EMPATHY as Part of PTSD

Hello All ~ I have found that my highly empathic nature was slaughtered during past traumas.....I've found numerous answers in my ongoing research re: cptsd in artilcles like this. I've been smacked & frantically researching for over 10 years, gone most of the routes and have found answers in the alternative healing modalities vs clinical. Nice to have options. Thought maybe empathy information might help somebuddy out there.

The Highly Sensitive Person by Peter Messerschmidt and Sarah Sydney Nash

“I am a Highly Sensitive Person.”

Today, I can publicly make such a statement and not feel embarrassed or brace for an onslaught of eye rolling or snide comments from the people around me. However, it wasn’t always so.

Sensitivity — emotional or otherwise — is not exactly a new concept to the world. Nor was it new when research psychologist Dr. Elaine N. Aron published the book “The Highly Sensitive Person” in 1996. What Aron’s book did do was to shed some new light on a trait that affects a large number of people, by asking the world to consider sensitivity as an inherent physical trait, rather than pathology.

Although more than fifteen years have passed—and the book has offered profound personal insights to hundreds of thousands of people—there remains a fair amount of skepticism of sensitivity as a “trait.” Interestingly enough, some of this skepticism can be found in the very people who are HSPs, themselves. Such skepticism can very likely be attributed to a broader trend in our society to “medicalize” or “pathologize” many personality characteristics that previously were regarded as falling within the realm of normal human experience.

So what exactly IS a Highly Sensitive Person?

Dr. Aron’s research suggests that approximately 15-20% of the population fit the description of being “Highly Sensitive.” HSPs– by her definition– are people whose brains and central nervous systems are wired in such a way that they are more acutely aware of, and attuned to, themselves, other people, and their environment. As a result, a highly sensitive person is more easily stimulated and aroused by their surroundings, from which it follows that they also get more readily over aroused than most people. This sensitivity is an inborn trait which– interestingly enough– researchers have also observed in animal populations ranging from deer to octopi.

Of course, the immediate picture that comes to mind when most people hear the term highly sensitive is the stereotype of the “fragile flower” that’s overly fussy, difficult to be around and gets their feelings hurt at the drop of a hat. Whereas this kind of emotional sensitivity can certainly be part of being an HSP, it is by no means what “defines” the trait.

High Sensitivity varies considerably from person to person and manifests in many different ways. Yes, getting one’s feelings hurt easily might be one part of the picture. But there is much more. HSPs are often very sensitive to pain and frequently respond to much lower doses of medications than most people. They tend to be easily startled and are often overwhelmed by loud sensory inputs. They tend to be cautious and highly conscientious. They are easily shaken up and distressed by changes, and don’t do well in “multitasking” situations. They are often negatively affected by loud noises, strong scents, and smells, or bright lights. They tend to be “cooperative,” rather than “competitive.” They get easily rattled in stressful situations and generally perform poorly when being watched. Many are empaths and frequently “pick up moods” from other people; quite a few are gifted with a range of psychic abilities. Almost all rely heavily on intuition both to learn and to function in life. Even when extraverted, they tend to be introspective, have rich inner lives, and need extended periods of time alone to “recharge.” HSPs also are disproportionately drawn to the arts and music and tend to be very easily moved to tears by expressions of beauty and intensity, as well as images of horror and violence.

If some of this sounds like you, or someone you know, you might consider looking at this free self-test for sensitivity, on Dr. Aron’s website, at: hsperson.com

What is a Highly Sensitive Person, Not?

A Highly Sensitive Person is not, by definition, “an introvert.” Whereas the trait does have a high correlation with introversion, approximately 30% of HSPs are extraverts.

A Highly Sensitive Person is not “a shy person.” Shyness is widely recognized as being an issue centered on self-perception– typically excessive self-consciousness, irrationally negative self-evaluation, and irrationally negative self-preoccupation. People are not born shy, and psychologists have established that there is really no “sense of self” prior to ages 12-18 months. As such, you can’t really be born shy.

A Highly Sensitive Person is not “socially anxious.” Social Anxiety is a mental/emotional disorder, typically the result of some kind of emotional trauma or ongoing condition that makes social situations particularly difficult for that individual. Social Anxiety revolves around fears while being a Highly Sensitive Person relates to nervous system arousal levels. It should be noted, however, that because Highly Sensitive Persons tend to be both introspective and more attuned to social stimuli, they are somewhat more likely to encounter—and negatively internalize— situations that may lead to subsequently developing Social Anxiety.

A Highly Sensitive Person is not, by definition, “neurotic.” This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the HSP trait to explain since– after all– the word “neurotic” is directly linked to nervous system disorders, and being highly sensitive relates to the nervous system. So we must keep in mind how we define neuroses: A non-psychotic mental illness that triggers feelings of distress and anxiety and generally results in impaired functioning. One way to distinguish is to remember that neuroses center around pathological responses, while sensitivity represents healthy/normal (albeit possibly extreme) responses.

A Highly Sensitive Person is not a person with Asperger’s Disorder (formerly Asperger’s Syndrome). Whereas there is a number of overlaps between the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s (a form of high-functioning autism) and the description of High Sensitivity, the two are not the same. A Highly Sensitive Person may have Asperger’s, but being a Highly Sensitive Person doesn’t mean you have the disorder; having Asperger’s doesn’t automatically make someone an HSP. Although sometimes difficult to distinguish in the short term, Dr. Aron points out those even mild examples of Asperger’s have at their core some form of pervasive developmental disorder which is simply not present in the majority of Highly Sensitive Persons. Similarly, sensitivity to sensory stimulation or sensitive sensory processing is never mentioned in the diagnostic criteria for any Autism Spectrum Disorders, including Aspergers.

Isn’t Everyone Sensitive?

The important distinction to make here centers on what constitutes “a behavior” vs. what is a “physiological trait.” I agree entirely that anyone can choose to act in a sensitive manner. As such, the answer to the above question– strictly speaking– could be yes. The primary difference is that a Highly Sensitive Person doesn’t really have a choice in the matter. Think of it through this metaphor: Regardless of whether they like the sun or not, some people can go outside in the summer and work all day, and all they get is a tan. Others, however (who may love the sun), get third-degree sunburns within an hour. Highly Sensitive Person act the way they do because their brains are wired to respond a certain way.

This becomes particularly important when it comes to understanding interactions with Highly Sensitive Persons. Many societies do not value sensitivity, because we live in a competitive dog-eat-dog world, especially in Western culture. Whatever your perception of sensitivity may be, keep in mind that telling a highly sensitive person to “get over it” and “develop a thicker skin” is an exercise in futility; they cannot change the way their nervous system responds any more than you can change the natural color of your eyes or the size of your feet.

Synchronicity: My own Enlightenment

As a Highly Sensitive Person, myself, I have been studying and incorporating the trait into my lifestyle and choices for almost 15 years. I came to know about my sensitivity almost by accident. Of course, I’d always been aware that I was a little different but I’d struggled with pinpointing exactly how.

One day, I found myself perusing the travel section at a local bookstore. At one point I found myself struggling with pulling out a travel guide to Ireland because someone had jammed another book into the shelf, flat on top of the others. The offending volume was not a travel book, but a copy of “The Highly Sensitive Person” another browser had left behind.

At first, I was just going to discard the book—but something on the back cover caught my eye. Then I found a self-assessment quiz inside the book, to which I responded almost 100% in the affirmative. Although I felt a bit awkward about it—being a man, living in Texas “where men are men,” and buying a book about being sensitive—I bought the book. What followed, as I read each chapter, was a great many “aha moments” because I came to realize that there was a “name” for the way I had always felt a little out-of-step with my surroundings, and the cause was not some kind of pathology or syndrome.

Since then, I have spent a lot of time learning about the trait and subsequently informing others. It made a huge difference in my life to understand this part of my personal puzzle, and I have seen numerous people breathe a sigh of relief and find new meaning and purpose in their lives as a result of understanding that there is nothing “wrong” with them—they are merely highly sensitive.

And perhaps YOU are, too!

About the Author

Peter Messerschmidt is a writer, beach comber, rare stamp dealer and eternal seeker who lives in Port Townsend, Washington with the great love of his life and three feline “kids.” When he’s not wandering the beach or the Internet, he facilitates groups (online, and off) and retreats for HSPs, and writes “HSP Notes”—the web’s oldest HSP-specific blog, at: hspnotes.blogspot.com

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  • Hi I think you lost me half way down. Thanks for sharing some people find reading lots of books about PTSD helps. Personally I find they trigger me I would rather read a book about someone's experience on how they made their journey with PTSD. Unless you have experienced the symptoms you can't really know how people feel. I noticed there was a part the author mentioned on shyness I don't agree with what they say about it I've always been shy. I'm not all the things he persieves shy people to be. I will leave it at that just thought I would share my opinion 😊

  • yup, it's a bit Long. I didn't expect this article to apply to everyone. Some people don't realize they are empathic and others do. For those of us that are, understanding empathy lends further understanding that you don't find in other places. I look at triggers as something not to run from (although I certainly have!) but something to release so it doesn't derail me again. I ran for 10 years, doing the personal work in between running. I'm finally to a place that rather than run, I stand still & do my breathwork and that eliminates the trigger for me. Maybe I titled this sharing wrongly -- what I was thinking was, understanding how empathy opened up a whole other can of worms on top of PTSD. Maybe I should have mentioned if you're not empathic, this won't resonate ;) Sorry for any confusion

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