Intelligence and Anxiety: a Love-hate Relationship

There is a correlation between intelligence and anxiety that occurs more frequently than it seems. Discover with us the details of this relationship.

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Typical is the image of the brilliant student, of impeccable curriculum, who despite his intellectual skills and outstanding ability for academic success, is consumed in a sea of ​​nerves every time an exam is approaching. Intelligence and anxiety, in this and other examples, seem to go hand in hand.

This hypothetical relationship between a high intellectual level and anxiety has been studied and examined, both for its evident empiricism and its theoretical-practical implications, on many occasions and from various disciplines.

A study by the University of Lakehead in Canada has established strong support for this link between high intelligence – bright, creative and analytical – and anxious tendencies – fear of the social, anticipations and nervousness and excessive worries, among others.

These correlations between psychological imbalances and outstanding personal aptitudes have a long history in science. A few years ago, a certain relationship between creativity and predisposition to bipolar tendencies gained relative popularity among the disciplines that study the human brain and mind.

Caution, however, must guide the assimilation of possible causal relationships of this type: it is not true that any person with a high creative potential or a high IQ encloses some type of maladjustment or psychological problem.

However, what can be affirmed is that there is a certain frequency of the stereotype of the person whose behaviors and internal states, at times, seem not to be in sync with the capacities of a more privileged mind.

The subject, already interesting in itself, deserves due to its clinical, social, personal and academic implications, a detailed study and the clarification of the typology of link between one and another trait.

The science behind the relationship between intelligence and anxiety

There is a popular saying that says that ignorance can give happiness. Turning this saying around, we get that the opposite of stupidity-sapience-can enter into synonymy with unhappiness. Anxiety, on the other hand, has enough power to inflict that unhappiness on people.

“A wise man will look for more opportunities than those presented to him.”

-Francis Bacon-

The fact that people with high IQ tend to present, with greater probability, episodes of anxiety and even chronic and generalized anxiety has prompted relevant lines of investigation aimed at elucidating why an intelligent person can so often experience frustration, unhappiness and reach to make decisions that are not adequate for their well-being.

While in the academic field can be seen outstanding students who show a tranquility and balance more than desirable, on more than one occasion can also see students who despite their intellectual gifts:

  • They tend to anticipate the facts negatively.
  • They are quickly frustrated by unexpected changes.
  • They show stress traits with an abnormally high frequency and intensity.
  • They show a considerable decrease in their academic performance.
  • Thus, previous behaviors can hamper academic and professional success and, probably, staff.

White substance: implications in intelligence and anxiety

The cerebral white matter is responsible for the transmission of bioelectric information between neurons; not so much of the brain’s processing of information, which is attributed to the gray matter.

The conduction of the nervous impulses supports its efficiency in the speed and in the absence of loss of electrical potential, both optimized at the level of white matter. It could be said that white matter is responsible for the efficiency and agility of cognitive processes and, therefore, of intelligence itself.

In order to deepen the study of this relationship between intelligence and anxiety, the scientists responsible for the aforementioned study used neuroimaging techniques -and, specifically, magnetic resonance or MRI- in order to demonstrate underlying causes.

The findings were as surprising as, almost to the same extent, logical and to be expected: the people in whom high intelligence converged and features markedly anxious presented, in general, a greater density of white matter.

“While the foolish decide, the intelligent deliberate.”

This increased density, in statistical terms, could account for the intellectual power of these people and, at the same time, their tendencies to chronic and generalized anxiety, since white matter has been linked to emotional control.

Evolutionary explanation

In the evolutionary course of our species, part of the scientific community believes that the development of intelligence and the willingness to experience anxiety ran parallel.

The reason could be none other than the fact that, in order to improve the survival of our species, it was useful to optimize the analysis and processing of information to be able to anticipate dangers.

Thus, developing a greater density of white matter would promote that intelligence necessary for survival. On the other hand, by arranging the nervous system for faster and more efficient ways of communicating and transmitting information, anxious states would appear more frequently.

These conclusions also lead us to a possible theoretical explanation of the emotional and behavioral blockade that implies a disproportionate amount of anxiety. Thus, at the moment when anxiety reaches excessively high levels, saturation of the nervous communication pathways takes place and the intelligence potential decreases sharply, causing the person to feel paralysis.

As we have seen, having a highly intelligent mind is, in most cases, an element of desirability for many people. But coins have two sides and, as we have seen, a high degree of intelligence can bring traits of anxiety and difficulty in emotional control.

Intelligence is important, but is being intelligent really everything?