Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Trauma & High Intelligence

Social distancing and uncertainty about the dangers of COVID-19 are causing collective social trauma.  We think of trauma as being caused by things like a natural disaster, wartime violence, or a mass shooting.  But this virus is creating shared suffering, threatening both our physical and mental well-being. 

Feeling periodically or persistently on edge, worried, or sleepless are normal fight-or-flight reactions to this trauma.  Coping mechanisms such as social support and group exercise are limited, adding to the suffering.  The fight-or-flight stress response evolved to help us rise to the challenge of handling short-term problems, providing a needed boost of energy.  Long-term stress causes a prolonged stress response, creating mental and physical health problems when the stress response keeps our blood pressure and heart rate elevated, and our digestive and immune systems suppressed.

Post-traumatic stress (PTS) is a normal and adaptive response to stressful or life-threatening events.  PTS can cause symptoms such as nightmares, memory loss, hyperarousal (being on high alert or startling easily), and avoidance (staying away from certain places).  And we have different baseline levels of sensitivity to our environment.  A study of 906 adults found that 31% were highly-sensitive, 40% were medium-sensitivity, and 29% were resilient. 

Recent research reveals that highly-intelligent people may have hyperactive emotional and central nervous systems (where the stress response is initiated).  Researchers confirmed their hyper brain/hyper body theory when they surveyed 3,715 American Mensa members with IQ scores at or above 130.  Participants were asked to self-report their experiences of both diagnosed and/or suspected mood and anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and physiological diseases that included autoimmune disease, environmental and food allergies, and asthma.  The Mensa participants had significantly higher rates than the national average for all diseases and disorders.  Just over 10% of the US population has diagnosed anxiety, while 20% of the Mensa participants suffered from an anxiety disorder.

Strategies for minimizing stress include exercise; limiting media exposure; focusing on facts and avoiding misrepresentation; practicing meditation, gratitude, and yoga; and seeking help from mental health experts, such as therapists.

Takeaway: Gifted people may possess unique intensities of emotional and physical responses to stressors, making well-being efforts that curb stress particularly important.


Lucy McBride, MD and Roxane Cohen Silver, PhD, We are Doctors Who Study Trauma.  Here’s How to Cope with the COVID-19 Crisis, Huffington Post, Apr 28, 2020,

Debra S. Austin, Windmills of Your Mind: Understanding the Neurobiology of Emotion, 54 Wake Forest L. Rev. 931, 939-43 (2019)

Philip Tedeschi and Molly Anne Jenkins, Editors, Transforming Trauma: Resilience and Healing Through our Connections with Animals 19 (2019).

Karpinski, R.I., Kinase Kolb, A.M., Tetreault, N.A., and Borowski, T.B, High intelligence: A risk factor for psychological and physiological overexcitabilities,Intelligence, Jan-Feb 2018, doi:10.1016/j.intell.2017.09.001

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