Depression in gifted adults is incredibly common. In fact, some of us wonder whether it’s possible to be happy, given our intelligence. It seems insurmountable. But it doesn’t have to be.
Depression is described as persistent low mood and reduced interest in activities lasting more than two weeks. For some of us, the “two weeks” is unwittingly hilarious, as it’s more like two or more decades.
But what actually is depression? What gives rise to it? Why do we get it – and how do we shift it?
While depression can only officially be diagnosed by a medically-trained professional, there’s also a vast body of knowledge shared by many of us who’ve experienced it for so long. Our experience of living it from the inside out, of managing depression, with or without medications or psychological support services.
I’d describe depression as a persistent or chronic low and/or despondent mood or state that arises in response to circumstances, past, present, or imagined future, or views (opinions, beliefs) about oneself, the world, and everything else.
In my experience, investigations, and observations of depression, it’s all about disconnection. Disconnection from parts and aspects of ourselves, disconnection from our people, disconnection from the natural world, and disconnection from a sense of meaning or context for our lives. Johann Hari presents his version of these disconnects in his book Lost Connections.
Depression in gifted adults often starts young, is chronic, persistent, and we live with it. We get good at masking depression – aka we have hidden depression – and we have enough brain power, will power, and energy to mask depression AND function normally in day-to-day life.
We are, as gifted adults, also susceptible to depression in a few distinct ways that tend to occur less often in the general population.
Let’s have a thorough look at what we’re talking about.
Causes of depression in gifted adults
It’s said that knowing the problem is the first step towards solving it. That’s true for depression, too. Plus, getting your GP’s opinion – and that of other medical professionals relevant to you – is really important.
There are so many different sets of circumstances and beliefs that can give rise to depressive states. From physical conditions, to past events, to views of oneself or the world. It’s worth checking out which of these apply to you. While reasonably thorough, this list is incomplete. There are so many factors that play a role. These are the common ones.
Insufficient basic maintenance
At a basic level, getting good enough nutrition, water, rest, sleep, and activity for your body and brain goes a long way to helping stay away from or shift depressive states.
Eating foods that disagree with your body can cause pain and discomfort, but can also influence mood. Keeping a food-mood diary may help trace problem foods – and identify the foods that help you feel awesome.
Regular walks have been found to be effective for alleviating depressive symptoms – or viewed the other way around, regular walks or other activity is essential for good physical and mental health and without it, we fall into lower moods.
Like high performance cars need both good driving skills *and* regular bodily maintenance, gifted folk need both the mental and emotional skills to handle giftedness with its strong-mindedness and strong emotions *and* enough physical maintenance and activity to function well.
When we mistake ourselves as ‘just a brain’ who happens to have a body, we might tend to neglect our body’s needs. Applying some of our brainpower to rebalancing this towards a healthier physical state is definitely a Good Idea.
Physical conditions and illness
When the body’s low on critical elements or ill, brain functioning can be affected. This may take you into depressive moods. Checking your physical health with your doctor is essential to identify and properly address these conditions.
The effects of touch starvation came strongly into focus when the COVID-19 pandemic limited social interaction. Touch serves as a regulator on our physical and emotional stress. In fact, physical contact is super-important for infants and children to co-regulate their emotional states with an emotionally regulated adult or older child, and is the mechanism by which we learn to do this for ourselves.
As adults, not getting enough touch – or not enough of the right kinds of touch for our individual bodies – can make us feel tetchy, lonely, and depress our moods. Touch starvation can also have the unfortunate effect of making us tend towards avoiding other humans, and so the cycle continues.
Some gifted adults can fall into – or brought up believing – the mistaken viewpoint that touch – in fact the body in general – is not as important or worthy of attention as the mind. Coming to see ourselves as humans with bodies with bodily needs can be a long journey of unlearning and relearning.
Ask any parent or carer of young children, people with chronic pain conditions, or disordered sleep, and they’re very likely to be familiar with sleep deprivation. When your body and brain don’t get enough quality sleep, your overall functioning is affected. For some of us, our mood takes a dive into depressive states when sleep deprived.
If your brain is ADHD, your sleep may well be disordered and your thoughts in overdrive as you lie in bed, awake, again. It’s worth checking out if you have any neurodiversity going on alongside your high intelligence. Giftedness and ADHD often occur together, for example.
On the ADHD note, having an ADHD brain and not knowing it can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression, because of the persistent nagging and undermining self-questioning of ‘why can’t I do the things I want to do, or have to do, when I should be able to do them easily?’
Identifying the kind of brains we have, how to handle them – and how to get our employers, family and friends to support us effectively – helps *a lot*.
While the symptoms of grief and depression are similar, grief can usually be traced to an event. That said, we’re sometimes oblivious to the causes of our grief, and mistake grief for depression.
As well as the obvious grief of bereavement, there’s also grief in response to losing regular contact with colleagues when we or they change jobs, losing routines as our family changes, grief for places we’ve left when we relocate, grief for incomplete pregnancies. The loss of dreams, of an imagined future, leads to grief, too.
Gifted people are often blessed with strong willpower, and we can tend to power on after difficult experiences, long after we would have been better off stopping to pause, rest, and digest the experiences. While grief is often very patient and waits for us to turn our attention to it, sometimes it gets restless and demands our attention, slowing us down in depression until we finally stop, look at it, and integrate the experiences we’ve been through. Sometimes, we’ll persist beyond the point of sensible into burn-out. Other times, a physical injury or illness will stop us in our tracks, and the enforced rest allows us to process the grief, too.
With time and tenderness, grief changes and heals. Not always completely, but it changes. When we get stuck in grief, that can feel like depression. Finding and acknowledging the hidden grief underneath allows us to move on.
This often comes up for clients with a vague sense of not feeling right, but not knowing why. There’s a grief that needs expression, and I help find it, bring it tending, and help people to heal.
Those of us who get our giftedness diagnosed later on, after struggling along for years as an undiagnosed gifted adult, go through a whole process of coming to terms with this new understanding. How our giftedness affects us physically, mentally, emotionally. How our giftedness has contributed to difficulties in social interaction and relationships. How our giftedness is a challenge – as well as a superpower – at work. We pass back and forth through the stages of grief as we assimilate this new knowledge and re-view our life’s experience through a new lens.
The struggle of being gifted
Humans are innately social creatures. We are wired for connection. As the saying goes, we can survive by ourselves, but we thrive in community.
Yet giftedness itself often feels like a barrier to connection and community. How do we connect with people who don’t – who won’t, who can’t – understand us and our experience? How can we interact with people we feel so fundamentally alien from? How do we have any chance of connecting with people who get us on all our levels?
Many of us feel chronically lonely: disconnected from the people who can truly see us, people we feel we can really share and spend our lives with. This often lifelong struggle makes us feel alien, different, and not belonging. The lonely genius syndrome.
Gifted children and adults often have very strong emotions (which they might even deny having!). There’s a certain spark in gifted people, a particular kind of energy or fire inside that’s passionate, fervent, and intense. The intensity of emotions can lead to very strong responses to situations, which takes other people by surprise – and causes difficulties for the person themself.
This intensity needs a certain extra skill and understanding in handling – much like a high-performance car needs different handling to your regular city-runabout car. The problem is, we don’t get an instruction manual or lessons for your emotions like you do for music, maths or art.
Gifted teens can be stuck in a double bind: their intellectual skill is way ahead of their physical age, and even further ahead of their emotional age. People may assume gifted teens have a higher level of emotional maturity because of their intellectual maturity. But this is not the case: their emotions may still be very much teenage – or younger.
In the gifted teen, these intense emotions have a very powerful mind and near-adult-sized body to drive around. Like a Ferrari engine with bicycle brakes, they unwittingly do a lot of damage to themselves and those around them. Family, friends and teachers might then be surprised that the teen has got into difficulty, because ‘surely such an intelligent person wouldn’t make those kinds of mistakes?’ But, as it happens, it’s fairly common.
The uneven profile of asynchronous development – in this case, the intellect being streets ahead of the emotions – can endure into adulthood, too.
Some gifted people recognise that their emotions need extra attention, and read up on it or seek out a counsellor, or specialist therapy for gifted adults. But some remain oblivious to their emotions and the effect that they have, and so stay relatively unskilled in emotional handling. Most of the time, this is fine, but when emotions get strong, or way out of balance, we can really struggle to handle ourselves.
Some of us turn (un)consciously against our minds, and try to reduce our intensity and brain power. We might use alcohol, cannabis, or other substances or activities. We might act deliberately less intelligent than we are. We hide, sometimes in plain sight.
Having a greater sense of our own place in a broader humanity helps, when based on a sense of compassion. When that compassion and understanding aren’t so well established, we easily fall into the kind of depression that usually only affects people who’ve gone through a fundamental shock to their worldview – commonly a bereavement. The existential depression of ‘what *is* the point of all this?’
Existential depression in gifted adults
Gifted individuals have a certain knack for falling into existential depression as a result of their expansive mental and emotional growth, and intrigue in the knottier questions of life.
When we’re aware of our smallness in the greater scheme of things, and the monumental nature of the task of fixing things, we can fall into despair, hopelessness, and depression.
The opposing movement to despair and hopelessness is purposeful action. Having a sense of autonomy, a sense of competence (not imposter syndrome, or inhibited by the Dunning-Kruger effect of actually having competence and knowledge but realising there’s much more than you already know), and a sense of connection to oneself, to people, to the rest of nature, and to a cause, purpose or values, helps pull us out of despair into engaged action.
I’m going to put a shout-out in here to Liberation Unleashed and other forms or insight inquiry practices. If you’re interested in really seeing the nature of experience for yourself rather than just thinking and exchanging ideas about it, and you’re in a reasonably stable state, inquiry practices can be enormously liberating. When you see through the illusion of the stories and beliefs you tell yourself, the ideas of meaning and purpose also lose their meaning, and you’re left with all that is: just Experience.
Existential depression in gifted individuals may also be an expression of beliefs and feelings stuck in complex PTSD. A lack of a greater connection to a wider humanity, closed off by the effects of complex PTSD. Suicidal ideation, too, can be driven by feelings of not belonging, of not being supposed to be here, also rooted in complex PTSD. It’s called complex for a reason…
Social and political responses to the COVID-19 pandemic brought many of us into a state of languishing. Languishing includes feelings of stagnation, monotony, and emptiness.
Underchallenged gifted people can experience languishing even in non-pandemic circumstances. The disconnect from oneself, from meaningful challenge and the joy it brings, leads to a pervasive sense of meh. Left to persist, it can deepen into bore-out.
Burnout’s Cinderella sister, bore-out is a state similar to languishing stemming from chronic understimulation. Using Csikszentmihalyi’s model of flow states, bore-out happens when the challenge level is low and the skill or capacity for challenge is high.
In some of us, boredom manifests as restlessness and an itching for activity. In others, boredom takes us into languishing, listlessness, and exhaustion: this is a bore-out.
As you might already have figured out, it’s a lot easier for gifted individuals to go underchallenged – especially an issue for undiagnosed gifted adults. We often have years of practice at being bored and understimulated through underchallenging school , work, and social experiences.
The antidote to bore-out is finding and doing things we enjoy, things that light us up, that excite us again. It’s almost as though we lose energy and enter into a false and cold trap of stillness. To reclaim our energy levels, we need to warm ourselves up again. Do the activities that bring us joy, be with the people we love – and who love us.
Before we head over into bore-out’s big sister, burnout, it’s worth checking whether we have unrealistic expectations of ourselves, which then lead us to chronic disappointment when we can’t meet them, and head us into depressive states.
Often known as perfectionism, or disguising itself as procrastination, unrealistic expectations set us up for failure. We expect ourselves to be able to perform at work, to keep house, to parent – all to high standards, and without the support we need. When we’ve excelled throughout school, university, and early-stage career, seemingly without effort, it’s a real knock to the system when things start to get difficult. Or vague. Nothing like unclear criteria for success to set off the anxiety after years of tightly controlled curricula and assessment protocols.
For twice-exceptional adults (gifted AND e.g. autistic, ADHD, dyspraxic…), there are challenges in everyday life that mean extra support is necessary. What these supports look like will vary from person to person, but expecting an ADHD adult to keep house like a neurotypical, or an autistic person to be able to function socially in the workplace as though they’re not autistic, is a recipe for stress, anxiety, disappointment, feeling like a failure, and depression.
If you haven’t checked out your neurodivergence, you might like to do that. Understanding your brain, and what you fundamentally can and can’t easily do with your brain, makes figuring out the rest of your life so much easier. You’re not going to get a train-like brain to spin doughnuts, no matter how hard you jam the handbrake on…
Too much, for too long, with too little support, is the recipe for burnout. It can be brought on by workplace conditions, family and home responsibilities, or both. It can also be exacerbated by societal structures: insufficient childcare, inadequate or inaccessible healthcare, structural and systemic poverty, to name but a few.
The symptoms of burnout include exhaustion, an increasingly negative attitude, and less confidence in one’s abilities.
While there’s much to be said about the balance between personal responsibility for burnout and structural problems – i.e. when the workplace pushes employees into burnout – what’s important is to be able to distinguish between the different circumstances and psychological responses to them.
What causes burnout in one of us may not trigger burnout in another. It’s an individual combination of factors at play.
Recovery from burnout is also highly individual and may require support from your GP, psychological services, and your workplaces making accommodations for you – especially if you’re neurodivergent (and yes, giftedness is a type of neurodivergence), which may include being highly sensitive.
Self-knowledge is key – especially when workplaces all too often rely on employees self-advocating for what they need to do their work and stay healthy.
Abuse and neglect
In the workplace, home, and intimate relationships, abuse or neglect of any kind can lead to depression, anxiety, and the onset of (complex) PTSD.
Abuse and neglect wear a person down, stripping away their zest for life, joie de vivre, and their sense of being a valid, loveable human being.
Gifted folk, like many other neurodivergent people, interact differently. We think differently. We view the world differently. And our giftedness often gets neglected. People don’t recognise it. Don’t validate or encourage it – and sometimes react badly to our giftedness.
When someone demands – whether verbally, or through their actions and consequences – that we act non-gifted, implying or roundly declaring that our giftedness is something to be hidden away, that our creativity and divergent thinking is only worthy of being ignored, that’s abuse. When we shrink and hide ourselves away to avoid their punishments – silent treatment, mockery, undermining, or plain old dismissal and rejection – they’re controlling us through abusive means.
We can rarely love someone enough that they stop abusing us. The trap intelligent people sometimes fall into is refusing to believe that a person actually wishes them harm, while simultaneously believing – despite the evidence – that the abuser will, at some point, change their behaviour.
The healthiest option is often to end that relationship, but ending a relationship is unfortunately not always the safest option.
Recovery from abuse and neglect take time (read: possibly years) and generally need plenty of support – from friends, family, helping professionals.
Emotional flashbacks into a traumatised freeze response
Depressive states can be triggered when we are triggered into an emotional flashback, whether by external events or even our own inner voice.
PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – develops in some of us after traumatic events. One of the effects of PTSD can be flashbacks into fearful or frozen states, like we experienced at the time of the event.
Those of us who grew up in emotionally abusive or neglectful families often develop Complex PTSD in response to the inescapable traumatising conditions we were in. Emotional flashbacks take us back to the trapped, emotionally stuck state we experienced as children, especially when we received no help to process and let go of those emotions.
More broadly, Complex PTSD can interfere with our basic functioning in many and varied ways. Some of us become hypervigilant, constantly monitoring the environment and people around us for signs of threat. Some of us develop what’s called endogenous depression, or treatment-resistant depression, because the roots of the depression are hard to trace. Some of us have problems with intimacy, finding ourselves unable to trust loved-ones to get close to us physically or emotionally. Some of us struggle with basic self-care tasks of housekeeping, food planning and prep, or getting proper medical attention, because of feeling unworthy or undeserving of proper care for ourselves, having not had it modelled to us as young children.
As gifted children, with strong and fast-developing brains, our beliefs about ourselves and the world can get quite deeply etched into our worldviews early on. Also, as children, we don’t always have the full set of data or perspective on which to base these beliefs, so we often get it wrong. These wonky beliefs then set us up for difficulty later on, unless and until we course correct.
Tracing flashbacks and other complex PTSD beliefs and behaviours to their roots provides us with release from emotional flashbacks.
Any and all of the above experiences can lead us into self-medicating – which in turn can dip our mood and mental state further into depression mode.
Self-medication is a broad and inclusive church. Alcohol, legal and non-legal drugs, over-indulging in sex, games, gambling, compulsive shopping, relationship drama, overwork… you name it, there’s probably a way to self-medicate with it.
While self-medicating may sometimes alleviate some of our symptoms for some length of time, it doesn’t address the root causes. Self-medicating can lead to its own issues: physical health problems, financial difficulties, increased anxiety… which then lead us into deeper depressive states and/or greater reliance on more self-medication to gain a brief relief.
As an alternative – or complement – to self-medication, some of us have a well-practised off-switch: dissociation.
From feeling a bit numb, to checking out for large chunks of the day in daydream and fantasy, to periods of complete absence, dissociation is an often unconscious, internal defence mechanism. When we feel under threat, or at risk of difficult emotions, we check ourselves out and dissociate.
This strategy is often learned in childhood. For instance, if our parents were always arguing, it was probably safest to go hide in our bedrooms and bury ourselves in a book, computer game, or special interest. If we can’t escape physically, we check out mentally.
The mind has incredible resources to effectively anaesthetise itself – and if you learn how to do this from a very young age, it can be especially tricky to spot when you’re doing it, and to learn to stay present.
Mindfulness meditation can be extremely challenging for those of us with dissociation habits – we either dissociate really effectively in meditation (not the point of meditation, but it can feel like a comfortable state of trance which we then think of as a ‘meditative state’), or we actually pay attention to our bodies and realise we’re screaming on the inside – which can be incredibly and brutally painful, especially when you’re expecting to feel all calm and chilled out after meditating.
The problem here, of course, is that the parts of our experience that are unintegrated, left outside ourselves like muddy boots, are vital parts of us. On some level, we’re grieving the parts of us that we’re cut off from – all without knowing that these parts are even missing.
Fortunately, approaches like Internal Family Systems, Inner Child Work, and energy work can help us to locate, acknowledge, and reintegrate these missing aspects of ourselves. I support clients through these kinds of processes, helping to heal old wounds and bring back the missing spark and shine they used to have. Take a look at what I offer if this sounds like something you need.
Structural and systemic issues
The structures and systems that maintain Western societies, culture, and economies are often fundamentally detrimental to some – or we could argue all – people living in them. Poverty – or rather, wealth inequalities. Racism. Sexism. Transphobia. Ageism. Colourism. Homophobia. Class divisions. Ableism. Capitalism, rooted as it is in exploitation of humans, animals, and the natural world.
We all experience some degree of being cut off from ourselves as a result of inhabiting and being institutionalised in these ways. Each time we disconnect from someone else’s humanity, we disconnect from our own. Each time we turn away from seeing damage done to the natural world, we disconnect from our emotional responses – often because were we able and willing to feel them, we’d find it a) too painful and b) then difficult to not take action to make amends and we’re afraid of the cost and consequences of doing so.
Gifted people are often acutely aware of these issues from an early age. For many of us, it leads to depression. The hopelessness of living in these worldviews. Despondency. Despair that clamps down on us tightly, until we find ways to act in accordance with our values to make valuable and necessary changes in our world.
On the flip side, we might also cut ourselves off from seeing these issues (remember dissociation?). With our headstrong ways, we pursue interests cleverly, passionately, and intensely, but without deeper connection to our own experience and emotions, and thereby without deep connection and empathy with other people and the world we inhabit.
While the pleasure of pursuit lasts, we’re happy. Intoxicated, perhaps. But if and when the shine wears off, the realisation of the damaging impact we’ve had on ourselves, our loved ones, and our world, is a big and bitter pill to swallow. And, of course, we may unconsciously drive forever forward to avoid this ever happening. Not everyone is up for this challenge.
When this kind of breakthrough does happen, we need a lot of support through the process of reviewing, grieving, and reorienting our lives.
Interconnected causes of depression in gifted adults
The list above is a tidy collection of discrete causes. But life, as you know, is not like that. There are usually a number of layers present.
For instance, you may have Complex PTSD, plus languishing, plus understimulation at work. Or you have disordered sleep, burnout, all while supporting family members with their intense care needs. Or you’re overworked, not getting the right food for your body’s needs, and deprived of touch because you have no time to plan, prepare and eat properly, or spend time with your loved ones.
If you’re reading this and figuring yourself out as you go – great! And: be gentle with yourself. Pick the easiest strand to untangle first. Or identify the critical strand, the one thing that would make the biggest difference to you if you change it.
What do you want to do about it?
Valid. Some people live with depression as a lifelong friend. You may weigh up the options (or not) and decide to go along as you are with The Black Dog, as it’s sometimes called.
2. DIY options
With books, videos, and useful articles on the internet, identify what’s going on for you.
Take it from there to identify the kinds of supports, activities, and people you need to rebalance your life and (re)connect you to what brings you into feeling alive.
3. Get support
Depending on what’s actually going on, identified to some extent through your own fact-finding and observation, you might need a combination different supports from other humans – and your support needs may vary over time:
- A GP for medical attention.
- Nutritional advice and/or allergy testing.
- Meditation and/or relaxation training.
- Expanding your friendship circle to include other gifted adults.
- Therapeutic support from a counsellor, psychotherapist.
- Working with a giftedness specialist to understand yourself.
- Physiotherapy, massage, or other bodywork to reduce physical tension and ailments.
- Medication from a psychiatrist.
- Diagnosis of neurodivergence, and supports for managing your neurodivergence in everyday life.
The piece of the support puzzle I offer is around identifying and understanding your giftedness and high sensitivity/overexcitability, releasing stuck beliefs and feelings, and reconnecting you with the core of who you are – a core that often gets lost when we’re busy trying to fit in with everything else around us. Take a look at what I offer.
The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this webpage are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this webpage. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this webpage. Sue Mahony PhD disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this webpage.
Sue Mahony PhD is gifted, autistic, and ADHD. She provides 1:1 specialist support for brains similar to her own, giftedness group programmes, speaking and bespoke support for organisations, and a wealth of articles on this website.
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