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The Struggles and Strengths of Trauma Disorders

Trauma disorders are neurodivergences with negative and positive qualities.

Key points

  • Trauma disorders, such as PTSD, are acquired mental disabilities, and they are a part of neurodiversity.
  • High sensitivity, empathy, and crisis skills present both strengths and struggles for trauma survivors.
  • Recognizing and discussing the strengths of neurodivergences is crucial for a balanced perspective.
Stefan Keller/Pixabay
Stefan Keller/Pixabay

In a recent podcast interview with trauma expert Lisa Cooper Ellison, Ellison asked me whether trauma conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), are neurodivergences.

I answered with a resounding yes.

I define neurodiversity as normal variations in human neurological function, with an emphasis on normal.

For ease of understanding, I break neurodivergences into three categories: developmental disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism; mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders; and acquired mental disabilities like post-concussion syndrome as well as trauma disorders like PTSD.

What Are Acquired Mental Disabilities?

Acquired mental disabilities aren’t genetic; we aren’t born with them. They can come from injuries (in the case of post-concussion syndrome), illnesses (in the case of brain fog), or psychological trauma (in the case of PTSD).

PTSD and other trauma-related neurological conditions are neurodivergences. But you do not have to have an official diagnosis of PTSD to be neurodivergent. Remember, neurodiversity is about neurological function variations, not medical labels.

Neurodiversity is about how our brains work. It is about the strengths and struggles that our differences give us. So, what are the strengths and struggles that come with trauma neurodivergences?

Trauma Neurodivergences Come With Struggles

Like any neurodivergence, trauma neurodivergences come with struggles as well as strengths.

To learn more about the struggles and strengths of trauma neurodivergences, I interviewed Cooper Ellison, Ed.S in clinical mental health counseling, a trauma-informed writing coach, and an expert in this area.

Ellison told me, “For many people, the struggles and strengths of a diagnosis like PTSD and CPTSD are the same. The goal is to recognize and cultivate the good while acknowledging and working with each attribute’s limitations.”

For example, Ellison told me about high sensitivity, a feature of many trauma survivors, who feel things very deeply. Why? She said, "We have an uncanny ability to detect other people’s emotions, using only the slightest cues. This is a skill many of us learned to stay safe during childhood.”

But high sensitivity isn’t always a good thing, Ellison explains: “While this can serve us well because much of what we read is related to threat detection, we sometimes get things wrong or see threats when none exist.” In other words, sensitivity can turn into anxiety, hypervigilance, and chronic stress.

Ellison explained that trauma survivors often feel elevated empathy, which is a good thing, “but there are times when that empathy can turn into people pleasing or lead to trauma bonds.”

Trauma survivors experience crises. But that means they are frequently “wired for crisis,” as Ellison puts it. The problem is, then, that “regular life can feel confusing, and we can sometimes look for a crisis when things are going well or manufacture one so that things feel ‘normal.’”

But as Ellison points out, many of these struggles are also strengths.

Trauma Neurodivergences Also Come With Incredible Strengths

Trauma survivors also have strengths—just like any other neurodivergent person. Ellison told me, “They are incredibly strong individuals with highly adaptable nervous systems that have learned to survive what might seem unsurvivable.”

Ellison explains that because many trauma survivors are highly sensitive, “We feel deeply and are deeply moved by events.” And this can be a good thing. Why? “That means we experience the world deeply, from the wonderful to the highly overwhelming.”

Trauma survivors live in high-definition. Ellison, who teaches trauma-informed writing, notes in her teaching that trauma survivors can leverage their strength as sensitive observers of the world to make them better writers.

Trauma survivors are also highly empathetic and, as Ellison explains, “the first to comfort someone who’s experienced a major loss. We’re not afraid to be with someone who’s experiencing the tough stuff.”

Trauma survivors are excellent to have around when things get tough, Ellison explains: “Because our nervous systems are highly attuned to survival, we are great in a crisis. It’s the one time we don’t panic.”

As many neurodiversity advocates have pointed out, it is important to discuss neurodiversities' strengths and struggles. Frequently, as a society, we focus only on the negative and ignore the positive.

As neurodiversity advocate Karen Ray Costa has repeatedly pointed out, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) only lists negative aspects of neurodivergences—not the positive ones, which could be just as helpful in diagnostics.

So, I thank Ellison for sharing the strengths of neurodivergent trauma disorders so eloquently. I hope that when we think about neurodivergence in the future, we will all consider the strengths as well as the struggles.


Greenberg, David M., Simon Baron-Cohen, Nora Rosenberg, Peter Fonagy, and Peter J. Rentfrow. “Elevated Empathy in Adults Following Childhood Trauma.” PLoS ONE 13, no. 10 (October 3, 2018): e0203886.

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