Perhaps you have noticed you, your child or your spouse is more sensitive or intense than other people. I certainly have noticed this within my own family. My son has relentlessly asked thousands of complex questions since he began speaking in full sentences at age two, moves excessively when the wheels of his mind are turning and is unusually sensitive to loud noises, smells, the texture of clothing and food tastes and textures. I have similar sensory issues myself, along with an incredibly persistent and often intense personality, and my husband can become so focused on his creative pursuits he is unaware of everything going on around him.
These intensities and sensitivities are all examples of “overexcitabilities” or “OEs” as identified by Polish psychiatrist, Kasimierz Dabrowski in his research of highly gifted people. Knowing about OEs, how to identify them in yourself or your loved one, and what to do is important as people with OEs can be misunderstood, misdiagnosed and have additional struggles in life if their sensitivities and intensities are not properly channeled. For example, gifted children may become engaged in power struggles with adults that get them in trouble at home and school. Gifted adults may have similar problems at work and in their relationships. Conversely, if understood, OEs can be used to a person’s benefit in helping them to reach their full potential, have healthy relationships and to lead full lives.
What are OEs?
Dabrowski identified five areas of overexcitabilities common in highly gifted people, noting that people could have OE in only one area, or more than one area. The five areas of overexcitability are intellectual, imaginational, emotional, psychomotor and sensual.
People with intellectual overexcitability are intensely curious individuals. They have hungry minds, devouring information whenever possible. They are usually avid readers at all ages, want to understand the world around them and seek truth, justice and fairness. As children they ask endless questions. As they grow they enjoy intellectual pursuits that allow them to solve problems. They are able to hyper focus, concentrate and can easily work alone for long periods of time.
Children with intellectual OE may not be believed by adults, or could even be punished by teachers because they are working ahead in class or correcting teachers during lectures. Adults with intellectual excitability might be misunderstood by spouses who interpret their intellectual passions to be distractions from the relationship. They could also be prone to having arguments with colleagues at work.
People with imaginational overexcitability have an incredible flair for the dramatic and are highly creative. As children, they may develop fantasy games and stories, have many imaginary friends and places, and can visualize ideas. Adults continue to have dramatic interactions with others and may be talented artists. These people may be seen daydreaming and seem to be “checked out” much of the time, but have a rich, detailed mental picture of their creative pursuits.
Is characterized by intense, extreme and complex emotions. People with emotional over excitability are more sensitive and reactive to the world around them. They have deep awareness of and empathy for others, and intense emotions that can be difficult to manage.
Is sometimes misdiagnosed as ADHD or a kinetic disorder, as people with psychomotor over excitability seem to have endless energy, and an extreme need for movement. When stressed or intellectually stimulated, they may become even more active, fidgety, and impulsive. They may be highly enthusiastic, enjoy physical activity, and talk constantly with rapid speech.
Sensual Over Excitability
People with sensual over excitability are hyper sensitive to experiences that engage their five senses, such as food taste and texture, the feel of clothing, loud sounds, bright lights and smells. They may take great measures to avoid being overstimulated, and take great joy in pleasurable sensory experiences such as music, art and food.
Here Are A Few Ideas for Channeling and Reducing OEs
Engage the senses by keeping bodies busy. Fidgets, gum chewing, doodling and movement can offset energy generated by OEs and help to calm the nervous system in the moment to promote greater concentration and group engagement.
Exercise can reduce psychomotor OE.
Becoming actively involved in causes can reduce emotional OE, create a sense of meaning, purpose and acceptance.
Show empathy toward your loved ones with OE’s and teach your children empathy. Give your children words to describe their emotions, and ideas of how to communicate and manage those emotions in an appropriate way.
Be kind and tolerant of your loved one with sensual OEs. To the extent possible, especially with children, try to accommodate their sensitivities and slowly, and gently expose them to new sensual experiences over time. If you or your loved one is in a situation where you/they are likely to become overstimulated, have an exit strategy which allows a safe break from the situation. If there is a situation where food may be a problem, have a back up “safe food” to allow for pleasant eating, and to expand feelings of safety.
Enable and encourage creative outlets every day.
Answer your children’s questions, and if you aren’t able to, help them to find the answers.
Don’t take your loved one’s intellectual pursuits personally.
Teach your children to be tolerant of the differences of others, help them to notice the good in the world, and see the helpers who are out there making a difference, and help them to debate in a socially appropriate way.
Help children to have their intellectual and academic needs met.
If you or a loved one have overexcitabilities causing impairment in relationships, work, school or emotionally don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional familiar with the needs of gifted people for help reducing and coping with these sensitivities.