Anxiety and the Gifted Brain

Thump….Thump….Thump…Thump.Thump.Thump.  I can hear my heart pounding.  I can HEAR it.  Can anyone else hear it?  The world around me starts to blur.  My thoughts are screaming in my head, but they’re breaking up.  A single thought repeats itself incessantly.  A million more pile on.  Some are only snippets.  Some are entire narratives.  I’m having a conversation with myself that no one can hear, but I can’t get out the words to tell anyone.   My limbs become numb.  It’s only me, myself, and I in here, and it’s already overcrowded.  I don’t know why, but I’m sure I’m not going to make it through this.  I can barely breathe.  My skin is itchy.  


I’ve been through this enough times to know.  I’m not going to die. I’m going to be okay.  I’m having an anxiety attack.  That’s all.  I will survive.  At this point in my life, I know how to manage this.  I force myself to take deep breaths.  I force myself to focus on something menial and repeat it to myself like it’s my Bible.  ​​


I’ve struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember.  Anxiety comes in many forms.  Anxiety attacks are easier to pinpoint and define.  Generalized anxiety is undefined.  It’s everywhere.  It’s about everything. 

Anxiety is not stress.  Anxiety isn’t nervousness.  It’s not just an incessant need to worry.  It’s all of these things.  It’s a compulsion.  It can eat you alive.  Anxiety isn’t about dwelling on the big things; it’s about dwelling on all of the things, some of things, or even very few things often without reason.  It takes control.  It’s the most powerful being I know.  


Anxiety comes in waves.  I’ve been through periods of life in which anxiety seemed to consume me.  It wouldn’t let me escape.  As an adult, I’ve learned to manage my anxiety — to push the thoughts aside — to cover them with productivity — to distract myself — to use my anxiety for better rather than worse.  I can’t always make it go away, but I can focus on something a little less obtrusive to my daily life.  Anxiety can be productive.  I never turned in homework late because I couldn’t convince myself to sleep before finishing all of my assignments.  My teacher will be disappointed.  I’ll be disappointed.  What if my grades drop?  What if my parents find out? What if I’m a failure?   When I’m sick, I often know what ails me before I even visit the doctor.  Thank you internet, I think.  The internet is a scary place.  It can easily convince you that you’re dying.  Anything can be cancer or some incurable disease.  Anxiety prompted me to research anxiety.  I NEEDED to understand more.  I needed to know exactly how and why this happens. 


It’s no surprise that our gifted children are so susceptible to anxiety.  Gifted children often have an insatiable curiosity.  Their brains make connections that others would not.  Gifted children often feel isolated from their peers.  They are susceptible to perfectionist behaviors — especially when they’re used to being the top kid in the class or the best at “everything.”  Many gifted children are prone to over excitabilities; their heightened reactivity may also make them more prone to anxious sentiments and anxiety attacks. 


Your gifted child’s brain may indeed be wired just a little differently than the average population, and that too may make a child more prone to anxiety.  Anxiety, like most neuropsychological disorder, is linked to specific neurotransmitters in the brain. 

Neurotransmitters act as mail carriers in the brain – carrying messages from one neural synapse to another to regulate the body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.  Low or unbalanced levels of specific neurotransmitters in the brain result in slow “mail delivery.”  The brain simply doesn’t get the information it needs to produce a rational reaction to environmental stimuli.

Anxiety is often linked to the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and epinephrine.  You may recognize serotonin as the “delivery system for happiness.”  Low or unbalanced serotonin levels are linked to depression and anxiety.   Dopamine regulates our emotional responses to stimuli.  We frequently talk about these in relation to depressive disorders.  Epinephrine produces adrenaline. 


GABA, or gamma-aminiobutyric acid, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter – it inhibits neural activity by binding to its receptors.  When GABA binds to its receptors, it allows negatively charged chloride ions through which reduces neural excitability and, thus, reduces fear and anxiety responses.  


Low or unbalanced levels of serotonin, dopamine, and GABA may result from genetic factors, neurobiological distinctions, or prior environmental stimuli.  Some individuals may be born with anxiety disorders whereas some may simply be more prone to anxiety disorders or attacks.  Traumatic life experiences and/or high levels of stress can also trigger anxiety in an individual. 


Research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that individuals with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) may have weaker connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex.  The amygdala is most often correlated with our “fight or flight” response. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and regulating social behavior.  The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) plays a role in regulating our autonomic functions such as blood pressure and heart rate.  So, what happens when this connection isn’t strong enough to do its job?  


In a healthy individual without GAD, the anterior cingulate cortex and the prefrontal cortex have a strong connection with the amygdala.  This allows messages, carried by neurotransmitters such as GABA (gamma aminobutryric acid), serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine, to flow freely. Thus, they are able to tell the amygdala to either “fight” or “flight” based on a rational assessment of the surrounding stimuli.  In an individual with generalized anxiety disorders, the amygdala doesn’t get the message soon enough.  Thus, the body reacts before it has all of the information to make a rational decision. 

Recent research suggests that the brain, specifically the hippo-campus, contains specific “anxiety cells” which regulate anxious behavior.  This research was conducted on mice using calcium imaging to record brain activity while the test subjects navigated through anxiety inducing mazes.  There is strong evidence to suggest that similar results would be seen on human subjects.  Researchers noted that more cells were active as the mice became more anxious, and fewer were active as the mice calmed down.  These anxiety cells appear to be sending signals, or messages, or the hypothalamus, the region of the brain most responsible for regulating hormones and emotions.  While more research is necessary, it is possible that individuals with generalized anxiety disorders have overactive anxiety cells, and this could be a result of low or unbalanced levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and/or GABA.

Anxiety may not be rational, and it can leave children feeling even more isolated.  On the surface, anxiety can look a lot like stress, but it’s important to understand that it’s not a choice.  It’s not something your child can simply “get over.”  Symptoms of anxiety look and feel like real ailments because it IS really happening.  The body responds to emotional and mental stress in much the same way it does a bacterial or viral attack.  When an individual has an anxiety attack, the body alters its priorities from long term survival to emergency response.  While serotonin, dopamine, and GABA levels are typically low preceding an anxiety attack, epinephrine levels spike during an anxiety attack.  The body begins to prepare itself for the danger that it senses.  Heart rate increases.  Breathing increases.  Blood vessels constrict.  Your pupils may even dilate.  Non-vital body systems begin to slow.  Increased levels of anxiety sustained over long periods of time can suppress the immune system, reduce inflammation in the body, and even prevent protein synthesis. 

In order to counter an anxiety attack, we must treat the symptoms.  Take deep breaths to slow your breathing and your heart rate.  Engage yourself in an all-consuming activity to bring your brain back to its norm.  Handwriting, for example, uses more parts of the brain than nearly any other daily task.  Doodle.  Write a story.  Write your thoughts — write gibberish!   Force your thoughts onto something complex but calming.  If your gifted child loves astronomy, memorize some new solar facts.  If your child loves math, practice doubling and halving numbers.  See how high you can go! Engage in physical activity to increase endorphins, improve sleep, and reduce stress.  Take regular mental health days to unwind.  Don’t try to suppress anxiety — learn to cope with it — to manage it   

​Anxiety Cells in a Hippocampal-Hypothalamic Circuit, Jimenez, Jessica C. et al. Neuron , Volume 97 , Issue 3 , 670 – 683.e6

Oler, J. A., Fox, A. S., Shackman, A. J. & Kalin, N. H. (in press). The central nucleus of the amygdala is a critical substrate for individual differences in anxiety. Living without an amygdala (D. G. Amaral, M. Bauman, & R. Adolphs, Eds.). Guilford Press.

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