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  • Writer's pictureSophia Khan

Does Experiencing Trauma Impact How We Perceive the World?

When we talk about our senses, we usually focus on the classic five: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. However, our sensory experiences are more nuanced and complex than this simple list. Two crucial aspects of our sensory perception are interoception and exteroception. While interoception is our ability to notice and sense our inner bodily and emotional states (such as hunger, fullness, anxiety, etc.), exteroception is our ability to sense and notice environmental stimuli outside of the body, including sights, sounds, smells, and more.

Exteroception: Our Window to the World

Exteroception is fundamentally how we interact with and interpret the external world. It's the way we detect and process sensory information from our environment, allowing us to respond fittingly to various stimuli. This sensory processing is essential for daily functioning and survival. For instance, hearing a car horn can prompt us to look around for oncoming traffic, while the smell of smoke might alert us to a potential fire.

Trauma and Exteroception: The Delicate Balance

Interestingly, our level of exteroception can be significantly influenced by our experiences, particularly traumatic ones. Trauma can disrupt the delicate balance of our sensory processing, leading to either heightened or diminished awareness of environmental stimuli.

Increased Exteroception and Hypervigilance

For some individuals who have experienced trauma, there can be an increase in exteroception. This heightened state can manifest as hypervigilance. Those affected may become extra aware of certain sounds, facial expressions, or smells. This can be a survival mechanism, where the heightened senses are constantly on the lookout for potential threats, a state often described as being "on edge" or "on high alert."

For example, a person who has been through a traumatic event might find themselves acutely sensitive to loud noises or sudden movements, interpreting them as signals of danger. This heightened awareness, while protective in some situations, can be exhausting and overwhelming, leading to chronic stress and anxiety.

Decreased Exteroception and Hypovigilance

Conversely, some trauma survivors may experience decreased exteroception, resulting in a reduced awareness of their surroundings, a state known as hypovigilance. This diminished sensory processing can create a sense of disconnection from the external world, as if living in a fog. People in this state might find it hard to notice details in their environment or to respond timely to external stimuli.

This hypovigilance serves as a protective mechanism, where the brain reduces sensory input to avoid being overwhelmed by reminders of trauma. However, it can also lead to difficulties in daily functioning and interactions, as a person may seem distant, dissociated, or unresponsive.

Finding Balance: Nervous System Support and Self-Compassion

Whether trauma has led to hypervigilance or hypovigilance, the key to restoring balance lies in supporting the nervous system and practicing self-compassion. Here are some strategies that can help:

Nervous System Support

  • Mindfulness Practices: Techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and grounding exercises can help regulate the nervous system and improve sensory processing. These practices encourage a state of calm and enhance present-moment awareness, making it easier to manage heightened or diminished exteroception.

  • Physical Activity: Regular exercise can positively affect the nervous system, reducing stress and anxiety. Activities like yoga, tai chi, or even a simple walk in nature can promote relaxation and sensory integration.

  • Therapeutic Interventions: Working with a therapist, especially one trained in trauma-informed care, can be invaluable. Therapies such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Internal Family Systems (IFS), or Somatic Experiencing can specifically address trauma's impact on sensory perception.


  • Self-Kindness: Recognizing that heightened or diminished sensory awareness is a common response to trauma can help reduce self-criticism. Practicing self-kindness involves treating oneself with the same compassion and understanding that one would offer a friend.

  • Patience and Acceptance: Healing from trauma and adjusting sensory processing takes time. Patience and acceptance of one’s current state can reduce frustration and promote a gentler path to recovery.

  • Support Networks: Building a supportive network of friends, family, or support groups can provide a sense of safety and connection, essential for healing and improving exteroception.

In conclusion, understanding exteroception and its relationship to trauma highlights the importance of sensory processing in our overall well-being. By supporting our nervous system and practicing self-compassion, we can navigate the challenges of altered exteroception and move towards a more balanced and connected experience of the world around us.

Looking for more support?

Hi, I’m Sophia and I’m a trauma therapist who specializes in supporting those looking to heal from the effects of trauma.

Book a Free 15-Minute Consultation Here:

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