Anxiety Wears A Chameleon Cloak


Unraveling the Anxiety Problem in the Lives of Gifted Children


P. Susan Jackson
Daimon Institute for the Highly Gifted

The right to live without pathology is inalienable when an alternative perspective is indeed correct. Equally, the right to receive accurate diagnosis and treatment for bona fide mental health challenges is crucial and inarguable.

When we seek to explain, mediate perception, or guide response for a gifted child’s complex reality we must be mindful of the uncommon core traits of gifted children, as well as the ubiquitous (and often masked) role of anxiety in the lived experience of many gifted children.



The inner world of the gifted child is multi- faceted and dynamic, and highly idiosyncratic.

This complex inner world is not easily parsed according to standard diagnostic criteria relying heavily on behavioral indices, those observable signs easily masked by clever gifted children.

Further, these standard diagnostic behavioral indices themselves are based on average behaviors which may not accurately depict the (uncommon) behaviors of our statistical outliers.

My reactions to things are deep, lasting, complicated.
I mean, what happens on the outside might be a small thing, a momentary happening, but what happens to me on the inside can be a totally different thing.
That occurrence might carry on inside of me, it reverberates in my mind, in my body, in my thoughts, in my emotions.
Yet on the outside it is all over, it is done.
This is the way it is
with everything.

(Lennox, gifted, 16 years old)



Anxiety is a generalized mood condition that can often occur without an (obvious) identifiable triggering stimulus.

It is the most common mental-health problem experienced by children in North America.

Left untreated, anxiety causes anxiety-based disorders, ranging from simple adjustment disorders to more debilitating maladies such as panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Anxiety-based disorders can be crippling and are extremely distressing for the sensitive, intense gifted child.

Anxiety-based disorders are truly insidious, with bona fide indicators eluding easy diagnosis – especially for the gifted. They are truly the “Elephant in the Living Room”, a malady that eludes easy diagnosis, masked entirely or eclipsed by more obvious signs of distress such as so-called perfectionism, underachievement, hyper-vigilance, depressive symptomology, and others . . .


Let us first differentiate fear from anxiety.

Fear, like all human emotions, has an essential role to play in our overall well-being.

Fear is a feeling induced by perceived danger or threat which causes a change in metabolic and organ functions and, ultimately, a change in behavior, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events.

Fear facilitates escape from threat, is mostly present-focused and is geared towards a specific threat, that is generally short-lived.

Fear is an important adaptive response which occurs in response to a specific stimulus occurring in the present, or, sometimes, in anticipation or expectation of a future threat that is perceived as a risk to body or life.

The fear response arises from the perception of danger leading to confrontation with, or escape from, or avoiding the threat (also identified as the fight-or-flight response), which in extreme cases of fear (horror and terror) can be a “freeze response”, a paralysis.

Fear plays a critical role in our mental and emotional functioning. It sends information to the brain and directly influences things like our feelings of stress, anxiety and sadness, as well as memory, decision-making and learning. It informs us, and keeps us alert.

Anxiety, on the other hand, protects us when we are approaching something we perceive as a potential hazard. It is future-focused and broadly aimed on a diffuse threat that is long-acting. Further distinguishing fear from anxiety, the stimulus invoking anxiety is experienced as incontrollable or unavoidable.

Anxiety is fear grown large and shadowy.

“Feelings don’t try to kill you, even the painful ones. Anxiety is a feeling grown too large. A feeling grown aggressive and dangerous. You’re responsible for its consequences, you’re responsible for treating it. But Michael, you’re not responsible for causing it. You’re not morally at fault for it.”
― Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here


Lidell, as early as 1949, understood the essential connection between the intellect and anxiety.

He said that:

“The planning function of the nervous system, in the course of evolution, has culminated in the appearance of ideas, values, and pleasures the unique manifestations of man’s social living.

Man alone can plan for the distant future
and can experience the retrospective pleasures of achievement.

I have come to believe that anxiety accompanies intellectual activity as its shadow and that the more we know of the nature of anxiety, the more we will know of the intellect”

Gifted children are born with a capacity for complex emotional awareness and processing. The brain areas essential for processing emotional information – including the anterior cingulate cortex and the frontal cortex – are expanded in gifted individuals.

Our kids have heightened emotional responses and they have very active minds. Their emotions and thoughts coexist in interesting (and sometimes extremely complicated) ways.

“Every thought, no matter how bland,
is accompanied by an emotion,
no matter how subtle”
– Restack, 1995



What are the effects of a complex cognitive and affective self-system
on mood disorders?

What are the ways we help our children develop self-awareness, self-regulation and resilience that will serve them in living fully and with joy?


About the Author: P. Susan Jackson, Therapeutic Director of The Daimon Institute for the Highly Gifted in White Rock, British Columbia, Canada. This international institute offers service to highly and profoundly gifted children and adults, supporting the learning needs and overall development of this exceptional population.

Her clinical work spans 25 years, comprising over 40,000 hours of psychotherapy wholly with this exceptional population.  She is the author of numerous articles and chapters in the gifted education literature.  Her Integral Practice for the Gifted model addresses multiple aspects of human functioning – cognitive, emotional, spiritual, physical and talent based dimensions – and explains how advanced cognition influences all of these elements, the Self, and the expression of talent.

In 2010, she produced a short documentary entitled “Exceptionally Gifted Children”, which she received wide acclaim internationally.  In 2013-2014, the Daimon Institute produced “Rise:  The Extraordinary Story of the Exceptionally Gifted” – a 60 minute film on the lives of 12 exceptionally and profoundly gifted persons from all over the globe.

Sue served as the Chair of the Parents and Curriculum Networks Communications Committee and Counseling and Guidance Network (National Association to Support Gifted Children), and is a member of the advisory board for SENG.  She is recognized as an international expert in the field of the Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted and regularly presents with other leading experts at the international conferences.  She is a (nascent) photographer, poet, and nature lover with a passionate interest in advanced development, optimal health and well-being for the Profoundly Gifted populace.

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