Being ‘too sensitive’: is it because of my childhood?
In working with emotionally intense, sensitive and gifted individuals, it is important to be cautious of the confines of categories and diagnoses. Far too often, the most creative, forward and independent thinking people are being misunderstood, mislabelled and misdiagnosed. However, it is also true that because of these individuals’ innately unique ways of perceiving the world, they are acutely aware of and have more intense internal responses towards existing problems in their early lives, which may exacerbate the impact of any developmental deficits and trauma.
A wide array of theories have been proposed to give explanations for heightened sensitivities and its associated traits, but none of these should be regarded as the one ‘truth’. With this caveat in mind, this article discusses some of the research and literature on the link between heightened sensitivities and traumatic childhood experiences.
What is developmental trauma?
In the past, psychologists have typically focused more on the impact of ‘shock trauma’ from extreme events such as accidents, wars and natural disasters. However, there is a second type of trauma that is very real and pervasive, yet not captured by the traditional diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Developmental trauma, or complex PTSD, results from a series of repeated, often ‘invisible’ childhood experiences of maltreatment, abuse, neglect, and situations in which the child has little or no control or any perceived hope to escape. Growing up in an environment full of unpredictability, danger, parental inconsistencies or emotional abandonment, these individuals are left with 'hidden traumas' that disrupts not only their psychological but also neurological and emotional development.
Growing research has found that a wide array of psychological difficulties finds their roots in these chronic childhood relational and attachment injuries. Children who experience this type of trauma show a disrupted ability to regulate their emotions, behaviours and attention. These symptoms often extend into adulthood, leading to clinical presentations including bipolar disorder, ADHD, borderline personality disorder and even chronic physical pains (APA, 2007).
A secure attachment with our early caregivers is necessary for us to develop the ability to regulate our emotions and a healthy sense of self. Our innate need for our caregivers’ attention is vividly demonstrated in the still face experiment, conducted in 1975 by Edward Tronick (you can watch a short but provocative video clip of it on YouTube - simply search for ‘still face experiment’). In this experiment, the mother is asked to keep a blank face and not respond to her child’s attempts to engage with her. When the baby received no emotional responses, he “rapidly sobered and grew wary”, he made repeated attempts to get the interactions with his mother, and when these attempts failed, he withdrew and turned away with a hopeless facial expression. These series of events happened so fast that they were almost invisible. Since the original study, the still face experiment has been thoroughly tested and replicated, and the impact of parental unresponsiveness is profound and far-reaching. Babies are not born with the ability to manage their own emotions and need to learn such skill by having another person as a mirror. Without it, these children are left with a sense of chaos, shame, dread, powerlessness and despair.
Unfortunately, unlike shock trauma or physical abuse, the psychological injuries caused by emotional abandonment are often invisible and unacknowledged. This may leave these children feeling confused; assuming that their traumatic experience are not justified and many turn to blaming and shaming themselves.
The signs and symptoms of developmental trauma
Difficulties in regulating emotions - Uncontrollable mood swings, persistent sadness and depression, explosive or inhibited anger, being easily triggered by external events and not able to manage the emotions that surge up.
Chronic shame - A persistent sense defectiveness - the feeling that one is disgusting, ugly, stupid, or basically flawed. This may involve thoughts such as ‘nothing I do is good enough’, ‘there is something fundamentally wrong with me’, ‘I am bad and toxic'. Such extreme self-hatred may lead to suicidal thoughts and self-harming behaviours.
Disconnection and isolation- Because people who experience early trauma had not felt welcomed into the world, connection (with both themselves and others) becomes a core struggle. They may feel a sense of isolation, of being completely different from other human beings. They simultaneously have an intense need for and an extreme fear of contact.
Feeling ungrounded and powerless - Many people who suffer from developmental trauma constantly feel ungrounded and uncentered in their bodies. They may feel like frightened children living in adult bodies. Many get overwhelmed easily; when things happen, they easily feel close to breaking down.
Hopelessness and despair - Chronically traumatised individuals feel hopeless about finding anyone who can understand them. Many lose a sense of meaning in life, struggle to sustain faith, and live with a lingering sense of despondency.
Nameless dread/hyper-vigilance - By being chronically traumatised, their nervous system remains in a continual state of high arousal, which reinforces the persistent feeling of threat. Many feel that they cannot relax, and have to always be looking out for danger. They may be irritable and jumpy, suffer from insomnia, and other anxiety-related disorders and obsessive compulsive tendencies.
Numbness and emptiness - Because the repeated abuse or neglect was so painful, many have employed dissociation as a way of coping. This may involve disconnection from the bodily self, emotions, and other people. By keeping threat from overwhelming consciousness, they can continue to function in the outside world, but is left with a chronic feeling of internal deadness.
Environmental sensitivities - In their seminal work ‘healing developmental trauma’, Heller and LaPierre (2012) discuss the idea of ‘energetic boundaries’ and how these boundaries can be compromised when a person is developmentally traumatised.
Our energetic boundaries constitute the three-dimensional space that is above us, below us, and around us. It buffers us and regulates our interaction with other people and the environment. We are all to some degree aware of the impact of a compromised physical body - try imagining someone standing too close to you in public transport. However, unlike physical boundaries, energetic boundaries are invisible. Thus, the experience of a boundary rupture can be puzzling and distressing. For instance, you may not be able to recognise clearly when and how your energetic boundaries are being violated.
People with intact energetic boundaries are able to have an internalised sense of safety, and a capacity to set appropriate limits with other and the world around. However, where there is a chronic early threat, you may struggle to fully develop these energetic boundaries.
You may become extremely sensitive to your surroundings. Sometimes, you can appear psychic and be able to energetically attuned to others and the environment. On the flip side, you can feel swamped or invaded by other people’s energies and emotions. Damaged boundaries can also lead to the feeling of “spilling out” into the environment, not knowing the difference between self and other, inner from outer experiences.
Environmental sensitivity is another telling sign of having compromised energetic boundaries. Because intact energetic boundaries are needed to function to filter environmental stimuli, without it, you may feel extremely raw, as if you are ‘walking around with no skin’. You will feel constantly flooded by environmental stimuli, including ‘human contact, sounds, light, touch, toxins, allergens, smells, and even electromagnetic activity’(Heller and LaPierre, 2012, p. 157).
The inability to filter external stimuli makes the world seem continuously threatening, leading to a constant state of tension and hyper vigilance. As a result, you may feel the need to isolate yourself. As you don’t have an adequate internal sense of safety and energetic boundaries to count on, you may have defaulted to using minimising contact with other human beings in order to feel safe.
Developmental trauma checklist
Here are some of the questions drawn from a checklist developed by Heller and LaPierre (2012) on symptoms that may indicate difficulty with the connection (with self and others) due to early developmental trauma.
- Do you suffer from environmental sensitivities or multiple allergies?
- Do you have migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, or fibromyalgia?
- Did you experience prenatal trauma such as intrauterine surgeries, prematurity with incubation, or traumatic events during gestation?
- Were there complications at your birth?
- Have you had problems maintaining relationships?
- Do you have difficulty knowing what you are feeling?
- Are you particularly sensitive to cold?
- Do you often have the feeling that life is overwhelming and you don’t have the energy to deal with it?
- Are you troubled by the persistent feeling that you don’t belong?
- Are you always looking for the why of things?
- Are you uncomfortable in groups or social situations?
- Does the world seem like a dangerous place to you?
Specific healing goals
The therapy for developmental trauma is different to the therapy for simple PTSD, general depression or anxiety.
Because of the complicated issues around a personal sense of safety and stability, being exposed to traumatic materials before you are ready can lead to re-traumatisation, and reinforce the cycle of hopelessness. Themes such as safety, mourning, and reconnection are some of the key themes specific to this process. The following are some of the healing goals that are essential to the recovery from developmental trauma:
- Locating or developing an internal sense of safety.
- Building connection with self, the body, and emotions - through mindfulness and other mind-body techniques.
- Expanding the ‘window of tolerance’ for various emotions, so you are not constantly in either state of hyper-arousal (acute stress, rage, tension, and panic) or under-arousal (dissociating, disconnecting, feeling empty and depressed).
- Finding ways to cope when feeling overwhelmed, without resorting to avoidance or compensatory behaviours (overeating, overspending, and other impulsive habits).
- Learning to experience connection with others as enriching rather than tiring or threatening.
- Becoming aware of and finding ways to preserve your energetic boundaries.
- Neurologically regulating the nervous system in order to cope with day-to-day stress and triggers.
- Lessening the impact of your internalised shame, and the voice of the inner critic.
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