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Am I an Empath, a Trauma Survivor, or Both?

Original article published in Elephant Journal, read here.

When you hear descriptive details about someone, like they are profoundly empathic, feel the energy in the room, have well-honed senses, notice subtleties, isolate to recharge, or tune into others mood shifts, do you think, “They’re an empath?”

Of course, they may be an empath, but did you know these identifying details also describe a trauma survivor?

I am an empath. I am a highly sensitive, keenly perceptive, empathetic person who has endured traumatic events in my past that molded the way I experienced the world.

As an empath, I’m not just hearing the conversation, but noticing the energy all around me. As a trauma survivor, my brain comfortably sat in a hyper-vigilant state, searching for anything similar to my past trauma, hoping to protect me from future danger.⠀⠀

Being an empath and a trauma survivor has me processing 100 times the information; some of it unnecessary for me to pay attention to. It can be exhausting. However, being both also means that the energy I think I’m picking up on can just as easily be my brain projecting my trauma, in the hope of keeping me safe.

What is an empath?

Empaths sense the pain of others—quite literally. Being an empath is like having an extra sense. Other people are not aware that empaths can feel others emotions without them seeing obvious expressions of them. For example, empaths can notice another’s anger, grief, or joy, when that person does not verbalize it. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

What is trauma? ⠀⠀⠀

Simply put, trauma is an experience too intense for our nervous system to process, which makes what traumatizes us a very personal thing. We are all different, have varying life experiences, assorted health, bodies, and beliefs. Some circumstances would traumatize all of us, and some would traumatize you, but may not affect me.

A highly sensitive person has a deeply attuned nervous system, meaning we pick up on the subtleties some miss, and we feel the things we pick up on more profoundly. Because of this, the empath and the highly-sensitive person, have a greater likelihood of being overwhelmed or traumatized by their experience.

Trauma’s effects on the brain. ⠀⠀

Hypervigilance is a state of heightened attentiveness. In a state of hypervigilance, I am extremely sensitive to subtleties in my surroundings. Hypervigilance can be the brain’s way of adapting to trauma. To minimize the reoccurrence of the trauma, the subconscious mind continually scans the environment to anticipate danger. As a result, our senses are on high alert, ready to spot and respond to any risk. ⠀⠀

Following trauma, we can have physical, emotional, and psychological changes within our brains. The structure of our brain can change in three ways: some parts grow more prominent, some shrink, and other processes deteriorate.

Three sections of our brain highly affected by trauma are:

1. The amygdala plays a critical role in emotional regulation, detecting threats, and alerting us of danger. After trauma, this part of our brain can grow larger, but unfortunately, through its growth, it begins to overpower the other parts of our brain (hypervigilance. When our amygdala is enlarged, emotions rather than reason become how we manage our responses.

2. The pre-frontal cortex, which is in charge of cognitive processing, becomes smaller and less efficient in response to trauma. When weakened, we lose our ability to reason and process new information logically, and our capacity to recall and store memories is also impaired.

3. The hippocampus supports learning and long-term memory. When stress chemicals like cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine routinely flood our bodies, they can damage the neural capacity of the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex.

Trauma and the empath.

Some empaths are afraid of their day-to-day life.

Believing they are powerless over what they feel and perceive, some can worry about what they will sense around others. A constant state of fear can lead to trauma and a hypervigilant state. Hypervigilance can make the empath feel like they are observant of unseen dangers, whether from people or their environment. However, many times, in a hypervigilant state, the threats we perceive are not real.

I realized I was an empath many years ago. For most of my life, my emotional world kept me in constant torment. Life felt difficult. The act of refining the extent of what I felt seemed an unrelenting task.

As I grew older and experienced the weight of personal trauma, it became impossible to distinguish my feelings from others. Finally, I started internalizing everything I experienced, and in hindsight, I see that I equated my overwhelm as proof I was fundamentally flawed.

Eventually, my encounters with trauma, which needed compassion and loving attention, were drowned by the unrelenting pain and suffering of the world around me.

To fully step into my potential, I had to sort out what was affecting my energy in each moment. As I identified and healed my trauma, I freed myself to feel stronger and more grounded around the energy of others.


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