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  • What Are Co-occuring Conditions? Dyslexia and Mental Health

    August 9, 2021

    Last month we took a look at some of the other neurodiversities and learning challenges that can co-occur in somebody who has dyslexia. These are things like ADHD, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia and Autism – as well as a whole host of other things. But one thing we didn’t cover in that article was the idea of dyslexia and co-occurring mental health conditions – we felt that the concept was a little too important to squish into a section of another article, and in fact, merited an article all of its own.

    So here we are: let’s focus on dyslexia and mental health for a moment.

    Dyslexia isn’t innately linked to the idea of somebody’s mental health – feeling anxious or depressed isn’t a sure-fire sign that somebody has dyslexia, and having dyslexia certainly doesn’t mean that somebody is anxious or depressed. But it has to be acknowledged that having dyslexia can sometimes prompt feelings of prolonged stress or negativity, even if it’s low-level – for many people, dyslexia can make their daily lives feel frustrating, or the idea of not being able to read at the same level of their peers can cause them to feel down, or not destined for creative or academic futures. Nothing could be further from the truth, but sometimes it’s hard to shake these feelings, and they can end up running deeper than a one-day slump. What’s important is being able to recognise how you’re feeling, and getting in touch with the appropriate professionals if you feel that it’s beginning to have a negative impact on the way you live your life.

    Anxiety

    Many people with dyslexia suffer from anxiety. It can be generalised and impact on your life across the board, or it can be in response to certain situations or certain things – many children with dyslexia, for example, suffer the most when reading tasks crop up, or during exams where their literacy differences might not be as supported as they feel they need them to be. Some older people with dyslexia struggle with anxiety when it comes to reading too, or they find themselves in situations where they have to think fast and respond to external stimuli. As well as making it difficult to read sometimes, dyslexia can affect things like your processing speed or the ability to know your left from your right quickly, so tasks like driving can trigger an anxious response very easily.

    Anxiety is a normal response to periods of uncertainty and stress (and we’ve all seen enough of those during the past 18 months). But if anxiety levels get out of hand or the physical symptoms start to interfere with your health- or even just get to a stage where you’re uncomfortable – it’s a good idea to seek a medical opinion, or at least chat things through with a counsellor or a therapist.

    Eating Disorders

    An eating disorder can sometimes be triggered by feelings of stress and anxiety, which can occur frequently in somebody who has dyslexia or literacy differences. It can take the form of overeating or binge eating, undereating (anorexia), a cycle of binging and purging (bulimia) or even a fixation with eating ‘healthily’ or adhering to specific dietary and exercise rules (orthorexia). All kinds are serious, and it’s important that if you or somebody in your life might be having issues with an eating disorder that you connect with the right people to help. The International Dyslexia Association features an article that explores the connection between overeating and dyslexia in children, but it’s paramount to note that ‘stress overeating’ and ‘overeating to cope’ aren’t the only ways that an eating disorder can manifest. Many people restrict the calories they consume, or seek to burn off what they’ve eaten to an unhealthy extent too- ‘disordered eating’ is a term that actually covers a wide range of behaviours and conditions.

    Eating disorders can be difficult to spot, especially in children and young people. If you’re concerned about yourself or anybody else in your life, there are resources and advice available at BEAT.

    Depression

    Dyslexia and depression are two entirely different conditions, but the experience of living with dyslexia can often generate feelings of negative mood. When these become sustained, they can trigger and worsen depression symptoms. Some people find that it’s a brief thing that dissipates somewhat when they make a change in their life – for instance, somebody in education who feels adrift and unsupported finally getting the reading assistance that they need in the form of a reader or a text-to-speech device- and for some people it lasts much longer, and becomes a feature of their day-to-day path through the world. Again, if you or somebody in your life seems to be struggling with depressive feelings and behaviours in relation to dyslexia, it’s important to seek out professional guidance both in a health capacity, and if you’re still a learner, in an educational one too. There are a myriad of ways in which these feelings can be treated and alleviated

    The International Dyslexia Association explores the ways in which anxiety, stress and depression can manifest in relation to dyslexia and literacy differences in their article The Dyslexia-Stress-Anxiety Connection.

    Low Self Esteem

    Sometimes, having dyslexia can be amazing – the ways that you’ve learned to think outside the box and the creative skills you’ve honed can be amazing assets when it comes to picking a career or succeeding in everything from academia to your hobbies. But sometimes it can be an absolute drag too, and you might find yourself feeling discouraged, frustrated and isolated. This can lead to feelings of low self esteem, especially in children and young people- falling behind their peers or being different in their learning methods and outcomes can make them feel like they’re simply not destined for great things, or are never going to properly fit in.

    The textbook image of a child with low self-esteem is one we’re probably familiar with – somebody who’s sad and quiet, staying away from the action and preferring to be alone, maybe even believing they’re not worthy of or not able to sustain friendships- but it’s not always the case. Certainly, some children- and indeed, adults- with low self esteem might behave in such a way, but the inverse is also possible too. In an attempt to mask these feelings of inadequacy and isolation, some children with low self-esteem seek attention though behaving disruptively. If classwork becomes associated with feelings of frustration or humiliation, sometimes the response is to actively move away from trying. You can read a little more on his here, at Dyslexia-Research.com - it’s important to recognise that somebody struggling with their dyslexia and a negative self-image might not look like what we expect them to.

    Again, it’s important to reach out and talk about these feelings, whether it’s with family and friends or a professional. Negative self image and low self esteem are key indicators of depression, and in extreme cases, they can really impact on how people live their lives, their futures and the choices they make.

    Stress

    There’s a fine line between stress and anxiety- often, people talk about them as if they’re the same condition, but this isn’t true. Both are emotional responses, but stress is often triggered by an external force (such as an upcoming exam, a job interview, a situation in which there’s likely to be reading under pressure) and anxiety is often defined as a more general feeling of persistent and excessive worry- but these definitions tend to shift for people. Stress can make people feel irritable, angry or incredibly tired, as well as hopeless and lost- no two people react the same to stress, and it’s difficult to spot. It’s often said that the last person to realised that you’re stressed is you, meaning that it’s easy to carry on about your day and dismiss it as general feelings of career or academic worry until things get bad.

    Stress is a mental health problem, but it also has a lot of physical symptoms too. It can manifest as things like muscle pain, insomnia, involuntary spasming and twitches, palpitations, and digestive issues like GERD, nausea and irritable bowel syndrome (and that’s just to name a few). It’s important to realise that suffering from stress isn’t as harmless as the phrase ‘oh, I’m just feeling a bit stressed at the moment’ makes out – it can have a lot of long-term impacts on your health, and serious ones too. 

    The Stress Management Society has more information on how to take stock of your stress levels and how to find some coping responses, as well as information on when to seek help.

    After the past year and a half we’ve had, it’s important to take stock of our mental health as well as our physical health, especially if you’re living with dyslexia or literacy differences. Having dyslexia doesn’t mean that you’re going to be anxious, or feel depressed – but it can trigger off feelings that lead down those paths, and it’s important to try to relax and take stock of your mental situation sometimes. It’s not a sign of weakness to seek help for a mental health issue, just the same as having dyslexia isn’t a sign that you’re destined for nothing special or have little to contribute academically.

    It’s essential that you have somebody- either a doctor, a therapist, a counsellor, an educator or even a family member or friend- that you can share how you’re feeling with, and open up about your worries and problems. Suffering in silence might feel like it’s the path of least resistance, but it isn’t a healthy response- and although it might feel hard to reach out sometimes, not doing so can put your health at risk even further.

    Taking care of ourselves mentally is important, even as the world seems to be gearing back up for normality and we’re getting a little braver in stepping out of the door. There are countless organisations and resources just a google away, so even if you don’t feel like sharing things with somebody you know, there are thousands of places out there with help and advice too.

    Again, you’ve got this – just breathe, connect, and rest when you need to.

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