Time for the next installment in my four-part series, Emotional Intensity is My Superpower. The previous two articles looked at extreme emotions and extreme empathy and offered tips to help your gifted children reframe these attributes of emotional intensity into a strength. This week I want to tackle the somatic aspects of emotional intensity – all of the ways the intensity shows up in the body.
Physical Manifestations of Emotional Intensity:
Emotional intensity isn’t only about our emotional reactions to events. There are biological aspects to emotional intensity as well. For many gifted individuals, extreme emotions manifest as a collection of physiological responses to stress. Stomachaches, headaches, heart palpitations, and anxiety-like behaviors are all common in emotional intensity (Fonseca, 2015a; Peterson, 2006).
For some of our gifted youth, the physical aspects of emotional intensity are misinterpreted as an anxiety disorder or panic attack. Although the outward symptoms are similar, the internal origins have less to do with a mental health concern and more to do with the everyday aspects of what it means to be gifted. When these symptoms are misdiagnosed, the responses can be inappropriate, resulting in more adverse outcomes (Webb et al., 2007). Gifted individuals may be receiving medication for a collection of symptoms that are actually “normal” within the context of giftedness. Of course, you can certainly have a mental health condition like anxiety or depression that warranted medicinal intervention. But it is vital to make sure you are not trying to medicate out of behaviors and feelings that are “normal” with the scope of giftedness.
It is essential for parents and educators to help gifted children understand all aspects of emotional intensity, including some of these common physical reactions, and teach gifted children how to manage their response to emotional intensity. Take some time to understand how you or your children react to intense emotions. Do you get headaches or stomach pains? Are you hypersensitive to sugar, white flour, or caffeine? Do you react strongly to bright lights, particular tones of music, or the way things feel on your skin? All of this could point to the physical aspect of you or your children’s emotional intensity.
While these physical attributes may seem like a hassle, they are merely the ways your biology is reacting to the intensity of your thoughts and feelings. Making peace with your reactions, and teaching your children to do the same, can enable all of you to learn specific strategies that can help turn the annoyance into a powerful tool of understanding. You and your children can learn to listen to the needs of your body, interpreting your somatic responses as cues to your emotions that may need your attention.
5 Tips to Harness the Somatic Power of Your Emotions:
The following five tips can help you and your children harness the somatic power of your emotional intensity:
- Teach and emphasize healthy lifestyle choices. Gifted children need to learn balance at an early age, including how to balance lifestyle choices. Learning to incorporate healthy food, adequate rest, a balance between work and play, and physical outlets or exercise is vital in learning to regulate the physical aspects of emotional intensity. Without this balance, gifted children can experience worsening symptoms of their intensity as sugar, and refined carbohydrates contribute to emotional reactions, and lack of sleep can increase outward expressions of frustration (Fonseca, 2011).
- Teach mindfulness. Whether using a model of meditation or prayer, or a more secular version of mindfulness, it is essential that children learn to become fully aware of the moment, as well as conscious of internal states. Teaching gifted youth to regularly pause in their busy lives and mentally check-in, increasing their awareness of the moment and determining their current state of being, can result in an increased ability to manage their emotional state. The knowledge creates the space needed to recognize when they are out of balance and make corrections. It also enables them to learn to manage their physical reactions to things; something defined more in the next tip (Fonseca, 2015b).
- Use biofeedback and similar strategies to manage physical symptoms. As gifted children become more self-aware, they are more able to learn to manage their physical responses to emotional events. Techniques like biofeedback allow children to learn to purposefully control their physiological reactions. Neuro-feedback trains the brain similarly. Both options can be beneficial as gifted children learn to harness the positive aspects of their emotional intensity and mitigate the more negative issues associated with these attributes.
- Journal. Teach children to track their physical reactions to the world and their emotions. By logging this information, gifted children—and you, as the parent—can spot patterns of response to a variety of emotions. For example, maybe your child reacts harshly to changes in routine when he or she is tired, yelling and becoming rigid in response to the change. By recognizing this pattern, and where it “lives” in the body, children can learn to change their response by “breathing” into that place in the body and releasing tension. The release of pressure will then bring a change in their emotional state. By journaling about their somatic states, children can begin to develop response and emotional flexibility.
- Develop a self-compassion practice. Neff (2003), is a pioneer in the research of self-compassion, or the ability to practice kindness and compassion for oneself. In her work, she identifies three components of self-compassion: self-kindness, mindfulness, and humanity. She recognized the mind-body connection with self-compassion. Developing self-compassion skills using mindfulness activities (i.e/. love-and-kindness meditations), as well as learning to identify yourself in others, and others in yourself, are all keys to understanding emotional intensity, the mind-body connection and harnessing the potential positive power within it all.
Emotional intensity has the power to be you and your children’s greatest strength. As we conclude the series next week, I will examine the potential of strength-based practices. Until then, how does your emotional intensity show up in your physical reactions to the world? How does it impact your children’s physical selves?