Her brown eyes shimmered with unshed tears of frustration as she told us her story: She had endured years of public and private abuse growing up in an impoverished neighborhood. Her life was a path littered with attempts to struggle to overcome the pain of her experiences and episodes of fighting against her internal urge to give up on the struggle. She had tried more therapists and psychiatrists than she could count in her attempts to recover the bits and pieces of herself she’d lost along her journey and none of them could figure out how to help her.  They told her that she is brilliant, that she is capable, and somehow she also received a message that she is perhaps beyond hope. And so it was, maybe her last stop of hope, that she came to the SENG conference hoping to find answers that no one had been able to give her thus far.  Answers we did not have to give her either.

The question of how giftedness impacts the experience and effects of trauma was also one of the reasons I attended the SENG conference.  I’d assumed I was somehow missing the proper search terms; surely there was SOME research about trauma in the gifted population?  And yet it seems there is not.

Does trauma affect gifted people differently? Are we more resilient? Are we more vulnerable? Do we experience PTSD, Complex Trauma, Personality disorders, and other pathology more often when exposed to traumatic experiences? Does treatment need to be modified when dealing with trauma-affected gifted persons? Are we more vulnerable to misdiagnosis when exposed to trauma?

Depending on which line of research you go down you can find studies that suggest that giftedness is a protective factor for individuals (that gifted people are better-adjusted than the general population) and other research that shows it is a risk factor for people (that gifted people have a higher incidence of mental health problems).  My understanding is that much of the difference is based on whether you look at research that is conducted on clinical populations versus those conducted on non-clinical populations which have been identified as gifted.  It seems, on the one hand, that perhaps gifted people make up 15-20% of the clinical population (people seeking help for mental health issues) although they are only 2% of the general population, I’ve even read some suggestion that they may make up a similarly large percentage of the incarcerated population, and on the other hand we are less likely to suffer mental health problems? Those seem to be mutually exclusive positions, right?

The best explanation I’ve seen is that in the non-clinical research the participants are more likely to have been identified early and have received proper accommodations (also that they are often pulled from wealthier population samples). Which may be to say that giftedness may be a protective factor if it is identified and the person’s needs are generally met.

What about the clinical samples though? Are we over-represented because we are more likely to seek assistance for our problems or because we are more likely to suffer problems? Are we more likely to suffer serious effects from trauma that we experience? Are we more likely to be diagnosed with certain diagnoses after trauma?

The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them … a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. ~Pearl S. Buck

I do, personally, suspect that trauma affects gifted people differently.  I would guess that our intensity, OEs, and sensitivity makes us more vulnerable to trauma responses;  we may be traumatized by things that others would not find traumatic and our trauma-responses might be more intense just as we tend to be more intense people. I would guess that our increased vulnerability to existential depression is exacerbated by exposure to trauma and that our moral intensity may play some role in how that plays out. I suspect that those of us who experience trauma in combination with a lack of adequate information about ourselves– without loving and supportive people teaching us that our differences are “normal” and acceptable– can be made more vulnerable by our feelings of isolation and alienation. And I strongly suspect that when unable to find mental health professionals who understand how giftedness impacts one’s psychology we may be over-diagnosed with mood disorders & personality disorders since our emotional intensity and intellectual overexcitabilities might be construed as pathological features by professionals who don’t understand our “normal” and think our “giftedness” (as some think of it) is a manifestation of grandiosity.

I hope that one day we will have answers for the woman who was so frustrated by her attempts to heal from trauma; that we will have better answers for how she has been affected and how she might be helped. For now, I’d love to hear from professionals who work with gifted people and from gifted people who have experienced trauma– what are your thoughts on the issue? Do you think there is a difference in the effects of trauma?  Do you think that treatment of trauma needs to be modified when dealing with gifted populations? What has worked best for you personally or in practice?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments section or email.

*Julie Creech is a Marriage and Family Therapist Registered Intern in the state of California who specializes in therapy with gifted, talented, and creative adults and teens living in Silicon Valley.