The Strengths of High Sensitivity that Can Help with Trauma Recovery

Posted by Lauren Presutti in Life After Paralysis on July 28, 2021 # Health, Lifestyle

What exactly does it mean to be a “highly sensitive person”? How might this characteristic impact a person’s experience with trauma? Some people argue that a person who is highly sensitive will experience a deeper relationship with trauma than a person who is not. What does this mean for highly sensitive individuals recovering from a spinal cord injury? How can we be mindful of this personal characteristic through a person’s recovery process?

In general, highly sensitive people react more intensely to experiences than the average person. They process both positive and negative information more deeply, generally have more empathy, pay closer attention to their environment, and overall have a deeper level of cognitive processing. This might mean that a highly sensitive person experiencing a traumatic event – like a spinal cord injury – will be more likely to remember the details of what happened, such as who was there, how they felt, how the accident occurred, what happened after injury, and what emotions were expressed by people around. Highly sensitive people are also very “tuned in” to both their feelings and the feelings of others – which sometimes allows them to notice emotional and social cues that others miss. Again, after experiencing a spinal cord injury, a highly sensitive person may be more affected by the feelings expressed by family members and other loved ones who may be projecting emotions onto the person, even if they are not intending to do so.

For some, even non-emotional stimuli (bright lights or loud sounds) can be more impactful to highly sensitive people. Think about the ambulance sounds or hospital lights that may weigh heavily on a sensitive person after injury. This can take a larger toll on their sense of safety compared with a person who may be less affected by this type of stimuli. There is a whole body of research on the “highly sensitive person” – I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details, but some studies show there are actually differences in the level of neural activity of highly sensitive people compared with their non-sensitive peers. This means it’s not just “all in your head” or something you picked up in childhood – instead, highly sensitive people were probably born this way and have fundamental genetic differences in the brain that may account for higher levels of empathy and emotional responsiveness. Explore some research if you are curious to learn more.

So if you find yourself absorbing the world a bit more strongly than others, you may have some heightened sensitivity. Like managing other aspects of our lives, we have to recognize our sensitivity and find ways to make it work for us – rather than against us – especially when working to recover from physical and mental trauma. To do this, we must first dismantle any negative internalized beliefs about sensitivity that others may have wrongly imposed on us. Many of us have heard the following: “Don’t be so sensitive - it’s not that big of a deal.”  Or how about: “You’re too sensitive - don’t take it so personally.” Sound familiar? We live in a world where being sensitive is often equated with being weak or dramatic. People often associate sensitivity with being irrationally overdramatic or overly exaggerating about different experiences and interactions. This is because sensitivity is widely misunderstood, and the reactions of sensitive people can confuse (and frustrate) others.

To help mitigate some confusion, we must be willing to openly share stories and experiences from viewing the world through a sensitive lens. Start a conversation with others about how you perceive sensitivity – either within yourself or within others. Let it be known that being highly sensitive doesn’t make a person weak – it is not a disorder or character flaw by any means. Being sensitive might mean that we manage our day-to-day routines, relationships, work, and overall lives differently than others because we process things more deeply – but this is no different than adjusting our lifestyles to accommodate any other character difference. If a person cannot cope with mental health symptoms related to his or her sensitivity, the problem is generally not the existence of sensitivity – but rather the problem is the lack of coping mechanisms and lack of self-knowledge that would allow the person to thrive with their sensitivity.

It is critical to learn how to thrive with sensitivity and cope with trauma as a sensitive person (talk to a mental health professional!) because once you master the art of managing your sensitivity, you’ll be able to view this part of your life as a strength – not a weakness – and use it to help you manage the impacts of trauma.

Strengths of High Sensitivity that Can Help with Trauma Recovery:

1. Stronger Emotional Skills.   Highly sensitive people are emotionally strong. They are able to reflect on their emotions and articulate their thoughts and feelings in sophisticated ways. Because highly sensitive people tend to have advanced emotional skills, they are more likely to be effective in their lives because they can control, understand, and use their emotions productively. While others may struggle to openly discuss their emotions, highly sensitive people typically enjoy emotional dialogue. They honor their emotions and fully embrace emotional experiences, which strengthens them as wholesome individuals.

How to use this strength to cope with trauma: Use your emotional skills to about your trauma narrative as often as you feel comfortable. Write a story about what happened to you. Share it with others. Create a blog or speak publicly about how your world was transformed after injury. Express your emotions authentically, in detail, and at length as you tell the story about your spinal cord injury. Emotional expression is a key factor in trauma recovery, and your ability to articulate your emotions in a deeper way will help you with the verbalization and normalization of your trauma feelings.

2. Stronger Empathy.   Highly sensitive people are extremely empathetic and capable of understanding (and connecting with) almost anyone. Because they often adopt the emotions of those around them, their empathetic nature is amplified – so much so that people often come to highly sensitive people for comfort. This allows them to exist in the world as integrated beings who have superior skills for offering validation and emotional safety to others – this often brings deeper relationships with greater meaning and purpose. Of course, managing high empathy requires becoming highly adept at setting and sticking to boundaries – otherwise, high empathy can lead to burnout and self-neglect. Proceed with caution!

How to use this strength to cope with trauma: Use your stronger empathy skills to build strong relationships with others in the paralysis community. Being a good listener who can truly empathize with peers in the spinal cord injury community will help you in developing a larger support system. Peers will feel safe and comfortable talking with you about their struggles, which in turn, will allow you more space to talk about your struggles. Developing a large support system within the paralysis community will also increase your feelings of belongingness, enhance your knowledge of resources, and guard against any feelings of isolation.

3. Deeper Intuition.  Because highly sensitive people have remarkable processing abilities, they often have deeper intuition to guide them in making wise choices. They may have an easier time trusting their intuition because their finely-tuned nervous systems stand strong in the face of complexity. When presented with difficult decisions, highly sensitive people rely on their ability to see connections that others miss and often have greater insight into the right choices. This can be especially useful in certain careers where high-level decisions are critical.

How to use this strength to cope with trauma: Use your intuition to make healthy decisions that will enhance your quality of life. Individuals living with paralysis face a greater number of tough decisions in life than the average person without a disability. This is because you will be faced with a wide variety of choices about physical therapy or rehabilitation, wheelchair options, accessible transportation, adaptive modifications to your home or workplace, caregiving support, ongoing health needs, how to adapt to recreation, and countless other nuances of living with paralysis. With deeper intuition, you will trust yourself to make the right decisions for yourself, remain in control, and connect multiple pieces of advice and feedback from others.

4. Greater Self-Awareness. Highly sensitive people are hyper tuned-in to their external surroundings – but these skills also turn inward. They understand themselves more so than the average person because they are constantly analyzing their emotions, thoughts, and reactions. Highly sensitive people strive to understand where they fit – or where they belong – in the world. This leads to greater self-awareness, which is inherently a strength because when we have a better understanding of ourselves, we are able to better take care of ourselves, capitalize on our gifts, and find our purpose in the world.

How to use this strength to cope with trauma: Use your self-awareness to continuously assess your needs as you live with paralysis. How are you doing? Do you have enough time for self-care? Are there any goals that you would like to pursue? Do you feel fulfilled in your relationships? Is anything happening with your school or employment that could be improved? Do you feel like you have enough support for managing mental health symptoms related to trauma? With greater self-awareness, you will be able to reflect on these questions in meaningful ways and experience greater insight into addressing problems. Because recovering from trauma often depends on one’s ability to drive their own healing process, your ability to define what you need and how you need it will lead to greater progress and positive mental health.

5. Heightened Creativity.  Highly sensitive people tend to be innovative thinkers with strong creativity. They look at the world through a much larger lens and employ higher levels of depth and processing into their work. Creativity is the outcome of all their accumulated emotional and sensory data spilling out of their minds. When approaching projects, highly sensitive people may pull ideas from previous experiences, interactions, or ideas lingering in the back of their minds – all of which have deep, significant meaning to them. Collectively, these become the source for creative energy.

How to use this strength to cope with trauma: Use your creativity to adapt your environment in ways that maximize your independence, including your spaces at home, school, work, other homes such as your family relatives or best friends, and any other spaces that you will spend time in. Maximizing your independence is crucial for maximizing your feelings of control, so use your creativity productively by adapting as much as you can. You may also benefit from using your creativity to engage in drawing, painting, pottery, music, wheelchair dance, photography, or other forms of expressive arts. Engaging in art forms can be highly therapeutic for trauma recovery because it allows a person to have an outlet for their innermost emotions. For example, it’s okay (and healthy!) to express feelings of sadness or frustration by painting with dark colors or playing a somber piece of music. Healing from trauma requires acknowledging the way that we feel and having the courage to express it outwardly.

Celebrate your sensitivity – and the sensitivity around you. It is a rare gift that most people disregard, and it might be your greatest strength in your recovery process.

If you have questions or if I can be a resource for you, please don’t hesitate to reach out—your mental health matters.

To learn about River Oaks Psychology, visit and follow River Oaks Psychology on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

Lauren Presutti, founder of River Oaks Psychology, is a psychotherapist and advocate for individuals and families affected by disabilities of all types. Born with Muscular Dystrophy and using a wheelchair throughout her life, Lauren is passionate about helping others overcome barriers and reach their fullest potential. Lauren also enjoys writing, speaking, and providing education on subjects relating to mental health and empowerment.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.