Learning Differences and Anxiety in Adults: How to Understand the Link and Treatment

Can you imagine waking up every day not knowing if you are going to get lost, bump into somebody, misread a social cue, or be able to process an influx of new information at your job or school? Millions of people with learning differences, experience being overwhelmed and misunderstood by the world around them on a daily basis. We know that children with learning differences in the United States are more likely to experience anxiety (The Understood Team, 2014-2020). One study finds that anxiety may be well-known in individuals with learning differences, but also under reported and under-diagnosed. (Elizabeth & Bakala, 2005). However, there are treatment approaches that can help this population to reduce and manage it. I outline a few of them below.

Individuals with learning differences can benefit from evidenced based chemotherapeutic techniques for treating anxiety, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), relaxation exercises, and exposure therapy. Nevertheless, while these interventions may be effective, it is also important to recognize that, “People with learning disabilities frequently contend with a lifetime of adversity, inadequate social supports and poor coping skills. These factors contribute to increased vulnerability to stressful life events, which may trigger anxiety disorders” (Ibid. 357). Therefore, it is important for a therapist to take into consideration the specific kinds of stressors that this population faces, and what kinds of coping skills they can implement to manage them.

Some of us may take for granted boarding a crowded train home from the office, ignoring loud noises, and multitasking. However, for individuals with learning differences, these mundane activities can be overwhelming and overstimulating. In fact, even the thought of preparing for them can cause anxiety. However, there are a variety of different techniques for managing them, including creating an organizational and task prioritization system, using public transit with a colleague, getting a ride to work, and lastly wearing ear phones or socializing in less noisy areas. Sometimes, individuals with learning differences can also practice acclimating to stimulating environments through exposure techniques. They may benefit from taking small steps to acclimate to environmental stimuli, while also developing the usual coping skills such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and modifying cognitive distortions.     

It is also important to recognize that individuals with learning differences may have struggled with previous life challenges that can cause their anxiety to be especially acute. They may have been misunderstood or even bullied by peers, struggled to maintain employment, or simply feel that the world moves at a rapid pace that is alienating and anxiety producing. Therefore, therapists can help individuals with learning differences to process their previous experiences, and to examine if their anxiety is motivating them to avoid similar feelings at work and internationally. Sometimes, avoidance is repeated to the detriment of the person’s social  or professional growth.   Therefore,  building resiliency techniques that not only include  developing interpersonal skills, but also allow for self-acceptance and less sensitivity to the judgments of others, can help to mitigate the negative effects of these previous experiences.   

While individuals with learning differences frequently benefit from evidence based interventions to treat anxiety such as CBT, muscle relaxation, and exposure techniques, it behooves therapist to take into consideration their acute sensitivity to environmental stimuli and the emotional impact of previous life experiences. By implementing different exposure therapy techniques and coping strategies for managing everyday sensory intensive experiences, this population can reduce anxiety. Many also benefit from examining the emotional impact of earlier adverse circumstances, and the sometimes self-detrimental strategies they take to avoid experiencing similar emotions in the future. However, by practicing self-acceptance they can lessen sensitivity to the judgments of others, while also accomplishing professional and social goals.  Individuals with learning differences can lead a less anxious life!     

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