Is Anxiety Neurodivergent?
Updated: Aug 23
Exploring the Intricate Connection between Anxiety and Neurodivergence
Does anxiety fall under the umbrella of neurodivergence? Are these two mental health topics related somehow? In the following article, I will explore these questions, offering my insights as a therapist to assist you in developing a deeper understanding of anxiety and neurodivergence. Let’s start with some definitions.
Anxiety Unveiled: Beyond Everyday Nervousness and Jitters
You're likely familiar with the sensation of your heart racing before a pivotal moment—that's an example of anxiety. But anxiety encompasses more than just everyday worries; it's akin to an internal alarm system in your brain and body alerting you to potential threats. Sometimes, however, this alarm becomes too loud, leading to intense feelings that impact your daily life.
Anxiety is common and a normal part of everyday life if it simply ebbs and flows. It becomes a concern when it feels debilitating and negatively impacts your life and daily functioning. Anxiety is characterized by increased or excessive distress and apprehensiveness about real or perceived threats; anxiety can lead to avoidance behaviours, intrusive thoughts or even unpleasant physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, nausea and muscle tension. A person experiencing anxiety might want to seek help from a professional like a psychotherapist.
Anxiety's Multifaceted Origins
The origins of anxiety are far from simple—it's a puzzle that comes together in intricate ways. Genetics play a substantial role; certain traits linked to anxiety can be inherited from family members and/or primary caregivers. Life experiences also contribute—trauma or prolonged stress can trigger the presence of anxiety. Moreover, the chemistry of the brain is integral, with neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine influencing the intensity of anxiety. As I often say to clients, you can’t help the brain you were born with, but we can give it a break.
11 Types of Anxiety
There are eleven different “types” of anxiety and related disorders. I will cover them in depth another day, but each anxiety disorder has a list of commonly occurring symptoms clustered into four areas:
Anxiety and Co-morbidities
When we talk about anxiety and co-morbidities, which are essentially multiple diagnoses or issues happening at once, like anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or anxiety and depression, or anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) etc, ADHD can lead to anxiety because a person living with ADHD struggles socially or with executive function, or depression and anxiety because one concern can exacerbate another. (I discuss this more further down.) If you’d like to explore this, please reach out to book a free consultation.
Neurodivergence: Embracing Cognitive Diversity
So, let's examine the term "neurodivergent."
Neurodivergent is a word used to describe people whose brains develop or work in unique ways. This results in the person having both strengths and challenges that are different from those whose brains develop in more typical ways.
Neurodivergence encompasses conditions like autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and dyslexia, further highlighting the diversity in how our brains process information.
Where Anxiety and Neurodivergence Converge
Let's address the central question—Is anxiety intertwined with neurodivergence? The answer is nuanced. Anxiety doesn't boast a membership card in the "neurodivergence club," yet it often finds itself intertwined with neurodivergent conditions.
This is where the comorbidity discussion is relevant. Consider autism, for instance, individuals on the autism spectrum might grapple with anxiety due to heightened sensory sensitivities or challenges in social interactions. Bright lights and loud sounds can trigger anxiety for someone with autism, providing insight into the intricate interaction.
Similarly, let's shift our focus to ADHD. Restlessness and impulsivity, common traits of ADHD, can amplify anxiety. Picture a scenario where racing thoughts and an inability to sit still during an important meeting intensify anxiety for someone with ADHD, they may begin to worry about how they are being perceived or whether they have absorbed the content of the meeting.
Exploring Anxiety in Dyslexia and Tourette's Syndrome
Let’s explore other neurodivergent conditions. Take dyslexia, for instance, difficulties in reading and writing can lead to feelings of frustration and inadequacy, contributing to anxiety. Imagine grappling to decipher words while others glide through—the link between anxiety and dyslexia becomes evident.
It is also worth mentioning Tourette's syndrome, which is a condition characterized by involuntary movements and sounds called tics. These tics can draw attention and potentially lead to an increase of self-consciousness and anxiety, especially in social settings. This intricate interplay underscores the complexity of the relationship between neurodivergence and anxiety.
Scientific Insights: Research and Data
Research published in JAMA Pediatrics (2019) underlines a higher prevalence of anxiety disorders among individuals on the autism spectrum. Similarly, the Journal of Attention Disorders (2013) accentuates the connection between anxiety and ADHD, highlighting that individuals with ADHD often experience heightened anxiety levels.
Furthermore, a survey conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health revealed that individuals with dyslexia frequently experience heightened anxiety, emphasizing the profound impact of neurodivergence on emotional well-being.
How our psychotherapists can help with anxiety
A psychotherapist on my team can provide valuable support and assistance to someone struggling with anxiety through various therapeutic approaches tailored to their needs. These strategies aim to empower individuals to manage their anxiety and improving their overall well-being. Here are a few ways working with one of our therapists can help.
1. Intake and Understanding: A psychotherapist begins by understanding the individual's map of reality how they see the world to further understand triggers for anxiety. This assessment helps create a personalized treatment plan
2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a widely used approach that helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and associated behaviours contributing to anxiety. Our therapist guides you in developing healthier ways of thinking and responding to anxious thoughts.
3. Other Therapeutic Modalities: Anxiety is not a one size fits all situation and we recognize that. Oftentimes, CBT is not the right approach for some individuals. Other modalities we like to use are: Acceptance Commitment Therapy, Gestalt and Psychodrama, Parts Work (Sub personalities and Internal Family Systems). Separating out the anxious from the person can be immensely helpful.
4. Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Psychotherapists often introduce mindfulness techniques and relaxation exercises to help individuals stay grounded in the present moment, reducing the overwhelming nature of anxiety in your mind and how it expresses in the body as well.
5. Breathing Techniques: Therapists may teach deep breathing exercises to manage physiological responses to anxiety, promoting a sense of calm and peace
6. Stress Management: Psychotherapists assist in identifying sources of stress and developing effective coping strategies to manage daily stressors.
7. Goal Setting and Metrics: Collaboratively setting achievable goals helps individuals focus on positive outcomes, fostering a sense of accomplishment and reducing anxiety. Not only are goals good to have but we’ll dive into the metrics; how do you know when you’ve met that goal.
8. Therapeutic Alliance: Psychotherapists provide a safe space for individuals to express their feelings without judgment, offering validation and understanding.
9. Teach Tools: Therapists equip individuals with tools to recognize signs of anxiety recurrence and strategies to help manage it. See at the end of this article a free download to use to help relieve anxiety and help you feel grounded where ever you are.
10. Medication Evaluation and Referral: While psychotherapists don't prescribe medications, we can collaborate with medical professionals like your family doctor or psychiatrist and create a circle of care to create a treatment plan and evaluate if medication may be beneficial.
Contact us to explore this topic further
Remember, the role of a psychotherapist is to collaborate with individuals, guiding them on their journey toward managing anxiety and improving their quality of life. If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, consider reaching out to me and my team via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or 647-296-923 and we will work to help you find a therapist to work with you. We offer a free 30-minute consultation via phone or video chat and we’re available for online sessions using our secure online video platform across Ontario and for in-person sessions in select cities.