If you have strong fear reactions to small stimuli, you may be experiencing subtle trauma…
A reader, who I’ll call Sarah, sent me a thoughtful email addressing a topic that closely concerns many of us who are built sensitive. Sarah wrote, “I have some issues with strong emotional fear reactions to things that aren’t in themselves traumatic. Or that don’t seem to justify the reaction: freeze, brain overdrive and confusion, either numbness and dissociation, or overwhelming confusion and upset, or all of those at once.”
She added, “It has been very hard to get to where I already am now, where I am at least aware now of those reactions and trying to acknowledge and respect them. Discovering the HSP trait recently has been an overwhelming discovery and has helped tremendously. But I would love to read more about this specifically.”
Sarah, thank you for bringing up this issue. It’s a big one for many sensitive people, because a mystifying “overreaction” to seemingly minor events can be a painful source of confusion and shame. As Sarah put it, “Being intensely reactive to tiny stimuli, especially in certain situations, and having to deal with small panic moments on a very regular basis isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t easy to explain to other people.”
Trauma and subtle trauma
Trauma is defined as an experience that is overwhelming to the nervous system. And because of the sheer amount of information we take in and the way we process it, sensitive people may find themselves traumatically overwhelmed by stimuli more rapidly than other people.
Sarah is describing a particular trauma experience I call subtle trauma. In other articles I’ve explained the concept of subtle trauma, and six modalities to help heal it. Like all trauma, subtle trauma, manifests as systemic overwhelm. However, as the name suggests, its original cause is the cumulative effect a series of seemingly subtle incidents. Like an allergic reaction that gets worse with repeated exposure to the allergen, a series of so-called “minor” childhood humiliations or terrors can build up to degree where you become instantly overwhelmed around a similar stimulus.
This subtlety creates a challenge. In the absence of a dramatic harrowing experience like sexual abuse or a car accident or a public humiliation, it’s all too easy to doubt yourself and minimize the effects you are feeling.
Yet the effects are there. If you experience the signs of subtle trauma, an understanding of its architecture can help you let go of a painful layer of confusion, shame, and self-doubt. Learning more about the HSP trait, as Sarah did, can also bring relief. And 1:1 support can be essential to help you process the trauma itself, as we’ll see in a minute.
Understanding our strong fear reactions: how our defenses work
So why do we react with such intensity to stimuli that seem innocuous? To answer that question, I find it helpful to imagine my body and mind as a castle with all its occupants. A castle has many layers of defense. Its solid stone walls are surrounded by a deep moat. Invaders can enter only through the single, massive door, and that only if the drawbridge is down and the portcullis is raised. Should the enemy dare try to breach your walls, your archers can shoot at them from the towers or pour boiling oil on their heads.
Ideally, this defense reaction happens only when real danger is imminent. That’s a good thing, because this level of mobilization is exhausting. And it’s expensive. When your castle residents are defending themselves, they can’t take care of the ordinary business of everyday life.
So, in a well-functioning castle, the community relies on a coordinated trio to evaluate incoming information: lookouts, sentries, and wise advisors. Lookouts scan the surrounding countryside to spot movement at a distance. Sentries are on the ground observing what is happening closer to the castle. And on ordinary days, all this information gets interpreted by wise advisors who counsel the resident royalty on the best response. When these three groups of servants are well-coordinated, the castle community can skillfully discern imagined threats from real ones and respond appropriately. As a result, false alarms occur rarely.
In the absence of trauma, you respond to stimuli with similar effectiveness. The sentries and lookouts of your five senses patrol the perimeter of your castle grounds–—your environment. They send a continuous stream of observations back to your pre-frontal cortex. And this inner wise advisor allows you to process in incoming stimuli with discernment, perspective, and self-control.
The effects of subtle trauma
But when you experience a trauma reaction, your pre-frontal cortex is felled as instantly and Sleeping Beauty was when she pricked her finger on the spindle. The “spell” that incapacitates you, in this case, is hyper- or hypo-arousal—or some of both. Your experience a strong fear reaction, and your body-castle mobilizes to fight, to flee, or to endure the freeze of a long siege, and you experience the effects Sarah described—freeze, brain overdrive and confusion, numbness, dissociation, or overwhelming confusion and upset.
In the trauma state, your sentries and lookouts are making their observations based solely on survival fear, without the benefit of perspective, or wise counsel. To make things worse, the more overwhelming the original trauma, the broader the perimeter sentries and lookouts will patrol and the more reactive they will be to anything they see or hear. This explains our strong reaction to seemingly small stimuli: your body is trying to protect you from a re-stimulation of the trauma.
It can be very tricky to identify the origins of subtle trauma. Fortunately, you don’t have to. What matters, and what will help the most, is to find a way to be with these traumatized places in yourself. If there is something you need to know about the past, your inner parts will let you know. But in the meantime, your panicked inner sentries and lookouts need to know three things:
1—They are not alone
2—They aren’t crazy, over-sensitive, or imagining things
3—You, and they, are in the present now, not the past
You may notice that all three of these tasks require you to be in relationship with your inner parts. This brings us to the Catch-22 of trauma work. Inner Presence is essential, but inner presence is impossible with your pre-frontal cortex offline. I used to sit down to do inner dialogue writing, only to wake up 20 minutes later with random pen squiggles all over the page where my hand had twitched as I slept. I was going in to hypo-arousal, in the form of overwhelming sleepiness. I needed 1:1 support to address these issues without this trauma reaction taking over.
If you notice you are experiencing a subtle trauma response, as Sarah did, you are already a step ahead: you have some degree of presence. The healing of subtle trauma begins when you notice the reactions it causes. This awareness empowers you to seek the support you will likely need to be with your traumatized inner parts while your wise advisor comes out of his or her long sleep. And in the meantime, you can rest easier knowing you are not crazy.
Photo by Lars Stuifbergen on Unsplash)