Speaker: Dr. Nancy Lee
Grandview High School
6pm November 13, 2019
A Summary by Colleen Chan
Performing Under Pressure: The Relationship Between Giftedness and Stress
Dr. Nancy Lee is a licensed psychotherapist who works with adults who experience anxiety, trauma and stress. She also has experience working with neurodivergent populations such as gifted and talented, twice exceptional learners, ADHD, LD, HSP, HSS, and creative thinkers. She is also the parent of a gifted, twice exceptional learner and has personal firsthand parental experience regarding this topic. Dr. Lee begins her presentation by asking us what we would like to hear about and what we would like to take away from her presentation this evening.
Numerous parents raise their hands and begin to ask questions such as:
• How can my child be successful through the anxiety?
• What are some tools my child can use in class to manage their stress levels?
• Without stressing them out, how do we as parents support them?
• How does one support a child who is a self ingrained perfectionist?
• How can you motivate a GT child to reach their full potential if they are unmotivated?
• How can I help my twice exceptional child who struggles with feelings of anxiety and “I
am not good enough”?
Dr. Lee discusses how all these questions relate back to what she calls developing a “healthy drive”, helping your child develop a balanced view and attitude towards achievement. She relates back to how many gifted learners, but twice exceptional learners in particular, can often suffer from feelings of internalized judgement and shame. She says she will address how we as parents can coach our children to identify their feelings and feel them, validate their experience and help them move past negative, hurtful emotions that emanate from the stressors in their lives.
She launches into her talk by explaining how there are fourteen types of giftedness and that intellectual ability and academic aptitude are the most highly recognized forms of GT. General Intellectual Ability is also the type of GT with the most research behind it. She goes on to explain the term, twice exceptional (2E) to mean a gifted learner who has also been identified as having a learning disability. She shares that GT learners have an incredible amount of brain and nervous system activity. This is very much part of why GT people experience stress more profoundly.
Next, Dr. Lee delves into the topic of Neurodevelopment-Informed Parenting. She explains how neurodiversity includes both people who are neurodivergent (GT or twice exceptional, LD, ADHD, APD, etc.) and neurotypical (people who have normal/average brain functioning). She addresses how functional brain differences present both opportunities and challenges. Neurodivergent people are often out of sync with expectations and with the people around them which causes intra-psychic distress. For these people, mental health professionals can provide the language and tools they need to express their feelings and experiences in order to process and release that stress. She also describes how there is often a lack of understanding and consistent support even when well meaning parents try to be supportive. Parents can sometimes say or do things that possibly cause even more pressure/anxiety without meaning to do so. This pressure to perform and produce on demand weighs heavily on GT learners and other neurodivergent learners.
Research Consensus indicates that a high percentage of youth and young adults are reporting toxic levels of stress. Stress can affect all aspects of child development , health, well being and functioning. According to research conducted in 2017 published by The Child Mind Institute, “Many mental health disorders appear to be the result, in part, of stressful experience that cause brain changes”. The statistics on youth mental health show high levels of stress, anxiety, mood issues, self harm, eating and body issues, suicidal thoughts, drug use, and internet/gaming misuse and addiction.
Dr. Lee goes on to present the BIG 3 Social-Emotional Priorities. They are (1) health and well being, (2)safety, and (3)skills. She describes how health is not the absence of illness. It is the ability to feel positive emotions and go through life in a productive manner regardless of circumstance. She challenges us to shift from an outside-in perspective. Instead of asking- “What’s wrong with you?”or “Why are you not doing what you’re supposed to be doing?”, we should instead be asking more probing and problem solving oriented questions like “What’s happening?”and “What does this child need to be successful? “. As parents we can be coaches and we can actively help our children to expand their tool kit and learn to trust their own judgment rather than self doubt in times of stress.
What is Stress? Dr. Lee explains that a stress reaction is “hard wired” and that both triggers of stress and responses to stress are malleable. Stress is not weakness, not low grit, not low resilience. It is anxiety, a pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that involve compulsive thinking, irritability, anger, shifts in energy, and very often, avoidance of the stress trigger itself. She describes the stress continuum as going from mild stress levels to acute levels of stress to toxic stress and trauma. On this Stress Continuum, the experience and effects of stress are individualized, and stressors can be perceived or real. She also notes that children in particular are vulnerable to secondary stress (stress in the home or at school, parents’ stress- they will often internalize it or blame themselves, and feel confused). She urges us to make sure we have clarifying conversations with our children about what their possible sources of secondary stress are and how to be more aware that our children take this kind of stress on involuntarily.
She moves on to a slide about Stress Reaction ( see brain diagram). In the axis models, the brain circuits first engage, then body chemistry begins to change. Next activation of stress and stress behaviors exhibit causing short term and cumulative impact on the body. She describes the autonomic nervous system as a gas and brake system. Stressed behaviors involve a go-go-go (gas) reaction(flight/fight) or a halted (brake/freeze) reaction.
Moving onto the following slide, you can see that Breath Training is a key to combating stress. Dr. Lee compares and contrasts the flight or fight stress response to a normal/relaxed response. She explains how deep breathing is an essential tool to equip our children with to help them manage their stress and anxiety levels immediately. Children will often begin to breathe at a very shallow rate when they are distressed, depriving their brains of needed oxygen. Soon, dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system takes over. With breath training, we can help our children combat the stress that will rob them of joy and rob them of that feeling of safety we all need to feel in order to fully function, work and succeed.
Once the body and mind are in a stressed state of being (aka Overload), a person has trouble understanding his/her emotions. If there is chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system, we will begin to have a low threshold for a stress response and a tendency to act and react to conditions as a threat. Dr. Lee suggests helping your child find a way to release all that keyed up energy from their nervous system through sports or some other physical activity. During this state of stress, a person will respond via the Motivation Triad: Threat/Reward/Ease. Their threat system is also activated and they react with anger, then fear, then disgust. Negative thoughts, feelings, behaviors and symptoms present themselves as self preservation instincts take over and the person grows more egocentric. In the stressed state, even everyday tasks become difficult because of possible excessive fatigue or learned helplessness. The stressed person moves into self-protective habits such as isolation, avoidance, suppression, overthinking, over control or giving up. It’s a bad cycle that spirals downward if a person cannot gain control over their emotions. For more resources on this topic, refer to Thomas Boyce’s comparison of “dandelions” and “orchids”. He describes dandelions as those whom are hardy and can handle stressors with more ease. Orchids, on the other hand, are more delicate, more sensitive, and have greater difficulty coping with stressors. You may also be interested in Elaine Aron’s work on Sensory Processing Sensitivity.
Stress affects our working memory and ability to think. It leads to distorted thinking as we become more discouraged. This is why we must help our children with self regulation. Self regulation is the ability to recognize, label, and manage internal experiences and states. It is how we map emotions and map what is happening in our mind. Some self regulation strategies include top down (e.g. self talk) and bottom up (e.g. deep breathing). Dr. Lee presents us with an important idea. She tells us that children need adults to co-regulate for them when they cannot self-regulate during times of duress. They can not distinguish between fact and feeling when anxiety has taken over. Their feelings of fear, anger, isolation, hurt, insecurity and helplessness overwhelm them. They perceive the situation as fact. We need to help bring back perspective and ask them is that a fact or a feeling? We can also engage our children in what she calls “goal directed behavior”. Once you find something they care about deeply, use that as motivation to guide them back on the path or to evoke the type of behavior patterns you are hoping to build. Dr. Lee also refers to Stephen Porges’ Social Engagement System and the research he conducted in 2007 as well as other studies listed for you on the slide titled “Self Regulation”.
In the next slide, we are presented with a Summary: Tips for Co-Regulation (From Duke University). Please look at the diagram and see the notes below describing the three circles that make up the blue figure:
Provide Warm Responsive Relationship
• Role model compassionate acceptance and authority • Consider “connection before correction “
• Validate their feelings!! (I can imagine that was really hurtful, really hard…) Structure the Environment
• Stress friendly routines and limits (exercise)
• Positivity and positive emotions • Value mental health
• Pay attention to super stimulus Teach/Coach Self Regulation Skills
• Talk about your experiences-it trains vocabulary and engagement
• Coaching emotions, social skills, mental skills
• Planning and problem solving
• Tools like books and feelings chart
Dr. Lee also provides us with a slide on how to RECOGNIZE STRESS TRIGGERS. She uses the acronym HALT and explains how we can use this tool to help identify what may be the trigger to the anxiety that your child may be feeling.
H- Hungry or thirsty (low on calories?)
A-Agitated (emotional, uncomfortable, overstimulated, understimulated)
T- Tired, sluggish, or sleepy (fatigue can be mental, emotional, physical)
In the following slide, titled “Beyond Behaviors by Mona Delahooke”, she shows us how individual differences contribute to observable behaviors (See Iceberg diagram) Have your child use it like an assessment tool or self diagnostic for areas of strength/ struggle Help your child to learn how to feel and release, to siphon the pain and sadness by becoming more equipped, more self aware and more self diagnostic with tools like this one. Another self regulation tool provided to us by Dr. Lee is called “The Zones of Regulation”. It is an example of a feelings and emotions chart that can help both you and your child pinpoint his/her feelings. Again, it is about self awareness and taking your child through the process of processing and releasing their stressors.
Different children need different solutions. One parent asks about how to help her child with lack of executive functioning skills. Dr. Lee recommends yoga balls in the classroom setting or at home to help relieve nervous energy. She recommends consulting an OT (occupational therapist) for other tips in helping with executive functioning. She also mentions a sensory diet that might be helpful for a child facing this type of neurological challenge.
In summary, when we co-regulate with our children we have a sustained connection to them and they feel that support, that safety net. We want our children to be autonomous and independent but we also want to be a calm, grounding force in their lives so they never feel isolated and they know they can turn to us.
Finally, take the time to view the final slide which offers us an extensive list of “Suggested Resources” we parents can tap into. There are several useful websites listed that provide information about everything from ADHD to social emotional development, to being a different kind of learner, to suicide prevention and mental health classes. Take advantage of these helpful resources recommended by Dr. Lee.