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 about 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:
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.
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.
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.