Anxiety and Giftedness. What is the reality?

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Anxiety & Giftedness

Gifted. Intelligent. Brilliant. Genius. = Anxiety. Spiraling fear. Uncontrolled distress. Panic.

Popular culture likes to portray the most intellectually gifted among us as also suffering from mental health disorders. The image of the mad scientist quickly comes to mind when thinking Mad Scientist Rankingsabout extremely intelligent people. Throw in the availability bias that comes from over-saturated news stories about intellectually brilliant criminals like Ted Kaczynski, and it’s easy to overestimate the relationship between mental illness and high IQ.

Honestly, I get fairly annoyed with these characterizations.

Being brilliant does not mean you are also mentally ill, nor does it mean you are socially maladapted. In fact, many researchers have found a protective effect of increased IQ related to psychological well-being. (Check out The Relationship Between Giftedness and Psychological Well-Being, by the folks at SENG.)

Anxiety & Giftedness – Our Reality

I couldn’t tell you how common or uncommon our family experience is. I know the statistics put us far into the minority, but I suspect that pieces of our story resonate with other families.

Our kids are delightful, quirky, caring, eccentric, and funny young boys. Patrick is profoundly gifted and Davis is a classic 2E* kid – he is verbally gifted, but his anxiety frequently gets in the way of demonstrating his talents consistently in an academic setting.

At our house, anxiety really takes on two forms: transient existential crisis and maladaptive worry.

The Transient Existential Crisis

Perhaps you can relate. It’s late at night. The kids are in bed and you are just about to fall asleep. The footsteps on the staircase signal that a kid is awake and the knock on the door confirms that he needs your help.

Patrick ponders heavy questions when he’s alone in his bedroom. Sometimes the questions are too heavy to process on his own and we get that late night knock on the door.

The questions have varied over the years:

BrothersAge 4: If we had lived in the 1950s, Davis and I wouldn’t have been allowed to play on the same playground. Why couldn’t black and white kids play together?

Age 6: If God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are really the same thing, why do we talk about them as being different?

Age 8: What made Hilter kill so many Jewish people?

Age 10: How do we know that we are real? Couldn’t we be the figment of someone’s imagination? Maybe, we are a computer program – one designed to make us think we have free will?

In our family, these are the expressions of anxiety born out of an intellect that outmatches emotional maturity. These heavy questions cause short-term angst and worry. The transient crisis is directly related to my sweet Patrick’s very powerful mind. It is not a sign of a larger pathology or a mental health issue that needs treating.

Patrick’s existential crises need a compassionate listener and a thoughtful coach. He needs a sounding board and gentle guidance, so he can answer his own questions. So when comes knocking on our door late at night with his worry, we let him climb into our bed and get some much needed cuddling; then we quietly process the heavy issues he ponders.

Maladaptive Worry

Those of you who suffer from a true anxiety disorder (or love someone with anxiety) will understand how very different Davis’ experience of anxiety is from Patrick’s.

Crippling fear that paralyzes the body and stops all rational thought. Sheer panic that grips not just his mind, but also his entire body. It is an over-estimation of and unrealistic ability to categorize and assess potential threats in his environment.

Worry that is so encompassing, that when a classmate turns in a test before him, Davis would rather turn in an incomplete exam than listen to the negative self-talk telling him how dumb he is – even though he knows he understands the material.

Davis’ maladaptive worry also requires a compassionate listener and thoughtful coach. He needs someone who can help him get beyond the self-doubt and who can teach him to make realistic assessments of the world. He needs someone to teach him to calm his thoughts and body when panic overwhelms him.

Davis’ worry is in no way the result of his intellect. It is a clinical condition that requires therapy, medication and ongoing coaching. His intelligence and anxiety disorder do play off of each other, however.

Fortunately, his advanced verbal abilities and exceptional insight into interpersonal dynamics have been a huge boon for the psychotherapeutic interventions we use – increasing their effectiveness. The verbal abilities are almost like a protective effect, making the strategies easier to use and more effective. Unfortunately, the anxiety gets in the way of demonstrating his impressive verbal skills in an academic setting – especially when the clock is ticking on an exam or he compares himself to peers on some unrealistic set of criteria.

Recognize the Difference. Get Help.

The interplay between anxiety and intelligence can make it difficult to separate normal worries from unfounded fears. It is important to recognize when healthy anxiety has slipped into a maladaptive thought process that interferes with life. Worry that interferes with functioning – academic, social or family – probably warrants professional help. If you think someone you love has a kind of worry that inhibits, instead of protects, get some help. (When Worry is Too Much – Childhood Anxiety Disorders)

*2E is shorthand for Twice Exceptional. These are kids who have evidence of intellectual giftedness in one or more area, but also have a disability. The disability typically interferes with the ability to demonstrate the breadth of the giftedness.

Hoagies Blog Hop - Anxiety

This post was written as part of a blog hop hosted by Hoagies Gifted Education.

Check out other folk’s take on the relationship between giftedness and anxiety.



When Worry is Too Much – Childhood Anxiety Disorders

Is Your Anxious Child Gifted?

The Relationship between Anxiety and Giftedness

The Relationship Between Giftedness and Psychological Well-Being

Existential Depression in Gifted Individuals

The Insanity of Genius: Criminal Culpability and Right-Tail Psychometrics

Photo Credits: Diane CantrellGeekologie

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  1. byamtich says:

    The existential challenge is to have the “realistic assessments of the world” while still having an empowered sense of opportunity. It’s always hard to choose how much burden to carry.

    • Maggie says:

      Yes, Bob. But it is also important to recognize when your child doesn’t have the skills to make that choice and get help so your child doesn’t have to live with the crushing burden of not being able to take off the yolk.

  2. lwallin says:

    You have beautifully summed up some of the significant challenges children face when they are gifted. I love your pictures, as well.

    • Maggie says:

      Thank you! I think it is hard to understand when you don’t have an intimate relationship with giftedness or anxiety. I know I didn’t understand anxiety until I learned about it through my son’s experience.

  3. Great comments about existential anxiety. The questions were spot on – and perfectly reasonable! It sure would be nice to have answers to some of those questions! But your pointis about the difference between existential and more maladaptive anxiety is so important.

    • Maggie says:

      Thanks Gail! I actually think the existential questions are a lot of fun. Some nights I might prefer that they didn’t always arise around midnight, but I love helping Patrick work through them – it’s great thinking work.

  4. Cait Fitz @ My Little Poppies says:

    I’m sitting here giggling at the footsteps paired with existential questions. Oh my goodness, yes. We’ve had many of the same. I would enjoy them if they happened during daylight hours :)

  5. So for the extremely powerful imagination that my son uses brilliantly during the day, but then sometimes turns dark (mostly) at bedtime – panicking emotionally and physically because he vividly imagines losing his teddy bear out the car window someday or the house being on fire and he will lose it then, or he saw a commercial on Youtube that had a scary part and he cannot stop visualizing, and it feels like it’s all really happening; and also the existential sobs the night before his 9th birthday of “I can’t slow down time! I am getting older and things are changing and there’s nothing I can do!” with cries of “Mom! I need you! It’s getting really bad over here!” until 1am after I think he’s settled – is that a response to his giftedness or an actual anxiety disorder, in your opinion? Yes, we do meditations and breathing exercises that help, chat in helpful ways, and more, that works most of the time to get him calmed and asleep, but these cycles of panic and fear are so recurrent that (yes we have an appointment scheduled with a reputable psychologist in town) I fear that we may be handling it wrong. We have “Growing Up Brave” and other helpful books but none address giftedness.
    New to this – have 2 boys who are highly gifted and present in different ways, just started studying it properly (the other is almost 7.) Phew!

    • Maggie says:

      It sounds like there is a lot going on there! It’s probably going to take some time and investigative work to figure out what is really happening and how all the different facets of your sons work together. I wish you much patience on the journey.

      I’m not a mental health professional – just a mom who is helping her kids through some of the stuff you mention. My rule of thumb is this – if the worry is interfering with life, then it is probably a good idea to seek professional counsel. Sounds like you are already on that path – way to go!

      Remember – if the first therapist you try isn’t a good fit, keep looking. Hopefully, you live someplace where there are options. There are a few therapists around the nation who work with gifted families and do videoconference sessions – something to consider if you need their expertise in the future.

      • Thanks! It is a hodgepodge at the moment – my friend with 2E kiddos said the best thing “it starts out as one thing, but if left unchecked it can move into something maladaptive.” I am happy we caught it hopefully before that. Can you share links to those who do videoconferences in case this person doesn’t work out? I live in a smallish town without any resources for gifted kids.

  6. James says:

    Particularly insightful piece. Thank you.

    I was ‘diagnosed’ as gifted at age 9 by a psychiatrist after being on vallium for a couple of years for ‘hyperactivity’. As a result, was sent away to school where I was abused from that age until it was time to leave that school.

    For many years I have had a keen interest in Phenomenology, and more specifically, Philosophical Anthropology, which studies the nature of human persons from a completely different angle to that of Psychology. More speculative.

    To me, the interesting aspect of the late night questions you cite is that they’re not only existential, but theological and ontological, and so show a capacity to go beyond the here and now and the empirical yet, have an early capacity to distinguish clearly these issues from the imagination or ‘stories’, fact from fiction.

    Paradoxically, as a child, I seemed to find it ‘easy’ processing ideas about death or suffering, whilst could not grasp literature, and still cannot read novels or watch drama with any interest, as my head just tells me it’s ‘not real’. Yet, questions about death and suffering (things which invoke worry, anxiety, or even care and compassion?) are also completely speculative, in a sense, yet, by their very nature, have meaning because they are dealing with real issues, or are ‘teleological’ – have a purpose – as we would say. So, the reason drama is hard to process, for me, is that, because as it is fiction about reality, it is often just too much to bear, as the pain shown seems to ‘trivialise’ what could be happening in the real lives of people around me, and, being involved with people in a pastoral capacity at times, I know this is the case.

    I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts and experiences, either your own, or children’s on this matter if you’ve got time…

    • James says:

      Oops! Left out the most important bit that made it relevant to the article…
      That maybe it’s not maladapted or ill, but insightful? More likely to see the emperor with no clothes, as the thinking is more speculative than fantastical or analytical, which takes it out of the developmental ‘norm’ (if there is such a thing).

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