Anxiety is a type of fear usually associated with the thought of a threat or something going wrong in the future, but can also arise from something happening right now.

Around 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem like anxiety each year. It is also likely that individuals do not seek help for significant levels of anxiety, meaning many remain without diagnosis or treatment. For people with learning disabilities this is equally applicable. Anxiety disorders have been reported as one of the most common forms of psychological distress for people with learning disabilities (Deb et al., 2001; Emerson, 2003).


Signs and Symptoms

Life is full of potentially stressful events and it is normal to feel anxious about everyday things.

Sometimes there can be a single trigger or event that raises anxiety levels, but generally it's likely to be a number of things that increase anxiety levels. For example financial worries, going on a first date or feeling unsafe travelling home late at night.

Anxiety has a strong effect on us because it's one of our natural survival responses. It causes our mind and body to speed up to prepare us to respond to an emergency. 

These are some of the physical things that might happen:

  • Rapid and / or irregular heartbeat
  • Fast breathing
  • Weakened / tense muscles
  • Sweating
  • Churning stomach / loose bowels
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth

Anxiety also has a psychological impact, which can include:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Lack of concentration
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling depressed
  • Loss of self-confidence

It can be hard to break this cycle, but people can learn to feel less worried and to cope with their anxiety so it doesn’t stop them enjoying life.


Causes of anxiety

Feelings of anxiety can be caused by lots of things such as:

  • your genes
  • how you were brought up
  • what’s happened to you in your life
  • the way you learn and cope with things

Just knowing what makes us anxious and why can be the first steps to managing anxiety.

Anxiety and learning disability

For people with learning disabilities expressing their feelings of anxiety can be difficult. For those who have limited communication skills this can result in behaviours which are interpreted as challenging and not attributed to anxiety.

It is important for people supporting people with learning disabilities to be aware of what may be causing these behaviours and question whether they could be being triggered by an inability to express difficult feelings such as anxiety.

The way people with learning disabilities talk about anxiety may be different to how members of the general population may talk about it. They may describe physical feelings or sensations like having sweaty palms, feeling short of breath or being in a ‘temper’; rather than use words such as ‘feeling worried or anxious’ (reference: Wilson, A., Jahoda, A., Stalker, K. & Carirney, A.  (2005) What’s happening? How young people with learning disabilities and their family carers understand anxiety)/

Bradley claims that individuals with learning disabilities and autism are prone to anxiety disorders much more than the normal population. The lack of support available to them and the issues with communication may make them particularly vulnerable to stressful life events, which may trigger anxiety disorders (Bradley, E., Summers, A., Wood, H.L. and Bryson, S.E. (2004) Comparing rates of psychiatric and behaviour disorders in adolescents and young adults with severe intellectual disability with and without autism Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 34(2), 151-161)

Getting help for anxiety

Fear and anxiety can affect all of us every now and then. Most people get through passing moments of anxiety with no lasting effect.

People experiencing anxiety in their everyday lives often find the personal resources to cope through simple remedies. 

  • Face your fear
  • Know yourself
  • Relax
  • Exercise
  • Healthy drinking and eating
  • Faith / spirituality
  • Talking therapies for example through Improving Access t Psychological Therapies
  • Mindfulness
  • Medication
  • Support groups

There is more information about this below.