Gifted and Stressed

By Douglas Eby

Director StevenSpielberg

There can be many varieties and levels of insecurity, self-criticism, stress and anxiety that can relate to being talented and creative.

“I still have pretty much the same fears I had as a kid. I’m not sure I’d want to give them up; a lot of these insecurities fuel the movies I make.”

Steven Spielberg

From article: Gifted, Talented, Creative, Anxious.



“No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Martha Graham

For many gifted and creative people, this “blessed unrest” may also help maintain the kind of chronic arousal that leads to harmful stress reactions.

One of the more prominent researchers in the field, Kenneth R. Pelletier, Ph.D. (Director of the Psychosomatic Medicine Clinic in Berkeley) says that stress is a key factor in moving from a state of relative health to a manifest disorder.

He makes a distinction between two kinds of stress: short-term and long-term.

Short-term — which we share with other biological organisms — is a natural function of dealing with threatening situations, such as finding yourself at a branch on the freeway and not knowing which way to turn; you deal with it, and then there’s a period of relaxation, a return to a baseline level of functioning.

The long-term kind is the problem: stresses around job, family, emotional conflicts, money difficulties and vague but ever present problems and worries with no end point, no clear resolution — the kind of nonspecific general arousal that continues without the balancing return to a stable baseline condition.

For many gifted and talented people, the intensity and level of excitability typical of giftedness may help incite this kind of chronic arousal.

In his Theory of Positive Disintegration, clinical and research psychiatrist and psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski described five independent areas of psychic excitability or high sensitivity which can lead to reactions often identified as neurosis or some other dysfunction.

Describing this theory in a paper in Mensa Research Journal (Fall, 1989), Karen Nelson noted that Dabrowski found that the most gifted and creative individuals he worked with, during times of crisis “exhibited so-called neurotic symptoms – intense inner conflict, feelings of inferiority toward their own ideals, feelings of inadequacy, shame and guilt, and existential anxiety and despair..

“They had evolved beyond the societal norm and experienced great pain in their awareness of their differences from the norm.”

Also see article Theory of Positive Disintegration as a Model of Personality Development For Exceptional Individuals, by Elizabeth Mika.

For more articles and other resources see the page: Dabrowski / advanced development.


In his article Creative intellect as a marker for genetic predisposition to high anxiety conditions, anxiety coach and author Charles Linden writes about some of his company’s research:

PlumSikes-Linden“Over the last 12 years, through working with over 130,000 high anxiety sufferers, we have been able to collect data regarding character traits, genetics and environmental factors which has enabled us to characterize the typical profile of a person who has a predisposition to high anxiety conditions.

“Typically, these people share a character trait, which can only be predetermined by genetics, which, from the moment they are born, predisposes them to the creation of conditions of the emotions, such as anxiety disorders.

“Our data shows us that anxiety sufferers all share a superior level of creative intellect.

“This may not be experienced as academic prowess, moreover as a distinct range of both physical and mental attributes effecting creativity, emotional sensitivity and clarity, eccentricity, creative energy and drive which, whilst sometimes misguided, provides the tenacity to move forward, sometimes in the face of extreme adversity…”

Photo: British novelist  and Vogue fashion editor Plum Sykes – who benefited from his treatment program – from the post The Linden Method – Using Behavioral Science for Anxiety.

[Click image to view larger size.]

Learn more about The Linden Method.


The stress of the unrealized possible

There may also be pain in the sense of a vertical inner conflict between what is seen as one’s current level of realization and what could be, what is possible given advanced talents.

The wealth of information and ideas available via the Internet may stimulate greater elaboration and realization of one’s talents, but can also result in Internet Addiction Disorder, or IAD, at least for some people.

Those addicted to the Internet, according to Dr. Ivan Goldberg, a New York psychiatrist, need to spend increasingly more time online to achieve the same level of satisfaction, and feel anxious when not connected.

Dr. Kimberly S. Young, Director of the Center for Online Addiction at the University of Pittsburgh Dept. of Psychology, has mentioned a case example of a “formerly happily married mother” who was given an ultimatum by her husband – ‘me or the computer’ – and she chose the computer.


Performing a role as an actor may elicit many reactions that increase stress and anxiety.

Mira SorvinoIn a magazine interview, Mira Sorvino (winner of Academy Award as best supporting actress for “Mighty Aphrodite”) commented on how demanding it was to portray some aspects of Marilyn Monroe (in “Norma Jean & Marilyn” on HBO, 1996):

“Playing those suicidal scenes was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Emotionally, they ripped me apart. I walked around for days after with echoes of horror in my head.”

[Buzz magazine, May 1996]

[Related post, including some of the mental health challenges of the iconic star: Marilyn Monroe: Her complex Inner Life]


One of the characteristic behaviors of many gifted individuals is a tendency to be self-effacing, to hide their exceptional intellect in the presence of those more mundane and less talented — perhaps as a predilection born of introversion or a strategy to hide one’s abilities in order to get along, to avoid being seen as strange, or elitist.

But this self-silencing, according to some psychologists, tends to lead to depression. And depression and stress can interact, leading to increased levels of both.

Writing in the March 1996 APA Monitor (American Psychological Association), Hugh McIntosh mentioned the work of Canadian psychologist Peter Suedfeld, PhD who studied restricted environmental stimulation in lone voyages, polar stations and other solitary situations. Everyone experiences states where they need solitude more than at other times, Suedfeld said. In addition, some people seem to have a trait for solitude, chronically wanting or needing it more than others do.

Research related to solitude suggests that most people have some need of time alone to satisfy any of several psychological needs, including rejuvenation.

This need “probably results from the cumulative effects of social stimulation over recent days or weeks” Suedfeld said. People with few demands and little social stimulation seem to need less solitude and, in fact, may avoid it.

His research has found, however, that those with heavy demands on their attention, social skills or coping mechanisms – such as professors, business executives, mothers of small children – tend to need more time alone:

“It gives you a chance to restore your coping resources, to rest, relax.

“It replenishes psychological energy and physical well-being, as measured by reduced stress hormones, improved immune functioning and other physiological changes.”

Another source of chronic stress may be the heightened capacity that high ability or giftedness confers on many creative people for generating ideas and visions, and creating related elaborate lists of what you “need” to get done and what you haven’t yet done — and how that undoneness can pressure and shame, or deflate and erode energy.


Stress may be in great part a matter of how we relate to the burden of our lists. And to our sense of time.

Writing in their newsletter (Mind/Body Health, Volume V, Number 1, 1996, The Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge) David Sobel, MD and Robert Ornstein, PhD, note that “the way we think about time determines the way we experience it. We’re waiting in line and time drags. While dancing in the moonlight, driving on a twisty road or listening to favorite music, time seems to expand, the experience feels timeless.

“The trick, as Gandhi said, is to be ‘always on vacation’ where nothing hurries us, but a lot happens.”

Gaining a lifestyle that will have more of this unhurried nature takes some mindful designing, notes Mary Rocamora (director of a Los Angeles school with awareness training classes for talent development): “The quality of life seems to be much better if it’s simplified. Having the support of a buddy system can be a focus on slowing things down, and not separating out. Checking in with someone helps find the right rhythm for you.”

She also points out this pacing of one’s life may be more difficult for women: “It’s a female thing to put yourself last; it’s so much the way women are programmed: take care of everything else first, then it’s your turn. If you even get to your turn.”

[One of her articles: Counseling Issues with Recognized and Unrecognized Gifted Adults.]


Wellness researcher Stephan Rechtschaffen, MD (New Age Journal, June, 1996) points out that most people “don’t realize that the sort of time pressure we feel in our lives is a peculiarity of recent history. Keeping precise time is a social invention, and it’s only about a hundred years old.”

He notes it is very difficult and anxiety-inducing for most people to slow down: “It’s not just outside pressure, or social entrainment, that makes us feel guilty and nervous if we’re not being ‘productive.’ It is hard for most of us to simply sit still and do nothing but be in the present moment because there’s something in the present moment we’re trying to escape.. ‘feeling’ itself…”

He concludes that awareness is a key:

“Just being conscious of our ability to shift our rhythms within the fabric of a frenetic society will make our hours less anxious, our days less stressful, and our lives more complete.”


Many high ability people are also highly sensitive – being an HSP [highly sensitive person] probably increases our vulnerability to anxiety – another aspect of stress.

I’m sure that has been the case for me, and I have had varying degrees of anxiety for most of my life.

Elaine Aron, PhD thinks “high sensitivity increases the impact of all emotionally tinged events, making childhood trauma particularly scarring.”

[From post: Sensitive to anxiety]

Part of my motivation in researching and creating my series of sites is to better understand a variety of social and psychological issues that affect talent development and creativity – including the issue of health challenges like stress and anxiety: how they affect us, and what we can do about it.


Another aspect of personality, especially for gifted and creative people, is intensity.

Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain

Nicole Kidman has made comments that can apply to other artists:

“You live with a lot of complicated emotions as an actor, and they whirl around you and create havoc at times. And yet, as an actor you’re consciously and unconsciously allowing that to happen.

“It’s my choice, and I would rather do it this way than live to be 100. .. Or rather than choosing not to exist within life’s extremities. I’m willing to fly close to the flame.”

[From post: Nicole Kidman – a brief profile of high ability and complexity]

To finish up, some advice from one of the greatest creative minds:

“It is also good every so often to go away and relax a little for when you come back to your work your judgment will be better, since to remain constantly at work causes you to deceive yourself.”

Leonardo da Vinci, 1503

~ ~ ~

Suggested books :

Duane Elgin. Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich

Stress Free for Good. “Dr. Fred Luskin and Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier spent years at the Stanford University School of Medicine developing ten proven skills for eliminating the stress, anxiety, and pain that occur in daily life.”

Best Sellers in Stress Management Self-Help

Mastering Creative Anxiety: 24 Lessons for Writers, Painters, Musicians, and Actors from America’s Foremost Creativity Coach, by Eric Maisel, PhD. – ‘In his decades as a psychotherapist and creativity coach, Eric Maisel has found a common thread behind what often gets labeled “writer’s block,” “procrastination,” or “stage fright.” It’s the particular anxiety that, paradoxically, keeps creators from doing, completing, or sharing the work they are driven toward. This “creative anxiety” can take the form of avoiding the work, declaring it not good enough, or failing to market it — and it can cripple creators for decades, even lifetimes. But Maisel has learned what sets successful creators apart. He shares these strategies here, including artist-specific stress management; how to work despite bruised egos, day jobs, and other inevitable frustrations; and what not to do to deal with anxiety. Implementing these 24 lessons replaces the pain of not creating with the profound rewards of free artistic self-expression.’ []

Also see article: The Stress Key, By Eric Maisel, Ph.D. – Creating and living the artist’s life can produce a lot of stress, but if you shift from feeling that your work is a demand, to an opportunity that feels enjoyable, it will not be stressful.

My article: Multiple Talents, Multiple Passions, Burnout – Many multitalented people feel inspired and energized to pursue a variety of creative projects, often at the same time. One potential downside is physical and emotional burnout.

Martha Graham quote from post: Be More Creative: Keep the Channel Open


Author: Douglas Eby, M.A./Psychology, is a writer, researcher and online publisher on the psychology of creative expression and personal growth.

He is creator of the Talent Development Resources series of sites
and author of the book “Developing Multiple Talents: The personal side of creative expression”

Photo – Tea worry by qousqous – also used in my post To Be More Creative Deal With Anxiety.

Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci from post: What is our rush? Freeing yourself from pressure.

See many more articles on relieving stress and anxiety by following the link at the top of the page.


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