Befriending Traumatic Ontology

As I write this introduction, I am aware of uncomfortable tension and nervous energy in my body. Part of it is the cumulative effect of yet another day spent sitting at a desk all day at work—my spine is cramped, my hips ache—but part of it is also due to the nature of this work. When I produce work about trauma, which I often do, my body and mind send unmistakable signals when it is time to step away. This “nervous energy” can feel like a bird is going to fly out of my guts and up my throat, exploding into the room around me. In order to begin this piece, I have had to stop over and over again. It is with an acknowledgement of this bodily knowledge that I begin to tell you about my sixth sense.

What makes a sixth sense? When we consider ideas of a “sixth sense,” we may think of concepts of the paranormal. We may envision those who are able to move objects through space with just their minds, or those who invoke the spontaneous combustion of someone or something, or those who see and communicate with the dead. At its core, a sixth sense is an encoding into the body, altering how the individual interprets and processes information and creates knowledge. The aftermath of trauma is not all that different from acquiring a “sixth sense,” in that it changes us, and sets us apart from others based on how we interact with our surroundings.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that surviving trauma is a paranormal experience, although it is a compelling parallel in some ways. It is perhaps the allure of paranormal studies’ attempts to explain the unexplainable that, as a trauma survivor, I relate to when I try to describe what I survived as well as how it continues to affect me. I find that others consistently struggle to relate to the extreme experiences I have had, as well as the powerful emotional consciousness I seem to have developed as a result of these experiences. It is worth noting that my exploration of the post-trauma experience is borne of personal subjectivity; it is not clinical, and it does not claim to capture or represent all post-trauma realities. My experience does, however, give me a starting point from which to consider how emotional experiences guide and inform the way we know the world as well as produce knowledge that enriches us as individuals and collectively. In the way that feeling is orienting, you might say trauma is its own orientation.

Some survivors have explained their post-traumatic “sixth senses” to be highly-attuned capacities for empathy: the thinking being that one is better able to understand intense fear and suffering in others if she has experienced it herself. One blogger and trauma survivor, who goes by Suzy B. and has posted specifically about her thoughts on trauma as a sixth sense, writes, “I started noticing that my intuition was crazy strong, feelings about others (like I could “read” people so strongly it got in the way of conversation and daily life in general)…”[1] Imagine that there is no membrane between you and others; your body functions as a ready receptacle for the thoughts, feelings, fears, and projections of others. This way of living is potent, and sometimes painful, but the pain can offer an opportunity for growth and new possibility. Empathy, which is woven into all of us, becomes a new way of knowing the world.

Suzy B. is a blogger trying to make sense of her post-trauma experience and make her findings legible to others. I am likely drawn to her writing, in part, because I share her desire to understand and explicate post-trauma experience. To Suzy B.’s aforementioned description of the trauma-survivor’s immutable connection with others, I would add that living post-trauma often involves developing a hair-trigger threat detection system. Living with a heightened threat detection system entails tracking even the most minute and subtle shifts in the emotions, body postures, and speech patterns of those around us. Athena Phillips, a licensed clinical social worker and a founder of Portland, Oregon’s Integrative Trauma Treatment Center, calls this “the survivor’s superpower” and describes it as “a habitual way of being” for many survivors. She adds, “Safety is dependent upon the capacity to detect threat (even subtle ones) quickly and correctly and often times, scanning for threat is baseline for a trauma survivor; one doesn’t ever come to a place of complete resting; resting equals risk.”[2] Indeed, in my own life, friends and lovers have often remarked incredulously that I seemed to know what they were feeling before they did. That’s because my sense of safety depends on how quickly I can assess my need to get out of the way.

Trauma’s touch has two primary manifestations that then branch off into myriad other psychobiological symptoms. These two modes, which are a) shutting down and shutting off and b) constant, unbearable overdrive, are not opposite from one another. Rather, they are two sides of the same coin; they are both symptoms of a nervous system that has been shocked out of its normal range of function, and thus remains stuck completely offline or all the way on. Pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel introduced this theory as the “window of tolerance”—if a person exists outside the zone at which their nervous system can function optimally, the nervous system breaks down, causing states of hypo- or hyper-arousal, which are associated with trauma.[3] Because experiencing either of these major modes of trauma (some survivors will experience both) can be so alarming and untenable, many survivors struggle with substance abuse. Survivors of childhood trauma and abuse are especially vulnerable; the 1995-97 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which sought to understand how childhood trauma affects well-being later in life, found that these types of survivors were 4600% more likely than others to develop addiction.[4]

The strong empathetic sensibility that underlies the post-trauma experiences of many survivors is compelling, as is as the “survivor’s superpower” of rapid threat detection. Using these intensely emotional experiences as a starting point, I want to further extend my analysis of post-trauma experience to the ongoing visceral, sensory experience that long outlasts the trauma itself. Living through trauma sometimes produces saturated sensory experience, which in turn creates new ways of knowing and understanding the world and others. This, I argue, is its own kind of sense-ability. I suggest that sensing, or oversensing, as it were—by which I mean experiencing an increase in one’s felt senses—can be transformative. The transformative potential of oversensing lies in the possibility of creating knowledge that is grounded in feeling, rather than dismissing felt knowledge as anti-rational and “just” emotional.

As we take in the additional information that our senses make available to us, we open ourselves up to greater possibilities and a greater number of choices—more information to process can mean more opportunities to make decisions. This might seem overwhelming, but it can also create space to live an empowered life. In the years since first becoming aware of my post-traumatic sense-ability, I have tried to be curious about my own traumatic imprinting. To give an example: as I have begun to understand that my sensory “baseline” is feeling that the world around me is inherently chaotic, unpredictable, and unsafe, I have realized that my hyper-vigilant orientation can be a strength when it contributes to my ability to be critical and incisive. This orientation helps me make accurate assessments very quickly, and act decisively. I have learned to use important tools that help me ground and manage the deluge of panic that can suddenly occur if things feel too chaotic. Part of that journey has been to realize that my ability to clarify and concretize amidst triggering disarray is actually something that helps me organize and analyze in a very broad range of scenarios. In times of stress, I now usually anchor quickly to the present, rather than catapulting into a jungle of anxiety. I remind myself to observe, to try to just be. I have learned to sit—sometimes quietly and sometimes less so—with situations I cannot fix. Despite the cost at which I developed this skill, today it is an asset.

Most of the time, everything I take in is felt deeply, often in actual, physical sensations in addition to emotional responses. Earlier, I talked about the tension I felt as I sat down to produce this article: the effort to focus the energy and sensation swirling around my being. Continuously going through that process of stepping in and then stepping away, of letting myself get a little overwhelmed as I work so that I can get closer to understanding my own perspective on an issue, is paramount to my research process. It is also paramount to how I navigate the world and relationships. I feel experiences everywhere in my body, and these physical sensations help me reflect and come to know whatever there may be for me to know. Whether it is sweatiness and tingly skin from anxiety, giddiness and shortness of breath from a wash of joy, lethargy from loss or burnout, or rigid muscles from fear, “feeling everywhere” makes sense, given that the Vagus nerve, an important regulator of stress response, runs all the way from the tip of the brain through the bowels—those are a lot of nerve cells communicating information.[5] In case you ever wondered, we can literally be scared shitless (this has never happened to me).

So often trauma survivors are thought of as victims, but perhaps we are superhumans. Trauma imprints in us, and it affects us forever, that is true. Trauma is powerful and increases our sensitivity to internal and external information and cues, but we can befriend that intensity; in fact, I have a kind of respect for trauma’s complex alarm and protection systems. The subtle shifts in the trauma-survivor’s being—sometimes barely perceptible messages from the body—create a deluge of sensory information with which our organism must decide what to do. What do you do when you are given so much information to process? Hopefully, you rise to the occasion by walking straight towards this hyperfeeling, gradually opening to its strange epistemology. Hyperfeeling encourages us to learn to embrace a lack of fixity without eschewing the felt discomfort that comes along with uncertainty.

This way of knowing—this traumatic ontology—is one platform from which I view, analyze, critique, and produce ideas and work about my surroundings. I was born into a chaotic family dynamic already deep in the throes of deranged violence and rampant mental illness. Growing up, I experienced systemic, chronic abuse and neglect at home. When I was a child in the bookstore or with friends, or later a teen in my sophomore geometry class, I would dissociate.  My imagination flourished, ravenously creating vivid scenes of alternate realities I might be inhabiting, a language I did not yet know how to speak but of which I knew all of the words, this language of leaving the body to think beyond the boundaries of what I—my self—had experienced. As an adult, I see this as part of the foundation of my creativity and what spurred me to pursue cultural work. I stand firmly within my ideas and my experience because I literally am within them, I am immersed in them, I become them.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a prominent trauma specialist and author, has said trauma survivors sometimes seek out intensely emotional experiences, either for work or recreation, because such charged experiences awaken our sense of vitality in the way most familiar to our nervous systems.[6] That partially explains the urgency I feel in producing work about trauma. The work has to get made, it has to have a form outside of me. In writing about my chosen areas of research, including trauma, affect, emotion, and memory, I am connecting with those complex and sometimes inarticulable concepts. I am parsing them and inhabiting their nuances instead of being made a host for the feelings of chaos that can come with trying to make sense of a trauma, or an intangible memory: those things that are perpetually just out of reach of full consciousness and our ability to know. I live there, right inside all of the impalpables and ungraspables, appreciating what their gossamer qualities have to teach me about feeling through the world.  I cannot always see the path ahead, but, like a coal miner traversing dark tunnels by just the light on his helmet, this internal sensory guide helps me push forward through obstacles and unknowns, all the while engaging me through the messy process.

Trauma attaches to us and leaves some of itself behind, permanently altering our sensory landscape. When chapter after chapter of trauma, a series of woundings, is one’s entrance into the world, it is no lens to be eschewed in the name of “recovery.” It is my life-medium, how I learn all things. My wound is my reality, my consciousness, my way of seeing the world; my senses are steeped in it. I no longer dare to try to harness or otherwise restrain it. I am it. It is wild, challenging, wise. To quote Roland Barthes, “I recognize, with my whole body.”[7] I know with my whole body, and I am confident in that knowledge.


[1] Suzie B.,“Trauma Survivor’s ‘Sixth Sense,’” Personal Battle Wounds, Blogspot, May 18,


[2] Athena Phillips, “Intuition vs. Vigilance: A Survivor’s Superpower,” Integrative Trauma

            Treatment Center Blog, Integrative Trauma Treatment Center, Apr 15, 2015,

[3] Daniel J. Siegel, The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural

            Integration (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010).

[4] Bessel van der Kolk citing Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, Interview with Steve

Paulson, “Feeling Through Trauma” on To the Best of Our Knowledge, Wisconsin

Public Radio, Jul 5, 2015.

[5] Steven Porges, Interview with William Stranger, Dharma Cafe, Jun 16, 2012,

[6] Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of

            Trauma (New York: Penguin Books, 2014).

[7] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang,

1982), 48.