Part 2: Overexcitabilities
By Dr. Allison Kawa
The idea that giftedness is associated with innate overexcitabilities (OE) was first proposed by Polish psychiatrist and psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski in the 1960s. In English, “overexcitability” has a negative connotation and is sometimes used synonymously with hyperactivity. Dabrowski’s overexcitability is not inherently pathological. The term was intended to capture a neurological hypersensitivity to stimuli in five different areas as well as reactions to those stimuli that are more intense than expected. It is these OEs, or modes of experiencing the world, that make gifted people highly sensitive and emotional, wildly creative, and fueled by impressive levels of physical and mental energy. Recognizing OEs is vital for a whole-child approach to parenting, educating, and individualizing programming for gifted students.
Gifted people with intellectual OE have an insatiable curiosity and intrinsic drive to know everything and anything about topics that pique their interests (which may or may not align with what is being taught at school). They want to know for the sake of knowing. Having an intellectual OE means that novelty and challenge are just as vital to the brain as exercise is for the body. This can be an asset since it fosters tenacity in learning, intense mental effort and focus on interesting topics, and out-of-the-box thinking.
The downside to having an intellectual OE is that a typical school curriculum might not provide enough stimulation, resulting in disengagement, insensitive comments, or acting-out behaviors. These children might be exhausting for parents and teachers due to incessant questions, especially the deep and probing ones about life, death, and morality. Gifted children and teens can become quite preoccupied with issues of right and wrong, and their earnest questions might be misconstrued as “talking back” when asked at the wrong time. They can also be impatient or critical of others who do not grasp concepts as easily or deeply as they do, leading to social issues with peers. Those with intellectual OE have a “busy brain” that can be hard to shut down at night, resulting in sleep problems.
To support a child or adolescent with intellectual OE, provide them with tools to access the information they are craving. Books, podcasts, audiobooks, etc. are limitless sources of knowledge. Try to provide academic experiences, ideally at school, that will teach at their level. If placement in a high-level class designed for gifted students is not an option, talk to teachers about curriculum extensions that allow your child to go deeper with the material being presented. Avoid simply adding more work, which can feel like a punishment; give different work. There are also after-school options for educational enrichment. If issues of morality are in the forefront, find volunteer opportunities to make the world better like raising money for charities or putting together care packages for the homeless.
Everyone gets lost in a daydream from time-to-time, but those with imaginational OE have a heightened capacity for imagination, a rich fantasy life, a tremendous capacity for creative or inventive thinking and problem-solving, and vivid dreams. They are world-makers and can sometimes become so captivated by an idea, image, or mental dramatization that they fall helplessly down the rabbit hole of their own thoughts. It is in these private worlds that some of the most creative genius is born, but sometimes the lure of imagination is more powerful than the need to complete more mundane tasks, such as paying attention in class.
Young children with imaginational OE sometimes blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality. They embellish their memory of experiences in a way that can resemble fibbing, but without the intent to deceive. This type of child needs adult support to help separate the facts from their fantasies in a nonjudgmental and non-shaming manner. Adults can also guide children and teens who have imaginational OE to productive outlets where their mind can roam free, such as writing stories or a screenplay, joining a robotics team, providing them with art materials, or simply building pretend play time into the daily schedule.
Big thoughts come with big feelings for some gifted people. Those with an emotional OE have intense feelings, often in complex combinations, and they tend to be extremely empathic toward others. Their expressions of emotions can be quite strong, sometimes to the point of overwhelm. This is true for the full range of affect, including positive emotions like happiness, excitement, or love. Emotionally overexcitable people form deep and meaningful attachments not only to other people, but to things (keepsakes, favorite toys), places, and concepts. Their profound compassion and empathy allow them to be devoted to important relationships and causes.
This extreme sensitivity often seems like an overreaction to those whose emotions are of a more typical intensity. Perfectionism is common among gifted people in general, and especially those with emotional OE. When children and adolescents lack the coping skills to manage their heightened feelings and responses, they might have uncontrolled mood swings or temper outbursts, they may become overwhelmed to the point of depression, or they sometimes try to suppress their emotions only to have them morph into physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches.
To support highly sensitive and emotional children and adolescents, adults in their life need to accept that their feelings are real and not simply attention-seeking theatrics. Honor, respect, and validate emotions, no matter how puzzling the response might seem. These children and adolescents often need help identifying the start of a strong emotional response so that they can use a coping strategy before they lose control. Self-awareness of this OE is especially important so that the gifted individual does not feel ashamed of their sensitivity and reactivity. They can often benefit from vagus-nerve stimulating coping skills, like 4-7-8 breaths, splashing cold water on their face, or adopting a regular meditation and/or yoga practice.
Being a sensitive person is not limited to emotions; many gifted people have sensitive bodies. The stimulation a person with a sensual OE receives from the sight, sound, smell, taste, or texture of something is different from the norm. They might be hypersensitive to certain input and experience clothing tags as unbearably itchy or the smell in a school cafeteria as utterly disgusting. Those with a sensual OE might also crave sensory input and have a profound and mature appreciation for music, cooking, or art from a very young age. When someone with sensual OE feels upset or distressed, their threshold for sensations might decrease in such a way that everything feels like it’s just too much. They might withdraw or avoid environments that seem chaotic and overwhelming. On the other hand, emotional distress can trigger increased sensory-seeking in some people. They might cope with tension by overeating, going on buying sprees, or seeking the limelight.
Parents of children or adolescent with sensual OE need to, quite literally, stop and smell the roses. It is important to understand the individual’s unique sensory profile (i.e., hypersensitive versus hyposensitive) and then construct environments that support those sensory needs. This might mean allocating extra time to get dressed in the morning because it is hard to find clothing that feels “just right” or cutting the tags out of shirts immediately after buying them. It could also mean finding ways to increase sensory input like weighted blankets, aromatherapy, or ambient noise at bedtime.
The psychomotor OE is a neuromuscular sensitivity that entails a surplus of physical and mental energy. Those with the psychomotor OE love to move and need intense physical activity to help feel regulated. Their energy discharge can take the form of rapid speech, pressing needs to act (e.g., organizing), and boundless enthusiasm that can be overwhelming or exhausting for others. Emotional stress is sometimes channeled into compulsive talking, impulsive actions, competitiveness, extreme drive toward goals (e.g., workaholism), or acting out behaviors. Children with a psychomotor OE are frequently misdiagnosed with ADHD for these reasons, although it is also possible to be both Gifted and an ADHDer. Having a psychomotor OE has many benefits such as interest in and dedication to athletics and sports that facilitates high-level skill development. A brilliant mind that is powered by endless mental energy can also be the recipe for exceptional academic or vocational success.
To help channel a child or adolescent’s psychomotor OE into something productive, parents should curate a schedule that allows for extra activity, movement, and “doing” throughout the day. While organized sports are certainly one avenue, consistent “doses” of activity and movement can be woven into a normal day to meet the psychomotor OE needs. Think about alternative seating options at school or a standing desk, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, assign chores that require movement like walking the dog, and encourage physical play time. Children and adolescents who have a psychomotor OE can also benefit from learning to use physical activity as a coping tool for upsetting feelings, such as taking a run after a stressful day at school.
Big Picture Thinking for Big Thinkers
Giftedness is not simply high intellect—it is a qualitatively different way of being in and experiencing the world. One’s profile of OEs is a specific, multifaceted lens that internal and external events filter through; OEs inform a gifted person’s reality. Being highly sensitive can go along with challenges such as perfectionism, asynchronous development, and problems adapting in typical educational settings. Yet, when gifted children and adolescents are appropriately nurtured, they can develop into dynamic, talented, self-actualized adults. Validation, supportive environments that foster self-awareness and self-acceptance, and helping gifted youngsters identify and channel the positive aspects of their OEs are all ways to promote a healthy developmental trajectory.