How to Cultivate the Potential Gifts and Strengths of Emotional Intensity, ADHD, Creative Intensity and other Traits of Neurodiversity

Emotional “intensity” is one of the biological traits that contribute significantly to neurodiversity, cognitive diversity, inner conflict, stress and misunderstandings in relationships. It is also a highly significant ingredient in chronic stress, chronic disorganization, chronic illness and feelings of overwhelm.

In the article, “Intensity of Emotion Tied to Perception and Thinking” by Daniel Goleman, Michigan State University psychologist Robert Emmons explains that

“emotionally intense people seek variety, novelty, complexity. They have more varied goals in life, know more people in more different situations, and because they are doing so many different things, feel more conflict in their lives.”

”These conflicts can be a source of stress for the emotionally intense, and may explain why they report getting more minor illnesses, like colds and flus, than do less emotional people,” said Dr. Emmons.

“The new data are showing that what are considered discrete psychological disorders may, in fact, be simply the extremes of a continuum of normality.”

Want to learn more about Emotional Intensity?

The ADD Myth: How to Cultivate the Unique Gifts of Intense PersonalitiesBOOK REVIEW:  The book The ADD Myth: How to Cultivate the Unique Gifts of Intense Personalities by Martha Burge, an ADHD coach with a BA in Psychology, is very well-written and makes what could be difficult concepts much easier to understand.

Emotional intensity is one of five intensities (based on psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski’s groundbreaking theories of adult development) explained by Burge using the SPICE acronym.  The five intensities are:

  • Sensory
  • Psychomotor [energy]
  • Intellectual
  • Creative
  • Emotional

Differences in these intensities contribute significantly to personality diversity and each has it’s own set of challenges and strengths.

I love her use of the “mental map” metaphor to help us understand how our mind-body-emotions filter our perceptions of the world and shape our identities.  The book is well organized and supports ease of browsing as well as in-depth reading (though in my Kindle version there aren’t many visuals.)

The practical ideas she provides for both reducing and coping with the stress that may accompany these traits include many that I have implemented in my own life to reduce stress and heal PTSD. For example:

  • Plan recuperation time following busy events. [I build in at least 2 transition days with minimal or no appointments etc. before and after a vacation or other major event.]
  • Get rid of clothes that aren’t comfortable.  [I remove all labels from clothing and only wear smooth fabrics that don’t irritate my sensitive skin.]
  • Use sound-blocking headphones when in loud places like an airplane or subway. [I carry earplugs with me everywhere I go and sleep with them as well.]

She also provides highly practical suggestions for harnessing and cultivating the strengths of our intensities so that we can experience the potential advantages that are enabled by intensities.  For example:

“The intense brain has to be busy. Boredom is the ultimate enemy. This is impossible to explain to a nonintense person. Boredom is torture. When bored, even some pretty stupid things start to look like good ideas.”

Instead of “boredom” I would call this insufficient engagement, stagnation, or lack of change. To me boredom is when I can’t think of something to do – which almost never happens to me.  But I do experience a kind of physical pain or discomfort when things stay the same for too long or don’t require me to engage fully because they are too repetitive, easy, or just too passive or not multi-sensory. For example, I can feel this even when reading an interesting book.  If I don’t engage my body while reading, my attention will wander and it can feel physically painful.  So I take notes, often just to help me pay attention, the note-taking is for me like having a conversation with the author, it’s not always so that I can refer to the notes later.  In general I find thatfull engagement is more of the issue than whether or not I’m interested.   I believe what I think of as full engagement is what Ms. Burge is describing when she discusses practices for becoming “fully present” such as contemplation, mindfulness and immersion.

I actually rarely feel bored, but I often feel that “torture-like” feeling that comes from being only partially engaged, quiet, slow or inactive on a daily basis.  Instead of feeling tortured and helpless and reacting in ways I regret later, I have designed productive ways to respond to that feeling. I have learned how to enhance my own sensory engagement using my environment to influence what I pay attention to and to avoid overloading my senses.  For example, I find that I can create the “freshness” I need by changing simple things like:

  • decluttering a drawer
  • changing the colors of something
  • painting a wall
  • rearranging furniture or display items
  • swapping out the dishes I use daily (I have a red and a white set that I can alternate)
  • deep cleaning
  • gardening

Sometimes, just changing the color pens I’m using or what’s hanging on the wall is enough to satisfy this need.  What I’ve found is that there are lots of ways to incorporate the inspiration that comes with variety and novelty without being drastic or as disruptive as say, buying all new furniture – just rearranging it is usually enough.

It’s unfortunate that she named the book “The ADD Myth”  because the subtitle is a much more accurate description of the book’s content.  Most of the book is actually a guide to living with the five SPICE intensities.  The “The ADD Myth” title makes it seem like the whole book will be about debunking the diagnosis of ADHD when in fact it’s mainly the first chapter.

The ADHD chapter is highly controversial and thought provoking and I completely concur with the foreword by Dr. Allen who was one of the writers of the criteria in the current DSM. The ADHD section could have made a great appendix rather than the lead story.  Overall the book is constructive, optimistic, inspiring AND practical.  I highly recommend it for anyone is an intense person or lives with one.


– Ariane Benefit


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