Are Anxious People Actually Smarter?

Maybe it’s not so bad to be a worrier after all.

Struggling with anxiety is not easy and can take over one’s life. As someone who has struggled with anxiety since I was a child, I have always wished that I was one of those people who went through my days without anything ever bothering me. You know the saying “ignorance is bliss”? This may be truer than we ever expected.
Several studies over the last few years have found that anxiety and intelligence are linked – that anxious people may actually be smarter. Maybe it’s not so bad to be a worrier after all, and maybe we do not need to fret so much when our children stress out because that trait goes hand in hand with some very positive attributes.
How could this be possible? The main reason for the connection between anxiety and intelligence is that an anxious mind is quite creative, searching for all possible scenarios – both good and bad. This thought process is also a sign of higher intelligence.
Smarter people are known to have the cognitive ability to examine multiple angles of a situation. They use these skills to avoid dangerous possibilities that place them at risk. Finally, they have a special sense of alertness that less anxious individuals do not have. This allows them to warn and protect others.

What the research shows

A study conducted by Israeli psychologists from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya found this theory to be true. The study entailed reviewing behaviors of 80 students as they responded to anxiety-provoking events. Students with both high and lower IQs were asked to evaluate artwork that was to be presented in a software program. However, as the students opened the software program, they activated a computer virus (as part of the experiment). Then the monitor in the room told each student to go find technical support. The researchers observed the students’ behaviors as they left the room to find help. As they rushed down the hall, students encountered four more hurdles, such as someone stopping them to take a survey and someone else dropping a stack of papers on the floor in front of them. These incidents were set up purposely to trigger additional stress.
The students who exhibited the greatest anxiety about getting to the tech support office as fast as possible and whose anxiety appeared to increase with each hurdle turned out to have higher IQs than others in the test group. In addition, they were more adamant about getting past the hurdles and to fix the computer problem than the students with lower IQs.
A recent study conducted in 2015 by psychologist Alexander Penney and his colleagues at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada also found this connection. They surveyed about 125 college students about their levels of anxiety, stress, depression, social phobia, rumination, and mood. The questions were also used to evaluate their verbal and nonverbal intelligence.
Their answers helped the researchers determine whether they became anxious only in the moment or if it was an ingrained trait they have lived with for a long time.
The data showed that those who said they felt anxious often had higher verbal IQs than those who did not. Verbal intelligence involves problem-solving, critical thinking, and abstract reasoning. These tools give a person the ability to communicate effectively through both speech and writing, with the intent of achieving a certain goal. This intelligence comes from thinking about past situations in different scenarios. The researchers believe that verbally intelligent people are probably more successful at evaluating past and future events in greater detail, leading to more intense rumination and worry.
Researchers have even been able to see differences in the brain to show the link between anxious thoughts and intelligence. In 2012, neuropsychologists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) evaluated MRI scans to see if there is a correlation between intelligence and anxiety. They found that individuals with high IQs and anxiety had a similar characteristic in their brains – the depletion of the nutrient choline in the white matter in a part of the brain. The scientists think that this happens because anxiety and intelligence were probably developed together as we evolved.
Finally, another study showed how social anxiety is linked to being more empathetic to others, which is also a characteristic of high intelligence. Those in the study who suffered with social anxiety were more socially aware and sensitive to other people’s feelings and points of view.

How it impacts our lives

The researchers suggest that worrying seems to have developed into a beneficial trait. It evolved along with intelligence to make us more skilled at avoiding danger, regardless of how unlikely that danger is to actually happen. Worry helps us avoid taking dangerous risks so we can survive. Thus, like intelligence, worry may be a benefit to us overall. For example, it can help our children be more successful in school because they are more attentive or diligent to avoid negative consequences. The thought of going to detention, getting left back a year, or being punished at home probably motivate them to get their homework done and study for tests.
We still should consider the downside of anxiety and watch that our children do not struggle with it too much. When strong critical thinking skills are combined with anxiety, it can be challenging and even be paralyzing at times. Because the intelligent mind allows worriers to create all the possible negative scenarios, the worry can take over and even lead to inaction.
Intelligent people with anxiety also tend to ruminate, obsessing about events of the past and thinking about “what if” scenarios. The anxiety can prevent someone from accomplishing daily tasks and cause health problems and insomnia.
Like most things in life, it comes down to a healthy balance. Managing stress and anxiety is still critical, even if it means an individual is more intelligent. In order to utilize our brain to its full potential, we need to keep our anxiety in check. It may be more challenging for intelligent people to shift their thought process to more productive projects instead of ones that review the past repeatedly or predict multiple future scenarios, but it will be worth it in the long run.  

What We Can Do For Our Anxious Children

Here are a few ways we can encourage our kids to channel their anxiety into more constructive ways:

  • Work on puzzles and challenging problem-solving games.
  • Develop fiction stories based on the many scenarios they think about.
  • Focus on creative arts like painting, drawing, sculpture, and music to make their imagination come alive.
  • For every negative idea they think about, ask them to find a positive one.
  • Get them involved in science and technology experiments in which they first predict what will happen and then observe what really happens.

Bullied Kids May Be at Risk for Disease Later in Life

Without resilience, stress can have a snowballing effect on our lives.

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about regarding our kids being bullied at school or online, now there is evidence that being bullied during childhood can lead to an increased risk of chronic disease in adulthood. A new study published in Harvard Review of Psychiatry conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic suggests that adults who were bullied as children have an increased risk for heart disease and diabetes.

The researchers reviewed existing literature and data regarding bullying, impacts of stress, and physical and psychological symptoms from these experiences. For years, researchers have known that bullied children and adolescents have a significantly higher risk for both psychological and physical symptoms than their non-bullied peers. Commonly reported physical health problems associated with bullying include poor appetite, sleep disturbances, headaches, abdominal pain, breathing problems, and fatigue. These symptoms linking bullying and victimization have been observed in children as young as four years old.

The more that experts study the negative health effects of chronic stress, the more likely they will be able to draw conclusions about the specific actions or experiences that cause them. The scientists leading this study looked to recent advances in understanding the negative health effects of chronic stress to explore the long-term health implications of childhood bullying. They consider bullying to be a form of chronic social stress and wanted to evaluate if it has significant health consequences.

Studies of other types of chronic stress show that continued physical or mental stress can put a strain on the body. This process, called allostatic load, reflects the cumulative impact of biological responses from lingering stress. When we are exposed to brief periods of stress, our body can cope and recover pretty quickly. But when we experience chronic stress, the recovery process can take much longer. Then our body suffers, potentially leading to changes in inflammatory, hormonal, and metabolic responses. Over time, these changes can contribute to the development of diseases – including depression, diabetes, and heart disease – as well as the creation or worsening of psychiatric disorders.

Stresses that we experience when we are young, like bullying, can also affect the way these physiological systems respond to future stressors. This may happen because of epigenetic changes – alterations in gene function related to environmental exposures – that alter the stress response itself. Chronic stress may also weaken a child’s ability to develop psychological skills that help them build resilience, which is the ability to adapt to adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or stress. When children are resilient, they are braver, more curious, more adaptable, and more able to obtain happiness and success. Resilience cushions us from mental health conditions like anxiety and depression and helps us cope with new stresses in the future. Without resilience, stress can have a snowballing effect on our lives.

The study’s authors believe that the scientific literature suggests that chronic bullying could have significant physiological and mental health consequences and that changes in the physiological stress response, including chronically elevated levels of inflammation, could play an important role. However, they are unable to draw a definite cause-and-effect relationship between bullying and the increased health risks. They are calling for additional research to make their findings more conclusive.

The most important takeaway from this study is that the current data shows how bullying as a form of chronic social stress may have significant health consequences if not addressed early on. Pediatricians and mental health professionals should ask questions about bullying when evaluating their patients. This is the first step towards being able to intervene appropriately to prevent traumatic exposure and, therefore, increased risk for health problems down the road.

Additionally, it is imperative that we pay close attention to our children and look for signs of them being bullied. Take precautions like using electronic device monitoring systems, teaching them tools to deal with bullying, and building a strong, open relationship with them so they feel comfortable talking to you about anything.

What Is ASMR, and How Can It Benefit Your Kid's Mental Health?

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, is a physical sensation characterized by a tingling feeling that typically starts at the scalp and then travels down the spine.

Many babies and children are instantly soothed by a gentle caress on their cheek or soft singing in their ear. Although science has yet to prove it, this calming experience might actually have a name.
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, is a physical sensation characterized by a tingling feeling that typically starts at the scalp and then travels down the spine. It can be triggered via auditory, visual, or touch stimuli that causes the body to respond in a way that calms the central nervous system.
Think of the goosebumps you might get when someone whispers into your ear. That’s ASMR.
Most experts attribute ASMR’s relaxing sensations to the release of endorphins, a chemical in the brain that leads to feelings of happiness. The triggers are different for every person – whispering, tapping, scratching, page turning – but they’re most commonly associated with adults. We’re only now discovering that children experience ASMR, too. And the benefits could be profound.
According to Dr. Craig Richard, an ASMR researcher, Biopharmaceutical Sciences professor, and ASMR University founder, kids are benefiting from real-world ASMR all the time. “My mother used to put me to sleep by gently touching the inside of my forearm. I think something similar is happening all over the world as parents lovingly soothe children with soft touches, gentle whispers, and caring gazes.”
Dr. Richard believes ASMR is our brain’s heightened way of letting us know we are safe and in the presence of people who care for us. Studies have shown that being cared for in a loving way is beneficial to mental and physical development. So, real-world ASMR, whether intentional or unintentional, should be very beneficial for children. 
ASMR has already been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and insomnia. A recent study also suggests that using ASMR as a background soundtrack, while studying or writing exams, can calm down anxious students and help them optimize their academic potential and creativity. The experience, however, usually starts at home.
Most parents have probably already introduced their child to ASMR without even knowing it, suggests Dr. Richard. “Soft touches, caring glances, focused attention, and gentle whispers are all hallmarks of caring parents and ASMR triggers. During the day, a child’s health is probably best served by receiving ASMR directly from loving people in their lives.”
He recommends supplementing real-world ASMR with virtual ASMR via online videos for additional benefits. Although more research is needed to find out how virtual ASMR can be optimized for healthy development.
A great place to start is on YouTube, where entire channels and playlists, such as WhispersRed and ASMR Angel, are devoted to kids. Toys, games, and images are woven together with songs, stories, and calming sounds. According to ASMR You Ready, “This content is not only relaxing children, and their frazzled parents, but allows them to pause and unwind, thus acting as a gentle gateway into the bedtime routine.”
Another healthy way to introduce your child to virtual or recorded ASMR may be for you to record yourself whispering or talking gently and then playing the recordings during bedtime while your child is falling asleep. “Virtual or recorded ASMR at nighttime should probably be audio-only, like most podcasts,” says Dr. Richard, “so screen light and interesting visuals do not detract from the tranquil and sleep-inducing ASMR trigger sounds.”
For daytime benefits, ASMR videos which blend learning would be most beneficial, Dr. Richard notes. “This may have been part of the appeal of the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood TV show. Mr Rogers had a very gentle and caring disposition, which was relaxing for viewers of all ages.”
While the experience of ASMR has yet to be proven, early research in this area indicates there could be significant benefits for all of us. So, it just might be worth whispering the next bedtime story to your child. Try it and seen what happens!
Have you introduced ASMR to your child? Do you experience this sensation?

5 Healthy Habits for a Time of Profound Anxiety

I had to figure out how to manage my stress around world events, so I could maintain healthy engagement, self-care, and my family focus.

I fell down a staircase about a month ago. My front porch steps were frosted, like an evil cake, with a sheet of ice. I was looking at my keys and didn’t notice until my feet flew out from beneath me.
I could have broken a bone, or thrown out my back, but there was just a huge round bruise on my bum that turned all sorts of colors and made it achy to walk for a few days. More than anything, it was scary. I jerked myself awake, reliving it, a couple times afterwards.
It wasn’t the surprise or all the potential damage that haunted me, it was that I couldn’t stop myself once I started falling. I landed soundly on the top step, then continued to bump down each step of the staircase, grasping for something to hold and moaning, until I hit the bottom. What haunted me was that half minute or so of being out of control.
I’m reminded of that feeling often lately. Politics are suddenly taking up an unusual amount of space in our lives. We’re obsessing over the issues, and arguing with friends and family more since the election than ever before. Especially with social media taking on the role of political bulletin board, it can be hard to find balance. It’s like we all can’t stop falling.
I had trouble sleeping this winter, and couldn’t put down my phone, so I became easily agitated with my kids. It all filtered into their vocabulary.  They would express such strong emotions about things I didn’t even know they understood.
I had to figure out how to manage my stress around world events, so I could maintain healthy engagement, self-care, and my family focus. Here are five things I found which really helped.

Pick a check-in number for news and social media  

A media blackout would be the healthiest thing right now, but it also keeps us from the information we need. I’m designating a number of times each day when I’ll check in (and not before bedtime), and sticking to it.

Watch comedy news instead  

It’s smart and informed, but with a healthy dose of humor and common sense that keeps everything from feeling dire, and it feels good to laugh.

Keep active

Connecting to the body physically is really important to mental well-being and good sleep habits. My exercise of choice is yoga, which also reminds me to stay grounded and mindful. I delve into my practice four or five times a week, working my handstands and getting my feet behind my head while tapping into spiritual connection. It exhausts my body and centers my mind and offers me an hour and a half of sweet respite in my day.

Practice breathing techniques 

There’s a method that’s really easy to do, even while driving, working, or in conversation with someone: I sip the breath like I would a delicious drink, taking it in slowly and steadily, and releasing it so slowly, it makes no sound. It does wonders to slow down breathing, regulate heartbeat, and calm an active or aggravated mind. It’s a healthier thing to focus on than what’s happening in the 24-hour news cycle.

Put the screens away and connect 

It’s so refreshing to simply look into my kids’ eyes, and listen to what they’re thinking and seeing. Seeing the world through a child’s eyes is seriously the best way to find balance and meaning.
What are you doing to connect and care for yourself in this tumultuous political climate?