feel deeply, the become overwhelmed by external stimuli but for the most part, they can self-regulate. They can return to calm, return to homeostasis. Individuals who have PTSD struggle to self-regulate.
Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your behaviour and your reactions to things around you. For example, as a HSP, you might startle easily but you're able to calm down quickly after the event. You might become overwhelmed by a noisy room or too many people asking you to do something but, once away from the situation, you're able to return to homeostasis.
In my own experience
In my own experience as a mindset coach working with HSPs, it's incredibly important that I understand the difference between those that can benefit from coaching and those that need medical, and often, more traditional therapy support. The individuals that I work with are HSPs but they're ambitious and want to move forward and succeed in their chosen field. Even though they may feel overwhelmed and sometimes, anxious, they know how to self-regulate and return to calm. Remember that it's not uncommon to have experienced trauma of some description in your life but if it's currently affecting your ability to self-regulate, please do speak to your GP.
If you're interested in looking at what it would look like in one of my sessions, then please do book a connect and chat. You can book one here
Acevedo B, Aron E, Pospos S, Jessen D. 2018 The functional highly sensitive brain: a review of the brain circuits underlying sensory processing sensitivity and seemingly related disorders. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 373: 20170161. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0161
LePera, Dr Nicole 2021: How to do the work