Got Anxiety? Got Smarts!

“Ignorance is bliss” is an old saying that has been around for years. What it really means is that when people are unaware of things – situations, events, circumstances – they have nothing to cause them any worry or anxiety. But some research now seems to point to the conclusion that these individuals may in fact be less bright, as shown by IQ testing.

The research also seems to show that those people who have anxiety, even chronic, tend to score higher on IQ tests.

Recent research

One of the most recent studies comes out of Lakehead University in Canada. 100 students were surveyed through a questionnaire. Those who indicated by their responses that they had a lot of anxiety and worried about a lot of things had higher verbal IQs than those who did not.

Another study, conducted by Israeli psychologists, was perhaps a bit more unique and involved behavioral observations of student responses to an anxiety-producing event. The details are worth repeating, if only because they are so interesting.

  1. Students with both high and lower IQs were selected for the study and were told that their task was to evaluate artwork that would be presented via a software program. This was, in fact, not true.
  2. One by one the students opened up the “software program” and immediately activated a terrible virus. The monitor in the room instructed the current student to go find technical support immediately.
  3. Behaviors were then observed as the student left the room to find technical support.
  4. Going down the hall, the student encountered four more “hurdles,” such as someone stopping him to take a survey and someone else dropping a whole stack of papers on the floor in front of him.
  5. Those students who exhibited the greatest anxiety about getting to the tech support office and whose anxiety appeared to grow with each hurdle were those students with higher IQs. Further, they were more intent on getting through those hurdles than those with lower IQs.

And in previous research, these same two psychologists, Tscahi Ein-Dor and Orgad Tal, found that students with higher IQs were also more alert in detecting potential dangers, such as the smell of smoke.

A psychiatrist at SUNY Medical Center conducted a study of individuals who had general and chronic anxiety disorder. The results were that patients whose symptoms were more severe had higher IQs than those who did not.

Neuropsychologists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have also conducted some studies, although these have involved MRI scans in an attempt to determine a correlation between intelligence and anxiety. What they did find is that those individuals with high IQs and anxiety all had a similar brain anomaly, specifically the depletion of a certain element in the white matter of a part of the brain. Their conclusion? Probably anxiety and intelligence developed together as humans evolved.

So why is this important?

Well, it may not be crucially important if we are attempting to gauge success by intelligence and heightened levels of anxiety. We all know highly successful students who are quite laid back and do not let life’s bumps cause them anxiety. And we also know many highly strung students who worry about everything and are still successful.

The same is true in any profession. There are doctors, lawyers, engineers, researchers, teachers and even preachers who are highly successful and yet who exhibit both anxiety and lack thereof.

On the other hand, those individuals who do have regular bouts of worry and anxiety can take heart that the research says they have greater intelligence.

The important takeaway from these facts is that while intelligence and anxiety may be co-related, they are not predictors of success.

The downside of intelligence and anxiety

Many intelligent people have strong skills in analysis and critical thinking. When that is combined with high levels of anxiety, however, it can be a bit paralyzing. The intelligence allows the worrier to come up with all potential negative scenarios to an action she or he is considering. Then worry kicks in. And that worry can result in inaction.

Intelligent people with anxiety also tend to ruminate. This means they tend to obsess about events of the past, running alternative “what if” scenarios in their heads. Likewise, they develop anxiety over the future and run the same types of scenarios in their heads. It can be very difficult for an individual to focus on the “now” when rumination runs the show, not to mention shutting down the brain at night in order to sleep.

The upside of intelligence and anxiety

Some of these studies have also shown that when intelligence and anxiety are both present, individuals tend to avoid situations that place themselves at risk. These are usually physical risks. So, one of these individuals might refuse a potentially dangerous amusement park ride or an invitation to sky dive.

The other aspect of this “tuning in” to danger also tends to result in an alertness that less anxious individuals do not exhibit. This alertness allows them to warn others as well.

The takeaway for everyone

While the research is certainly not complete, it does seem to support the notion that people who are worriers do have high intelligence. However, the research does not at this point support the opposite – that people without anxiety are less intelligent as a group.

Intelligence and accompanying anxiety are not predictors of success either in school or in career. And many educators would also point out that there are many different types of “intelligence” and that schools need to honor those as well.

If you do have anxiety and if you are often chided about it, you can now respond by telling the chider that your anxiety is a sign of intelligence, that research studies say so!

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