Is There a Link Between Intelligence and Mental Health?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle is known to have stated, “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.” Since 350 B.C.E., his observation of the potential interplay between intelligence and emotional distress has not gone without justification in some of the creative & intellectual icons of our modern age. Often, when people think of creative or scientific “genius,” figures such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, and more come to mind – people known for having had mental health struggles during their lives.

While it is a well-documented phenomenon that many people with intellectual and creative “giftedness” often appear to have mood & anxiety concerns, research in this area thus far has been limited, and it is important to remember that many factors play into the state of someone’s emotional wellness beyond formal measures of intelligence. Additionally, measures of intelligence (such as intelligence quotient (IQ) tests) often consider cognitive abilities but do not necessarily account for emotional intelligence, cultural considerations, or socioeconomic factors. With that said, many people with high IQ measurements may often resonate with high emotional sensitivities and mental health concerns, so what is the potential connection?


What the Research Says: Intelligence and Psychological “Overexcitabilities”

A 2018 study offers the most cited research to date regarding the connection between high measures of intelligence and psychological sensitivities. The study, which used a sample population of individuals with high IQ records to examine correlations between intelligence, psychological concerns, and physiological symptoms such as immune functioning, posited that highly intelligent people also experience other internal “intensities” beyond the traditionally associated cognitive abilities. As a result of their findings, the researchers proposed a “hyper-brain/hyper-body theory” that notes a predisposition to certain psychological disorders and physiological conditions due to elevated sensory responses (hyper-body) for the highly intelligent (hyper-brain).

The theory stems from psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski’s (1902-1980) concept of “overexcitability” in people who have heightened experiences in the psychomotor, sensory, intellectual, creative, and emotional domains. Dabrowski also noticed symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and sensory tics in those who have more intense reactions to their environments.

Anecdotal Symptomatology: Linking High Intelligence and Personal Distress

Of course, many ideas of “success” and “happiness” in our society often correlate with accomplishment in the professional, creative, and interpersonal domains. Often, intelligence can aid in rapid success due to our culture’s emphasis on education, “book smarts,” and decision-making skills rather than the more “emotional” parts of ourselves that also play into satisfaction. Of course, high measures of intelligence may also cause distress for many people and even for the people around them, given several reported cognitive, emotional, and behavioral patterns:

  • Overthinking and overanalyzing situations due to a heightened capacity for logical reasoning can contribute to feelings of anxiety and also make other emotions feel less comfortable or tangible.
  • Perfectionism, which places an unrealistically high expectation on oneself that often interferes with a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, or self-confidence
  • Heightened self-awareness and likely self-consciousness if strengths are not personally acknowledged and celebrated adequately
  • Low self-esteem due to an overemphasis (by oneself or by others) on certain abilities or personality traits over other potential strengths, which does not take the whole person’s value into consideration
  • A strong sense of observation (and therefore perceived threats), which can make a person fearful of their surroundings (physical safety) and/or other people’s perceptions of them (social safety)
  • Feeling overwhelmed or powerless, often due to feeling hyper-aware of issues or hyper-attuned to others’ emotions
  • Feeling isolated or misunderstood in social relationships, potentially due to cognitive differences, self-perceptions, or anxiety & rumination in social contexts

Diagnostic Correlations: Prevalence of Psychological Conditions in the Intellectually “Overexcitable”

As discussed, while there is much anecdotal and some empirical evidence for the relationship between high IQ and mental health concerns, there must be more research before drawing further conclusions, and we must also remember that the relationship between intelligence and various diagnoses is neither linear nor causal. However, given the likely cognitive and emotional symptoms in highly intelligent individuals discussed above, it is important to be cognizant of larger patterns and to seek support if you or a loved one are finding it challenging to cope:

  • Depression and other mood concerns: Increased rumination, worry, loneliness, and heightened emotional responses can contribute to depression and other mood disorders.
  • Bipolar disorder: One study found an increased risk for bipolar disorder in one million men with high verbal and technical intelligence compared to average abilities. However, the potential link is not clear.
  • Anxiety: Symptoms listed above, such as overthinking, persistent worry, stress, and sensory hypervigilance, can often lead to anxiety with more frequently perceived dangers. In cases when an individual’s “fight, flight, or freeze” state feels chronically activated, both the brain and body can enter a chronically dysregulated state of stress & anxiety as well.
  • Interpersonal difficulties: Self-consciousness, cognitive differences, and emotional challenges often lead to distance or isolation when one or more parties feel misunderstood or misaligned in a relationship.
  • Substance use: Empirical data suggests that those with higher IQ scores may tend to consume more alcohol than other populations. Still, again, there is not necessarily a direct correlation based on the research.

Karpinski et al.’s initial research also examined the prevalence of Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and various autoimmune disorders (including allergy and asthma diagnoses) in individuals with high IQ scores to be explored more distinctly in future studies.

A Strengths Perspective: Navigating Connections in Intelligence and Mental Health

 If any of the symptoms or potential diagnoses above resonate with you as you consider the toll that a “hyper-brain” may play in your life or the life of a loved one, it is important to keep in mind the many strengths and advantages that also come with high intelligence. Individuals with high IQs continue to see many opportunities for career success and relationship satisfaction, in addition to having some evidence for living longer, leading healthier lives, and experiencing fewer adverse life events. Additionally, people with intellectual overexcitability continue to thrive in the five domains outlined initially by Dabrowski:

  • Exceptional cognitive abilities that reflect your brain’s unique organization, memory retention, and capacity for information connectivity
  • Heightened imagination that makes you exceptionally creative and resilient
  • Sensory sensitivities that make you more attuned to your environment and others around you
  • Emotional responsiveness that makes you more empathetic, self-aware, adaptable, and capable of regulation
  • Psychomotor abilities that dispose you to talents and mannerisms specific to you as a unique individual

As the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” If you find the power of “overexcitability” challenging, consider leaning on a support community or mental health professional to understand better how to maximize your abilities and cope with the challenges they may bring. Individual therapy can also help in providing education & support to change maladaptive patterns related to overexcitability, including:

  • Identifying thought traps
  • Combating negative self-talk & addressing insecurities
  • Developing positive affirmations & self-compassion
  • Helping with communication & establishing support networks
  • Developing self-awareness
  • Expanding emotional intelligence
  • Practicing mindfulness for sensory overstimulation

Learn how to manage any anxiety and mood symptoms effectively while channeling your strengths in a supportive environment. You may be surprised by what else you may learn about yourself!

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