Sunday, September 1, 2019

Do gifted children struggle with anxiety?

Are gifted kids really more anxious than others? Are they more likely to be perfectionists, overthinkers, and emotionally reactive?

Most research (e.g., see Neihart) has found that gifted children, as a whole, are no more prone to anxiety than anyone else. In fact, some suggest that there is greater psychological resiliency among the gifted. Dabrowski's overexcitabilities are not generalizable to all gifted people. Not every gifted child or adult is emotionally reactive, sensitive or an overthinker.

But don't tell that to the parent - or teacher - of that anxious, highly sensitive gifted child, the one having melt-downs over social injustice, or a test score of 97, or who won't eat dinner if the vegetables touch any other food on the plate. Many theorists, clinicians, and writers have pointed to the prevalence of anxiety among gifted people (e.g., see Nicpon, Karpinski and colleagues). Anyone who has raised, taught, coached, or counseled gifted children is familiar with the anxiety and reactivity that can ignite at any moment.

Anxiety can be influenced by a range of underlying factors, including, for example, a genetic, biochemical predisposition; trauma; early childhood distress associated with loss, neglect, abuse, or family instability; or a family/social environment that perpetuates fear-based beliefs. Any one of these may need to be present for a gifted child to experience anxiety; however, factors specifically associated with giftedness may trigger the emergence of the anxiety, or how the fears are manifest.

Any debate over norms and averages misses the point; even if not every gifted individual is anxious, some will experience anxiety that is heightened and exacerbated by their giftedness. These individuals may be vulnerable, for example, to perfectionism, overthinking, self-doubt, and existential depression.

How does giftedness trigger or exacerbate anxiety?

Some researchers have reviewed what contributes to anxiety among certain gifted children. For example, Maureen Neihart noted that: "the research suggest that the psychological well-being of a gifted child is related to the type of giftedness, the educational fit, and the child's personal characteristics such as self-perceptions, temperament and life circumstances."

More recently, Ruth Karpinski and colleagues surveyed Mensa members, and found a high rate of self-reported mood and anxiety disorders, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders, as well as autoimmune disease, when compared to the national average. They concluded that there is a "hyper brain/hyper body" association with high levels of intelligence that may predispose people to these conditions. Of course, Mensa membership is a self-selected group. However, the research is still relevant and could be generalizable to other highly gifted individuals.

Nicole Treteault, a researcher on the Mensa study, describes the neuroscience of anxiety among the gifted:

"Higher IQ individuals have increased brain regions responsible for emotional processing, which is a gift and a curse, leading to intensified experiences of happiness and sadness. The exact brain regions identified for emotional intelligence and processing, anterior cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex, have altered functional connectivity in individuals with greater anxiety. These studies support the idea that some individuals may be more prone to anxiety due to their neuroanatomy."

Giftedness is a mixed bag, replete with creativity, enormous potential and a wealth of opportunities. But the self- and socially-imposed demands associated with that potential, the overwhelming array of choices that accompany multipotentiality, and an inherently active brain, filled with what-ifs, self-doubt, and sometimes circular reasoning, all fan the flames of anxiety.

Gifted children also recognize how much they differ from peers. They may feel like outliers and have difficulty fitting in. Asynchronous development can manifest as social immaturity, and contribute to fears in social situations. Anxiety, along with behaviors ranging from perfectionism to avoidance and underachievement can develop when there is a poor fit between the child's needs and what the school offers.

How gifted children cope with anxiety

When anxiety strikes, it is unpleasant and distressing. Most gifted children (and adults) understandably try to evade it. As a result, patterns of thoughts and behaviors emerge that work to dampen those uncomfortable feelings. These patterns can include any or all of the following:

1. Overthinking - Gifted children may worry, ruminate, and mull over a problem with the hope that if they just think about it long enough, they will come up with a solution. The assumption is that thinking things through, covering all the bases, and ensuring that there is no uncertainty will protect them from disaster. 

2. Perfectionism - Attempts to achieve perfection, excel, surpass their classmates and always do their best is a way to feel acceptable and worthwhile. It is a never-ending struggle to remain on top, though, as any slip, minor flaw, or misstep can be viewed as failure. Perfectionism, when combined with overthinking and unrealistically high expectations, can morph into feelings of shame, self-doubt and unrelenting self-blame.

 3. Avoidance - It is understandable to want to avoid anything that evokes anxiety. Unfortunately, this can be maladaptive. If your child is so anxious that she is avoiding school, exams, auditions, social events or interactions with peers, her fears may escalate into a spiral of anxiety and avoidance that is difficult to overcome. 

4. Isolation and withdrawal - Although time alone can be a healthy, restorative retreat, especially for introverted gifted children, a complete withdrawal from others is a red flag. Isolation and withdrawal may be triggered by anxiety related to social stressors, peer rejection, fear of failure, or hopelessness and depression. 

5. Unhealthy behaviors - Some find their anxiety so overwhelming that they seek relief unhealthy and sometimes self-destructive behaviors. Alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, risk-taking, shoplifting, excessive spending, and self-harm are all examples of maladaptive attempts to avoid, create a distraction from, or find release from uncomfortable emotions. 

What you can do

If your child is anxious, address the problem directly by finding a quiet time to discuss your concerns. If the anxiety is situation-specific, such as test anxiety or fears about conflict with a friend, offer guidance for resolving the problem. When anxiety is more generalized or has developed into unhealthy or self-defeating patterns, a more comprehensive approach may be needed. As a parent, you do not have to face this challenge alone. Enlist the advice of others, including your child's pediatrician, guidance counselor, or spiritual advisor. Comprehensive support might include: coordination of services through the school that address social/emotional learning and approaches that challenge perfectionistic or self-critical behaviors; group counseling; social skills training; cognitive-behavioral/mindfulness/relaxation training approaches to anxiety reduction; and/or psychotherapy with a licensed mental health professional.

More on approaches to reducing anxiety will follow in a future blog post. If you have suggestions that have helped your child, please share them in the comments section below.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Blog Hop on Perfectionism, Anxiety and OCD. To see more blogs, click on this link.

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  1. Thank you for this, Gail. I was recently talking with a client with serious anxiety and recommended The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund Bourne and the work of The Heartmath Institute. (Just an FYI: the links to the hop aren't working yet...)

    1. Thanks, Paula. I agree - that workbook is great. And the Heartmath App is really helpful. Always appreciate your comments!

  2. My daughter is a perfectionist and very anxious. I found that mindfulness was very helpful for her. I hope that others try it for their child.

    1. Thanks for your feedback. Mindfulness approaches work well with even very young children, and are now offered in some elementary schools. That is wonderful that it is working for your daughter. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Anxiety is a diligent feeling of tension, fear, or worry. I agree anxiety is sensitive in gifted children. They are more likely to be perfectionists, overthinkers, and emotionally reactive. To help children, mindfulness is an activity to improve their condition. Thanks for sharing the information about Do gifted children struggle with anxiety. I also found content about children's anxiety you can check on this site: