By Judith E. Lipson, M.A., LPC
I had never intended to work with folks who deal with significant traumas, so when my colleague and friend suggested that I accompany her to see Bessel van der Kolk who was speaking in Ann Arbor on trauma, I insistently told her no, several times. But Barb can be very persistent and so I signed up for this great opportunity. I can’t thank her enough! This is one of those trainings that has greatly informed my work with Sensitives.
Dr. van der Kolk taught the group about the common responses that individuals frequently experience emotionally, relationally, and especially physically as a result of their traumatic experience. Because of his information, I suddenly had this ah-hah about the Sensitives that I work with and recognized how their experiences can be understood in the context of trauma that we recognize professionally and as a society. (I now refer to major illness, assault, accident, war, abuse, and neglect as the big T traumas). This information has informed my work ever since, and is key to what I teach my families, my clients, and professional groups about Sensitives.
Sensitives are those who are highly attuned to one or more of the 5 senses (taste, touch, see, hear, smell) and are typically also very intuitive, empathic and energy-aware. At the time of that conference, I already knew of the strong sensory awareness in the autistic population and was seeing it in folks who often experience ADHD and/or anxiety. I began to see the students and adults that I worked with as being on this sensory continuum of Sensitives. I focused on identifying these folks and helping them and others to focus on their strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. At the time I had only a few techniques to address the challenges for Sensitives. These included explaining the situation to their loved ones and their teachers so they can ‘walk a mile in their shoes’; recommending the removal of fluorescent lights, using natural lighting, and generally dimming room lights to address light sensitivity; and teaching the individuals how to modulate their empathic gifts.
Dr. van der Kolk explained that after a trauma the body becomes extremely reactive physiologically to subsequent triggers. Professionals began to recognize this after WWI when the soldiers came back “shell shocked”. In 1980 we diagnosed it PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and realized that it applies to events other than war like accidents, serious illnesses, assaults, abuse, etc. Subsequently, professionals learned specialized treatments including EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to address this disorder. (Incidentally, if you are interested in a cutting-edge treatment, check out Havening.org).
The training further explained how if an individual experiences a trauma after successive other traumas (warfare, childhood abuse or neglect, etc.) that their physiologic responses, behaviors, and emotions are likely to be more intense and persistent. And that’s when I understood the physiologic effect with highly sensitive nervous systems (Sensitives). Imagine if you will a sense that is most pronounced for you: maybe it is a particular item of clothing that you find minimally tolerable, or walking on a crowded street in a bustling city, or having to stand near a very loud sound source, or having to stay in the presence of an individual that you just can’t stand. Now imagine that discomfort happening all day long and you can’t make it go away, because it won’t or can’t stop, or you are not allowed to get away from it. This is the experience of a Sensitive – being inundated in life, in school, and even within their own body 24/7 (there are those who say that sleep doesn’t effectively push a pause button on this sensory input) without significant relief. And THIS was my ah-hah: that Sensitives are living with repetitive little t traumas, and the body is responding similarly to how we understand the responses of folks who have suffered the more traditional big T traumas.
Having this new information about the experiences of Sensitives means that I can use a new set of options when working with them and when explaining their situations to others. One of these new awarenesses is to understand that most Sensitives aren’t having tantrums, but rather are experiencing meltdowns. Meltdowns can be best understood in terms of the sensory overload that is occurring from 24/7 input. Their system (physiology) just can’t take one more thing. Remember the story of the straw that broke the camel’s back? This is what is happening to sensitives when the sensory input from their 5 senses or their own or other people’s emotions becomes too much and takes them from ‘0-60’ for seemingly no apparent reason. But now we can understand that there definitely ARE reasons, and we need to identify them and help minimize them where possible.
A term that I have heard used to describe common behaviors of those in the autistic population is PDA – Pathological Demand Avoidance. It seems to refer to a negative trait where the individual refuses to comply with what is requested. It is akin to ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder). With my new understanding of Sensitives and trauma, I see these avoidances as a distinct effort to protect oneself from overwhelm. With that understanding one wouldn’t use a punitive or behavioral approach, but rather a look at the antecedents to see how we can reduce or remove the triggers creating the overwhelm.
When we understand the effects on the body, we realize that to approach treatment from only a cognitive or behavioral approach means to miss a critical part of the experience of the individual. To address the physiologic effects of the body I (and others) use techniques that include:
- EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitizing and Reprocessing)
- Havening (Havening.org)
- Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique; TheTappingSolution.com)
- Breath work
- Mindfulness practices
- Somatic work which includes watching the body, the breath, the body tension, etc., and providing opportunities for the body to release the trapped trauma response. (These include the work of Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine, Ron Siegel, Patricia Ogden, Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory, etc.)
I was recently listening to a podcast by Dr. Brene Brown who was interviewing Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry about their new book, What Happened to You? Dr. Perry, a neuro-biologist and trauma specialist says, “Instead of asking what is wrong with these kids, ask what happened to these kids?” He then suggests the consideration of the What Do You Expect Disorder? He continues to explain that any pattern of behaviors that activates your stress response system and leads to an alteration in how that system is functioning, leads to an overactivity and an over reactivity. All kinds of people have tiny little experiences that activate the stress response system. And if that pattern is prolonged enough, it leads to the very same changes in the brain as a big T trauma, and is an underestimated and underappreciated component of the trauma narrative.
In light of Dr. Perry’s work and my observations, I encourage you to always look at the antecedents (that which comes before the troubling behavior), particularly those that are in the sensory realm and those that are clearly triggering emotions for your individual. As you do, walk a mile in their shoes in order to see the significance of those antecedents. Then strive to minimize their intensity and frequency, and to teach your individual the necessary skills to tolerate that which cannot be changed.
Judy Lipson is a Licensed Professional Counselor and educational strategist in West Bloomfield, MI. She helps clients of all ages who have learning difficulties, work or school related anxiety, ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorders, and those who wish to Remember and Become ‘Who You Really Are’. Contact Judy at 248.568.8665 and firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit www.JudyLipson.com for more information.
This article is for informational purposes and is not meant to replace medical care.