4 Trauma Responses That Double As Superpowers

As a researcher specializing in trauma, I find that survivors of trauma often identify both the positive and maladaptive elements of their trauma responses while still validating the pain they experienced. When we think of trauma responses, we often focus on how they impair and debilitate us, and for good reason. When our trauma responses cause dysfunction, they can wreak havoc, creating barriers to our ability to set boundaries and lead healthy lives. Healing in those circumstances is paramount, and in no way are we saying anyone needs trauma to be stronger. Many survivors have lived through circumstances they should have never had to endure in the first place, and healing can be disrupted by toxic positivity and emotional bypassing. Yet there are certain trauma responses that can also double as superpowers and can be adaptive depending on the context. Without emotionally bypassing trauma, we can better understand these adaptive elements of trauma responses to recognize the skills and behaviors that can help on the healing journey. Here are the four common trauma responses that can double as superpowers.

The ability to deliver exceptional results under extraordinary pressure or stress.

Many trauma survivors, especially high-functioning complex trauma survivors, can attest to staying calm and engaging in complex, effective problem-solving even under situations of duress that would overwhelm most people. They have also developed key coping skills throughout their journey of trauma recovery – from mindfulness, to reframing, relaxation exercises, grounding techniques, and mind-body healing modalities to empower themselves when facing adversity. This ability to stay calm and resilient was illustrated most powerfully during the global pandemic. For example, a 2023 study of 16,900 trauma-exposed women showed that pre-pandemic resilience was associated with lower distress and higher well-being during the pandemic. Therapists also frequently reported that their clients who were trauma survivors felt they had the skills and resourcefulness to tackle the obstacles others felt blindsided by – some also felt a sense of validation and relief that others could now understand what trauma felt like. That is because trauma survivors have lived their lives hyper-attuned to potential crisis. They are also desensitized to chaos in a way that can help them focus on solutions. When a crisis does arrive, their nervous system is already prepared to battle it, and their survival skills are on point.

Picking up on subtle cues of danger in people and the environment.

Research by Frankenhuis and collegues (2013) reveals that childhood trauma survivors actually develop a heightened capacity to detect danger and pick up on threatening cues in their environment, moreso than their non-traumatized peers. As a trauma survivor, you may have an acute intuition and instincts about toxic and narcissistic people. You are “trained” by trauma as a kind of honorary “FBI agent” to gather clues, recognize patterns of behavior, notice microexpressions and nonverbal gestures, and become discerning of tiny micro-habits that could later become major red flags. Differentiating between hypervigilance that overwhelms you and intuition and learned cues that serve you is important. You can use these enhanced abilities to identify toxic people – so long as you resist attempts at gaslighting and trust yourself.

The capacity to be alone – and save yourself.

As a trauma survivor, you were forced to rely on yourself and become your own rugged superhero. You had to save yourself time and time again from dangerous situations and experiment with different problem-solving strategies to keep yourself safe. Some trauma survivors can also self-isolate due to their suffering to protect themselves. This period of self-isolation can help them to learn self-validation and self-reliance. While social support is certainly needed for recovery, the ability to be alone can still be used powerfully during the healing journey to soothe the nervous system. Your ability to be alone allows you to understand the complex losses and costs associated with toxic relationships because you know what it’s like to be entrapped in a relationship or situation you can’t get out of. Therefore, you value your alone time and peace that much more. It is much more difficult for toxic people to coax you out of your solitude if they’re not bringing value into your life.

Resilience and a strong bounce-back game.

Trauma survivors can be extremely resilient and stage incredible comebacks from a life of adversity, demonstrating the psychological strength of a sumo wrestler. Some can also experience tremendous post-traumatic growth. That being said, we want to be cautious and not become so resilient that we ignore the dangers of a toxic situation because we are so desensitized to it. This superpower can be used adaptively to fuel a trauma survivor to channel what they experienced into success, the greater good, and their personal healing and goals. Your strong comeback and bounce-back game can be balanced with healthy boundaries and a strong ability to cut off those who have the potential to cause you more pain. Some trauma survivors may fear a foreshortened future – a sense their life will be cut short because all the obstacles they endured conditioned them to never take anything for granted; you may fear that you won’t be able to plan for the future or even feel like life is not worth living. Showing compassion for yourself is a must. Think of all the positive experiences you deserved as an inheritance you were robbed of receiving – you get to decide now how to move forward and reclaim that inheritance. As a trauma survivor, you deserve to live life to the fullest, heal, and thrive. You can validate your pain while still keeping your eye on the bright future ahead: you are worthy of experiencing all the good you always deserved.

About the author

Shahida Arabi

Shahida is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University. She is a published researcher and author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and Breaking Trauma Bonds with Narcissists and Psychopaths. Her books have been translated into 16+ languages all over the world. Her work has been featured on Salon, HuffPost, Inc., Bustle, Psychology Today, Healthline, VICE, NYDaily News and more. For more inspiration and insight on manipulation and red flags, follow her on Instagram here.