Anxiety and the Gifted Learner
This is a reformatted version of my article published in the Research Blog of the Texas Association of Gifted and Talented (TAGT) (January, 2018.)
We all suffer from temporary bouts of anxiety. However, the very nature of gifted students can cause them to be particularly prone to strong feelings of anxiety. These feelings can overwhelm them in their day-to-day life. Teachers and parents of gifted individuals must be able to identify students who live with the agony of anxiety in order to guide them to more stress-free and productive living. To accomplish this, we must first be able to recognize the symptoms exhibited with high anxiety levels, pinpoint the causes associated with them and link these to appropriate interventions.
Stenson and van Rooij (2017) define anxiety as fear, worry or apprehension about an event or thing and a normal biological reaction stemming from our “Flight-or-Fight” defense mechanism. Henry (2013) reports that scientists have identified both the amygdala and hippocampus as key players in producing this heightened sense of awareness of potential threats. When this situation remains in a continual state in children, certain behaviors and physical responses are exhibited. Peters (2014) lists the following physical symptoms that you may see: stomachaches, nausea, frequent bathroom visits, a lack of appetite and sleeping issues. Behaviors include avoidance, meltdowns, oppositional behavior, nail biting, chewing on shirt, and an excessive need for reassurance. Children may also exhibit clinging behavior and separation anxiety that could include a refusal to attend school and/or social activities. Schuler (2008) adds backaches, difficulty relaxing, low energy, muscle twitches, and in the extreme, panic attacks, nightmares and phobias.
The very things that make gifted children so adept at learning can also cause them to experience anxiety issues. Eide and Eide (2004) state there is much biological evidence to suggest that gifted children show enhanced sensory activation and awareness and that their brains are “hyper-sensitive”. They experience events unusually vividly. Lind (2011) reports that both scientific and observational evidence support the idea that a great many highly gifted students exhibit what Dabrowski (1902-1980) calls overexcitabilities, innate intensities that create heightened ability to respond to stimuli. Trepánier (2015) cites these intense experiences in their world coupled with their ability to make complex connections as causes for acute anxiety in gifted students. Byrd (2014) summarizes, ”Heightened awareness of surroundings + imagination + fast thinking = anxious about things no one else is even aware of.” In addition, Trepánier notes perfectionism and their side effects, fear of failure and unreasonable expectations, as other mitigating factors. Finally, Peters (2008) notes that twice-exceptional children, those identified as being gifted and as having a learning challenge, are prone to developing anxiety. They sense their advanced abilities but have difficulty functioning at a level that reflects those capabilities.
In my 20 years of teaching gifted students, I have worked with several students with high levels of anxiety. They exhibited different symptoms which were in turn caused by different factors. A counselor specially trained in gifted students’ behaviors can be most helpful for students experiencing anxiety that impairs their daily functioning. There are also interventions teachers can offer to students exhibiting signs of anxiety and strategies they can share with parents. In general, Trepánier suggests avoiding saying, “Don’t worry about it.” While the specific worry may seem unreasonable to us, dismissing it may actually cause the child’s anxieties to be further fueled by feelings of being different. Peters advises acknowledging that their fears are difficult for them and to let them know there are ways to feel better. In addition, he suggests sharing with them strategies you have personally used to keep what he calls the “Worry Monster” away.
Trepánier warns adults to be aware of unreasonable expectations they may hold for their children. Schuler notes many twice exceptional students and perfectionists live in a world of “shoulds” and have high expectations of themselves. Rivera (2012) cautions that asynchronous development, where gifted students experience advanced cognitive development with varying levels of social and emotional development, can lead adults to place undue emphasis on early achievement and fulfillment of their ideas of success. Additional unrealistic expectations can increase levels of anxiety in the gifted learner.
As stated earlier, many gifted students’ anxiety stems from their hyper-sensitivities and abilities to make connections to potential threats. These capabilities can cause what Peters calls “thinking errors.” The most common ones are “What if,” What will people think,” and “Catastrophizing” or thinking the worst is going to happen. He suggests that one of the most effective strategies he knows to deal with one of these error patterns in thinking is called the “Success Ladder.” Using this intervention, the child would pick a fear, break it into small steps and then order them from least to most scary. The student would practice the first step repeatedly until it became routine before moving onto the next step. As the child becomes comfortable with each smaller step, the goal of decreasing the anxiety associated with the particular fear can be reached. Peters also suggests using “Pleasure Predicting”. Using this strategy, a child makes a prediction on a scale of 1-10 of the likelihood that the fearful event will be pleasurable. In many cases, the student may realize the experience was better than anticipated.
Gifted learners can experience anxiety for a variety of reasons. It is up to the adults in their lives to identify possible symptoms and causes and then to offer proper interventions.
Below are further resources.
Resources for Kids:
Lester, H. (2003). Something might happen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine Books. (Ages 4-8)
Maier, I. (2004). When Lizzy was afraid of trying new things. Washington, DC: Magination Press. (Ages 3-7).
Peters, D. (2013). From worrier to warrior: A guide to conquering your fears. Tucson, AZ: Great Potential Press
Resources for Adults:
Peters, D. (2013). Make your worrier to warrior: A guide to conquering your fears. Tucson, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Peters, D. (2014, February 10). Ten steps for parents and kids to tame the worry monster. (Blog). Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-b-peters-phd/10-steps-for-parent-and-kids-to-taming-the-worry-monster_b_4345171.html
2e Newsletter (Interviewer) & Peters, D and Schuler, P. (Interviewees) (2008, July).
Anxiety and 2e kids [Interview Transcript]. Retrieved from 2e Newsletter Web site: http://www.2enewsletter.com/article_anxiety_2008_07.html
Byrd, Ian. (2014.) High anxiety. (Blog Comment) Retrieved from http://www.byrdseed.com/high-anxiety/
Eide, B. and Eide, F. (2004, December). Brains on fire: The multimodality of Gifted Thinkers. Retrieved from https://lifearchitect.com.au/brains-on-fire-the-multimodality-of-gifted-thinkers/
Henry, A. (2013). What anxiety does to your brain. Retrieved from https://lifehacker.com/what-anxiety-actually-does-to-you-and-what-you-can-do-a-1468128356
Lind, S. (2011, September 14). Overexcitability and the gifted. Retrieved from http://sengifted.org/overexcitability-and-the-gifted/
Peters, Dan. (2014, January 31). Special guest: Dr. Dan Peters. Messages posted to https://globalgtchatpoweredbytagt.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/special-guest-dr-dan-peters/
Rivera, L. (2017, October 10). Many ages at once. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creative-synthesis/201201/many-ages-once
Stenson, A., van Rooij, S. (2017). An introduction to anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.anxiety.org/what-is-anxiety
Trepánier C. (2015, April 1). Anxiety in gifted children: Three simple steps parents and educators can take. (Blog Comment). Retrieved from http://crushingtallpoppies.com/2015/04/01/anxiety-in-gifted-children-3-simple-steps-parents-and-educators-can-take/