Having super-sensitivities, or overexictabilities (“OE”) can be an integral part of how the gifted person interacts with the world. It isn’t always the case, but when it is, you know it. OEs can be both a blessing and an overwhelming challenge to the individual and everyone around them.
Resent research, showing scans of gifted brains, indicate there are structural differences at all ages, which make highly intelligent people learn and integrate information quickly. These same structural differences make them more likely to have anxiety, and to be super sensitive in different areas. Dabrowski believed these super sensitivities actually deepen a gifted person’s ability to access their talents and potentialities. He suggests while OEs may present certain challenges, they also offer great opportunity to grow.
If you are an intelligent person, and interact with intelligent people, chances are you are very familiar with OE, even if you didn’t have a name for it before now. Here is an outline of the pros and cons of the different OEs and how you can make the most of each one.
Sensual: People with a sensual super sensitivity are highly sensitive to and aware of sensory experiences. For example, they may derive enhanced pleasure from beauty, music, art, food and touch. They likely to be be sensory seeking and/or sensory defensive. If a person is sensory seeking they are vulnerable to overindulging in sensory pleasures, but may also seek sensory feedback through unconventional means. If they are sensory defensive, they are likely to become overstimulated by certain food tastes and textures, loud sounds, clothing textures, bright lights and touch. They may withdraw, act out with irritation or refuse to engage.
What to do: People are often both sensory seeking and defensive. A good sensory diet can be pleasurable and emotionally regulating for both. Many books are available on the subject, such as The Out of Sync Child, Understanding Your Child’s Sensory Signals, or The Out of Sync Child Has Fun. Working with an Occupational Therapist can be extremely helpful as well.
Sensory seeking people also benefit from positive sensory input. Connecting with the 5 senses in a mindful way can be very satisfying and calming for many. People who are sensory defensive may benefit from weighted blankets and pillows, as well as weight bearing exercises which can help them to feel contained and safe. Ear plugs and noise canceling headphones will help at movies, parties and anywhere else where noise is an issue. Gum, chewable pencil toppers and chewelry can be calming for many. Planning ahead for events which are anticipated to be overstimulating can reduce anxiety and allow for an exit strategy when needed.
Intellectual: When someone has an intellectual OE, they have an insatiable hunger for knowledge. They love to learn, usually love to read, are naturally curious and want to understand things. The down side is they can be argumentative, constantly questioning everything and everyone, resistant to authority and obsessively focused on one interest. They may have difficulty turning their minds off, which can be a source of distraction and can make it difficult to fall asleep.
What to do: Feed their mind whenever possible. Answer questions, give them books, provide challenging problems and puzzles to solve and connect them with mentors. It is also helpful to engage them in relaxation and meditation practices to calm their minds before bed to help calm their minds for sleep.
Psychomotor: People with this OE seem to have endless amounts of energy, may enjoy sports and physical activities and are often skilled athletes. They may also be more impulsive, seem hyperactive as children, fidget, and need to move constantly. If they also have an intellectual OE they may need to move as they think, to discharge stress and process their ideas.
What to do: Encourage consistent physical activity they enjoy and make physical activity part of what you do together as a family. They may need regular, intense activity to regulate themselves. Creating body awareness of the pleasure and stress relief derived from movement. Provide opportunities to move at home, school and at work such as sitting on exercise balls and wobble chairs. Having fidgets handy as well as exercise bands attached to chairs or door knobs can be helpful. Engaging in weight bearing exercises or carrying heavy objects can also satisfy a person with this sensitivity.
Emotional: If someone has an emotional OE they are likely highly empathetic toward others, are emotionally sensitive, have deep emotional connection in relationships with humans and pets, experience intense and wide ranging emotions, and often worry about social justice. They are frequently compassionate, and tend to feel things more than other people. On the down side, they may seem to be emotionally needy, prone to dramatic outbursts, experience extreme emotions and somatic complaints. They may be vulnerable to depression, low self-esteem and experiencing loneliness.
What to do: Providing emotional validation is an important first step. Emotionally sensitive people want to be understood and accepted. Acknowledging their emotional experience can go a long way. Additionally, teaching children what to do with their big emotions is important and helpful. This is a first step in teaching emotional regulation. Helping yourself or your loved one communicate emotions with words is also helpful. Using deep breathing strategies, soothing with the 5 senses, mindfulness and countering unhelpful thoughts with realistic, helpful thoughts can promote calmness and emotional regulation. Creative outlets like mindful drawing and writing, can also provide opportunities for self expression and can be calming. Lastly, it is important to develop appropriate boundaries with others. People who have deep compassion and empathy for others may take on the feelings and problems of others as if they were their own. This can be overwhelming and unhealthy. Developing the ability to take a step back is an important skill in maintaining emotional safety, preserving relationships and avoiding codependency in relationships.
Imaginational: People who have this OE are usually highly creative, may be creative problem solvers, artists, writers, inventors or actors. They have rich imaginations, are typically fun and interesting, like novel experiences, and may be prone to day dreaming. Negative aspects of this sensitivity include catastrophizing, being distracted by thoughts, heightened risk of developing phobias, nightmares, weird dreams and an attraction to spending large amounts of time escaping into fantasy worlds like books, video games and role playing games. Imaginational people may also get into trouble pursuing novel experiences and taking risks to “see what will happen”.
What to do: Engage in creative activities to feed this strength, and to provide comfort. Engaging in creative play with children is nurturing and allows them to express themselves in an authentic way. Also be aware, creative minds create scenarios for different situations ahead of time, so being able to talk about what they are imagining and their feelings before engaging in outings or other plans is important. It is also important to help others set reasonable expectations and plan ahead for disappointment when expectations are not met, for when people don’t understand, and for the unexpected. They will likely need extra time for transitions, to adjust their mindset to the changing situation. As with all of the OEs, be patient with yourself and your loved ones.
Many gifted people have OE's. OEs are sometimes misdiagnosed as mental illness or health problems, and sometimes people who are gifted also have a legitimate mental diagnosis that is missed because they have similar traits to OEs. If you or your loved ones are exhausted by your super sensitive nature, seek the help of an experienced professional who understand the needs of gifted people and learn to make your super sensitivity your super power!