Monday, March 10, 2003

Article: Of Giftedness, ADD, Depression, and being an HSP

Follow-up to what I wrote yesterday: Originally written April 26, 2002, as a post to an online message board (edited slightly for typos and to add a couple of factual corrections).

In my recent "hiatus" from this forum, I have been spending some time researching connections between some things that might be of interest and relevance to many HSPs.

Looking through old threads here, I have noticed that we fairly frequently "cry out in pain" over one thing or another-- anguished screams in the night over the difficulty of it all. Most of the cries relate to feeling misunderstood, for a great number of reasons. BTW's recent posts come to mind, but there have been others. From time to time, we have discussions about depression, ADD, counseling and meds.

Like many HSPs, I have spent much of my life in a "caretaker" situation, helping others. I suppose one of the biproducts of this is that you learn a thing or two along the way.... and often a thing or two your basic psychologist/therapist doesn't pick up on.

As awareness of the HSP concept continues to spread (we've gone from fewer than 150 to more than 1100 members here, since I've been posting) I feel a growing concern that many HSPs who are being treated for (or have self-diagnosed with) "depression" or "ADD" or "Bipolar disorder" may be struggling with a mis-diagnosis on top of their already complex issues. Maybe you'll read this and say "Yeah, well, DUH!"-- but maybe not.

Bear with me for a moment, because some background is relevant here.

We have periodically touched-- albeit very briefly-- on the topics of IQ and "giftedness." However, we have all (HSPs and non-HSPs alike) been well trained that "giftedness" is not an "acceptable" topic for anyone to concern themselves with, except in passing. We tend to wring our hands and back away a bit like our dog did something nasty on the carpet.... after all, we're not "supposed to" think we're "anything" the rest of the world isn't....

Now, we can come from the opposite end of the spectrum and be "developmentally challenged," and a host of people immediately jump to our aid. Not so with giftedness. After all, it's a "positive," not a "negative."

For the purposes of this post, please understand that I am NOT talking specifically about "IQ" here, I am talking about "abilities" that somehow make a person "different" because of their insights, intuitions and talents in one or more areas.

On a very broad level, there is a pretty good support network in place for "gifted children." Likewise, there is a broad support network in place for "special needs children." But guess what? When you turn 16, 18 or 21, whatever.... the support system for the "gifted" end of the spectrum completely falls away. If you are 40 (or older) odds are there never was one, for you. At best, you were perhaps recognized as someone who could tutor those struggling in the class. Mostly, you're on your own. In fact, society penalizes you a bit with "less-than-supportive" comments such as "If you're so smart, why do you need help?"

OK, so what does this have to do with being an HSP?

The few PhDs out there actively doing research on "Adult Giftedness" (Silverman, Webb, have found that there is an extremely strong correlation between extreme sensitivity (in childhood, and as an adult) and giftedness. Understand that while this does mean that the majority of "gifted" people are probably HSPs, it does not mean that HSPs are by definition "gifted." But there are certainly proportionately more gifted HSPs than gifted people in the general population. And much like with being HSP, 60-70% of "highly gifted" adults are introverts, vs. 25-30% of the general population.

Next step....

"Gifted" adults (many of whom are HSPs, remember) have "problems" just like the rest of the world. Except they are not like the rest of the world, just like HSPs are not like the rest of the world. As a (partial, anyway) result of this, there is an alarming degree of misdiagnosis of Depression, ADD and Bipolar Disorder in gifted adults.

How so?

Someone presents for treatment with "scattered" thoughts and a hyperactive mind that's constantly thinking "crazy thoughts" all over the place, as well as hypersensitivity and hyperexitablility. So they get chemical treatment for ADD. Except..... this hyperactive mind is actually a natural consequence of giftedness and sensitivity, not a "fault" in need of "repair." Yet, with a little pharmaceutical help, a brilliant mind that actually just needed guidance is instead "put to sleep" with drugs and its gifts lost to society.

But getting back to depression. The danger with depression in the gifted (and HSP) adult is that to 99% of the psychological profession "depression is depression is depression." Thus someone who presents with "depression" is (drugged and) treated for "depression."

Sorry! Wrong! But thank you for playing.....

Many of us recognize psychological clinical depression, either from having it, or from knowing someone who has it-- or just from reading. There are a bajillion web sites that will let you self-test, or read definitions from the "Holy Book Of The DSM-IV." In general something happens in our lives that jolts us, disappoints us, and we feel like we've failed somehow, and we become depressed. Things feel bleak and hopeless, but eventually a counselor helps us find the cause, which is then localized, defined and treated, and we go about our lives, armed with new "tools," "magic pills" and a new direction.

But there are many people for whom this standard "treatment of depression" really doesn't do anything. They seek treatment, but end up feeling no improvement, leading to feeling even more as if nobody understands them, and then might even devleop a belief that the psychology profession "can't help them" because they "don't GET it." More often than not, these people are HSPs who are also highly gifted.

The "good" news is that the reason you don't feel any different as a result of the treatment you're getting... is that you're being treated for something you don't actually have.

Existential Depression is often little more than a footnote in most writings and research on depression. It's not exactly a "household concept" since it generally doesn't affect many people, except in a very fleeting and vague manner. However, it is extremely prevalent among highly gifted sensitive adults. It's pervasive, non-specific, numbing and immobolizing-- in some cases causing the sufferer to reach a very logical conclusion that it makes most sense to just kill themselves. It does not respond to drugs or "conventional" therapies for depression; it cannot be "cured," only "managed" and the appropriate "management skills" generally have to be learned through Existential Psychotherapy-- which was "Chapter 4 in college" for most therapists, but a specialty for painfully few.

I just bring this up as "food for thought" for those who struggle with Depression and/or ADD/ADHD and feel "out of step." I bring this up, because maybe all that is "wrong" with you is that you have a special brain that's actually functioning normally-- for you. I bring it up because the type of depression felt by many on this board may not be as straightforward as they think. This will by no means apply to everyone, but if it "clicks" with even one or two, this post will have been worthwhile.


  1. Wow, I didn't know that there was such a thing as existential depression. I think I got it. I was just thinking about it the other night, that suicide is the most logical thing to do.

    I suspect Heath Ledger (The Joker in Batman) was a HSP.

  2. Indeed suicide is the most logical thing, but when I tell it to others, they look at me as if I'm from outer space, or else, they're wondering when I'm actually going to commit suicide.

    And looking at my own comment, I DO sound like someone who's suicidal, and about to commit suicide.

    Actually, it's not like that at all. It's just knowing that suicide is a tempting, and even logical option, but I'm not taking it.

    Ok, I give up trying to explain, lol. You can't understand it unless you feel it.

    In any case, I'm going the other way now --- being happy --- which is the only other logical option.

    1. i understand what you mean :) It sure would be a lot easier - it ends the unanswerable and constant questions. But its so strange; you and I both know that its not an option we would actively pursue at this point. But i wouldnt care if I was to die right now. Lol - so yes, being happy then must be our only route! Its so ironically funny hey...but im not really laughing. Man...

  3. I completely resonate w/this article and perspectives expressed in the above comments~ Thank you! My question is:
    How can we HSP's manage such things as existential depression/ADD (as I have been perhaps erroneously 'diagnosed' with) in order to better function in an ever-increasingly over stimulating world? I do not want to take medications but I don't have any solutions, besides continuing to live a semi-hermetic life (which is enticing as an INFP writer as myself). But because of these 'symptoms', I feel very misunderstood in my (very intellectual yet unempathic) family and this microcosm extends to society at large. Any suggestions?advice? thanks again! :-)

  4. When I read the words "Existential Depression" [and the logical conclusion you drew from it and that I have allways seen as an option, but as S.A.

    stated "I'm going the other way now --- being happy --- which is the only other logical option"] I just knew that [Existential Depression] is what I

    have experienced in my childhood. From 6-7 years old to - as far as - 25 years old I have experienced that "Existential Depression". Never had a feeling

    of direction (my parents didn't exactly have a good relationship, but I'm not going into that... have done a lot of work on that already luckely).

    I have done a lot of reading lately [High Sensitive People by Elaine N. Aron, The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller (read that one 4 years ago

    though, but didn't have the patience to read it completly through)=> bad concentration / ADD ;-) , Mindfulness, Hyperventilation, ... and a lot of

    information on the internet].

    Your writing makes completly sence to me in every thoughtfull way (yours and mine).

    I often have the experience that people are 'pushing' me, instead of asking how I feel about something... makes me wonder:
    Heard something beautifull the other day on televsion [an environmental activist stating his opinion about the state of the world... ].
    Is a step forwards allways a step forward [read 'pushing'] if you know that you are standing in front of the edge of a cliff?
    Isn't it better to take a step back at that point, or to put it smarter: isn't it better to turn 180 degrees and to THEN make a step forward.
    A step forward is not allways a step forward, sometimes it's better to look at the 'big picture' by taking a step 'back' (or forward but in the other

    direction) and to then see where you are going from there (you can call it reflection - HSP-like).

    What strikes me about the book [The Highly Sensitive Person] and vision of Elaine N. Aron is that she offers a POSITIVE approach and she doesn't give

    you that stigmatic label of having a disease... that has to be treated with medications... [that is a short-term approach]. People in general think a

    pill (all pills, even a sleep-pill) will cure their life instead of going to the depths of themselves [long-term approach], the conscious part [and

    confronting part] that will make them better humans.

    Anyway thanks for the read !!!
    Greetings from Belgium

  5. Thank you for your insight & openess! I have recently done A LOT of reading on the whole Gifted/HSP/ADHD thing...

    Quite by accident - and friend mentioned to me that he thought I was gifted - he is a teacher and is "In Tune" with GATE Children.

    He showed me a list of attritubes, etc... which I indentified with and that sent me off on a "self discovery" process. Neededless to say the more I read - the more I exclaimed "That's ME!!".

    I have the added complexity of not only not knowing what is true about me, but also going through an episode of Major Depression after my Dad died (driving 2 hours each way from work, buying a new house, etc...).

    I was always labeled as "Hyper" as a child - and constantly in the Principals office - because I finished my work so fast - I was bored (I am 41 by the way - and have never had support - only misunderstood).

    Anyway - Thank you for your in-sights. I've been toying with the idea of confronting my "Shrink" with the possibility of misdiagnosis - verging on purchasing a book about it.

    This gives me a bit more amunition and confirmation of what I have already suspected as true. I think I won't bother with arguing with her - but instead perhaps seek out a Dr./Counselor who can recognize what is actually correct for me.

  6. is it possible to have ADHD (without hyperactivity) AND be HSP? actually i was diagnosed with ADHD when i was 8 but was never told about it,i was never treated, it was just ignored. i don't like the idea of taking the meds that they give people these days for ADHD but i have been looking for alternative treatments.

    i understand that maybe many who have been diagnosed with these disorders don't have a problem, they just need guidance, but it is possible to have adhd

    still though i did like this post, thanks for writing it.

    1. "but it is possible to have adhd"

      I thought I would look up how adhd is diagnosed (in north-america, through the DSM), just to see:

      1. ...."symptoms including being easily distracted, forgetful, daydreaming, disorganisation, poor concentration, and difficulty completing tasks."

      2...." presents with excessive fidgetiness and restlessness, hyperactivity, difficulty waiting and remaining seated, immature behaviour; destructive behaviors may also be present."

      Left with these symptoms alone to diagnose adhd, and no strong concrete proof for mechanism of action (without a mechanism of action, support for calling something a disease is always weaker) ie, what's going on in the brain...

      well, let say that I CAN accept your affirmation that it is POSSIBLE to have adhd, heck, anything's possible. But as to whether adhd even exists, in the diagnostic sense you're implying? I have my doubts.

  7. I was put into a GATE program, but "insights, intuitions" weren't recognized or supported - only "talents". I was not driven to achieve as much as understand and make connections, so they didn't really know what to do with me. Not being understood or having an outlet for what drives you is depressing.

  8. Finally something that resonates with me. Not going to try to rewire myself anymore. I am a highly gifted sensitive being that feels totally F#*@ed to life on this planet, but, I'm not "allowed" to say such things to the hedonistic 80%. I understand now why I am here. Reinventing Self version 3.3. Thanks for the post!

  9. I am a gifted adult who accepted the diagnosis of ADHD in medical school because the alternative was being labeled with a diagnosis of Bipolar. The third alternative was losing my career and I carefully considered all three.

    Externally, doctors are taught to diagnose based on 50% of a standard deviation curve. In training, we do not study unusually healthy traits, only unusually pathological traits and always in comparison to the "average". We become very good at differentiating "normal" from "not normal" but medical education rarely talks of "not normal pathological" vs "not normal extraordinary". Its a fundamental flaw in medical theory and explains much of the observations above, (which I believe are very astute).

    Internally, medical training is entirely unforgiving of neurodiversity and actively seeks to eliminate it during the clinical years (which merely perpetuates the former). Most doctors survive caregiver fatigue by convincing themselves that they are fundamentally different from their patients; thus within healthcare there is a culture of projecting "health, vitality, and the above average Joe".

    During the clinical years, medical students are placed in a succession of competitive environments and often judged based on their ability to socialize "properly" in clearly toxic situations. For a HSP, as the working hours lengthen it becomes harder and harder to recover the energy to do what is necessary to pass muster. A number of my introverted classmates took a year off during this time as they were frequently criticized and received poor marks for being "too quiet". I on the other hand was "too talkative" which has always been my stress-response in painful social situations. I believe Susan Cain described well the bone deep exhaustion some of us suffer after faking the extrovert ideal day in and day out. (Great paper on neurodiversity discrimination here

    After years of searching, reading, and some testing I truly believe I am simply a sensitive high sensation-seeking extrovert with an unfortunately high IQ. In fact I'm not sure if that definition doesn't cover all ADHD people. Gabor Mate recently posited the theory that ADHD was simply the result of an an emotionally sensitive child being exposed to repeat trauma in their developmental years. I see a strong corollary between his work and Dr. Aron's work.

    I'm sorry, this is long but I wanted to add that I do understand existential depression. I think giftedness and sensitivity bring the bearer the full view of a situation, truth without illusion. Thus one of the gifts of giftedness is the ability to truly see, appreciate, and consider all the options. Perhaps the curse, is that sometimes the truth can be very difficult to face and other people want the comfort of their illusions. I believe it takes a lot of courage to see what really happens in the world around us, and still have compassion for ourselves and others.

    As far as medication, my belief is that there are times when someone becomes depleted enough that they can be helpful. However all psychiatric medications at this point are crude tools. Think of it like water-wings, you might not drown, but you're not going to be swimming very fast either. The best thing about this site and HSP research is that you are now armed with the knowledge that health might look very different for you than for the average person. We need doctors that can understand that as well.

  10. thank you for information...

  11. Thank you so much for writing this article. I have been off and on medication for depression for years, with not much success. And now I think I understand why. I only wish my doctor/s might have picked up on this.

  12. Mr./Mrs./Ms. Anonymous that wrote the comment at 10:07pm on Dec. 06/14 - would you mind further expounding on any of the thoughts you shared in that original post? Alternatively, could you link to any online postings you have made that talk about the same topics? As a male HSP with ADHD I became more increasingly more intrigued as I read. Thanks.

  13. Thank you for acknowledging the possibility (indeed, the probability) that those of us who are highly sensitive, intuitive, "gifted," and depressed and not malfunctioning and maladjusted, but are, in fact, experiencing the natural result of deep insight and global awareness of the human condition. For my part, I have been seeking meaning in the world my entire life in an attempt to find a place to fit my compassionate creative impulses into the mechanized clockwork of a heartless economy. This search has led me into every corner of psychology, philosophy, mythology, anthropology, and sociology to name but a few subjects of the humanities.
    I have concluded that the only meaning our lives have is that with which we imbue it. This is a very difficult and personal mission and one which we must continuously CHOOSE to remain committed to. Choice is the very essence of our humanity and is the burden we bear every minute of our lives. Whatever your talents, passions and inclinations happen to be, the choice is always yours to pursue them with either selfish desire or selfless love. Even if everything you did during your entire life amounted to nothing and was forgotten as soon as you died, the meaninglessness of deeds done for love would outweigh that done out of ego.

    1. I am in exactly the same place. Trying to love as much as I can while I'm here.

  14. I am INFP too and my dream is to write a novel. And feel misunderstood. But it doesn't bother me anymore.I understand myself and the rest will live as is right for them.

  15. This article is great. I like hearing that all these things are one big swirl of experience! I have looked at things through the eyes of an artist and that helps. I have watched my spirit be moved with the ancient and new tools of meditation/prayer/yoga. I used to get lost in books as a child. In music as a young adult. I have held onto the Bene Gesserit mantra about noticing the fear and noticing it pass through and noticing only I remain. All of it works. For a second. Then there you are. The rest of the time you should just manage your being. Eat, drink, sleep, say hi to others. Work and do stuff. Be dumb, awesome, ridiculous, but don't think for a second that your special movie is more special than the one inside that other being. Maybe humility is the cure for suicidal impulses. It sort of worked for me. Tolerate yourself at least. Be open to the idea that being a breathing loving hating needing sorrowful joyful being is a constant wonder. Just plain divine really. Why not? (Thanks for the forum)

  16. I was diagnosed with ADHD-inattentive about 2 years ago (I’m 24) and have been on medication since. I’ve always displayed the traits of an HSP, with a combination of bold extroversion in some situations.
    In fact, most people are surprised when I tell them how I feel after being social for an extended period of time without the time to recharge.

    My history is different from most of my social group. I grew up in a very difficult and abusive environment that amplified the extremely co-dependent behavior in my mother. In short, I was the mediator between my parent’s abusive relationship, the bulldog when my mother didn’t want to be the bad guy, the fixer with anyone and everything, leaving me emotionally drained and desperate to please my mother in any way (anxious-attachment). Surviving two wars before I turned 11, almost being killed on multiple occassions, while my father made random appearances to terrorize me and my mother. As a child, I had to grow up and deal with the adult cards I was dealt. As a young adult, I had to care for my foreign/needy parents because the guilt of not doing so killed me. Again, everyone first and me last.

    In the last several years, I’ve become more aware of myself and have taken interest in why I feel the way I do. I feel that introspection wouldn’t have been possible if I had stayed near my extremely disfunctional family dynamic. I can attribute a great deal of my focus to being on ADHD meds, however, I sometimes wonder whether it’s making my life harder than it needs to be. I lose a great deal of time feeling exhausted, then my medication makes me alert, then a crash, then some irritability, and the eventual crash that gets me to bed. It’s a viscious cycle that’s fueled with anxiety and depression on a very consistent basis.

    Being gifted, being different, being attractive while being different is treated as a taboo by most men I come across. It’s a very confusing life of knowing what is and isn’t considered okay but I feel like that concern is deeply rooted in our HSP tendency to people please. I recently read a great book on that concept and it’s made my life a whole lot easier. I think many HSPs are concerned with being good and doing good, while we miss out on actually being who we are. It’s our urge to please others that causes us so much personal distress. So, to wrap all of this up, I hope me sharing my personal struggles will bring a somewhat different perespectice on HSP’s with ADHD as I think I’m the only one who’s currently on meds (and sorry if I missed anyone).

    AND because of my recent people pleasing knowledge, I will resist the urge to apologize for going off topic and rambling to you all ��

    And many thanks to the doctor above that commented in Dec of 2014. As a med student, it’s comforting to know that HSPs can thrive in the medical field without losing our minds.


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