Anxiety and Dyslexia in Adults Part 1 – What is Anxiety?

“Anxiety’s like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.”
—Jodi Picoult


Here are the other blogs in this series:
Anxiety and Dyslexia in Adults Part 2 – What are the symptoms of anxiety
Anxiety and Dyslexia in Adults Part 3 – What you can do about anxiety?

Anxiety is what takes something minor, like a person looking at you funny, and turns it into a whole drama and story.

As I have learned more about anxiety, I have come to realize that for many of my clients it is the biggest thing preventing them from having the life they want. It has robbed some of them of the ability to even leave the house. It can be emotionally draining and debilitating and often people don’t even realize it’s at play.

I like to think that because of my dyslexia I arrived early to the conversation about mental health and the discussion of anxiety. I was first diagnosed with anxiety in my mid 20’s when I went back to college and tried to quit school every day because I was afraid, I was failing (not only was I not failing, but I would also graduate with a 4.0). The biggest mistake I made when a counselor gave me that diagnosis was, I didn’t ask questions. I actually thought it was a joke. I didn’t act the way I saw people in movies or tv act when they had anxiety, so I really didn’t see how this applied. My anxiety looked like me being very angry, arguing a lot, fighting with family, and blaming others for failures. In short, I could be mean. I had never heard of anxiety looking that way or feeling that way. It was a few years later that I finally sat myself down and researched anxiety and learned about my outbursts. It was at that point that I realized it had a link to my dyslexia.

I have had dyslexia and anxiety (and a few other things) all of my life, it is in my DNA. I don’t know the world through any other set of glasses. So, for me, this is normal, my normal. Of the two I have learned that I can have some control over the anxiety and that has been exciting and fun to learn about and implement that change. Being able to shift the anxiety means my other neuro differences are not exacerbated and amplified by it. 

The less anxiety you are feeling and experiencing the more your brain can focus on navigating around your neurodiversity and using your life hacks.”   ~JoyGenea

I want you to feel empowered to learn about your secondary symptoms and gain the power to change the way they interact with your life. You can do that, but you can’t do it alone. The first step you can take is to understand what is happening, that process is called increasing your awareness. 

What is anxiety in general?

“Anxiety, it’s the glitter that makes the holidays sparkle.” ~JoyGenea

Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness, or a rapid heartbeat. Anxiety is not the same as fear, but they are often used interchangeably. Anxiety is considered a future-oriented, long-acting response broadly focused on a diffuse threat, whereas fear is an appropriate, present-oriented, and short-lived response to a clearly identifiable and specific threat.” ~Adapted from the Encyclopedia of Psychology and APA Dictionary of Psychology

Anxiety is a state of worry about what might be. It causes people to avoid what frightens them or what they perceive as a threat.

Anxiety and Adult Dyslexia 

Anxiety is considered a secondary symptom of dyslexia. It is the most frequently reported emotional symptom from adults with dyslexia. Remember the early years of school focused primarily on the very subjects that cause dyslexics the most trouble – reading, writing, and spelling. Oftentimes this can be slow and frustrating – especially when taught with traditional teaching methods, which might be all that was available at the time. Typically, this is where the anxiety starts to really build from stress to something more.

Researchers believe that anxiety in dyslexic stems from constant frustration and confusion in school and the inconsistencies of dyslexia. In simple terms, a complete lack of control over most things. Because failure is ever present and constant in the world of a person with neuro divergences; fear of new situations and environments provokes more anxiety. Can you see where this cycle of thinking becomes a loop?

As an adult with dyslexia, avoiding what frightens you is common, which at this point might be a lot of things because you have been living awhile. To others, it can look like laziness or a lack of willpower. Empathy and support on the part of others can be very helpful to those trying to shift out of the anxiety loop.

As an adult you are no longer fighting against your parents and teachers, often that anxiety is now going to be projected onto your family, co-workers, and friends. Co-workers and friends might not put up with your outbursts, but often the family has to deal with it and that leads to harmed marriages, children, and parents.

This is one of the ways that adult dyslexia affect someone’s life, and it is not about having a hard time reading or processing. Typically, as adults, these secondary symptoms are what really get in the way of happiness, connections with others, and living a life with some peace.

Here is some exciting news, not everyone with dyslexia has an anxiety disorder. They are human and therefore have anxiety from time to time, but their lives do not become hijacked by fear, doubt, and avoidance. You might fit into this category and if you do, Congratulations.

How the typical cycle of anxiety works

  • Living life, new stuff/something changes causes stress > Stress leads to fear > Fear turns into anxiety
  • Anxiety shuts down critical thinking person > can lead to negative reaction.
  • This can happen in microseconds, or it can happen over days and years.

This is a combination of chemical reactions in the body and brain responding to something we consider a stressor. For many people with anxiety that started in childhood, the brain spends years building neurological pathways and by adulthood, they have formed a deep pathway to instant anxiety. That is the microsecond process. A person doesn’t even have the chance to decide at part two of the process.

Stress in and of itself isn’t a good or bad thing. It has a very important purpose, to keep us alive. It is less helpful when our life is not on the line, and it applies all of the survival chemicals to our body. The system gets saturated, and we break down over time. Now add in perception and reality and you can see how these compounds.

How does good and bad stress work with dyslexia?

Individuals with dyslexia are regularly confronted by tasks that are, either in reality or in their perception, extremely difficult for them. These tasks might be reading, spelling, or math. If they have experienced success at mastering this kind of task in the past, good stress helps them face the challenge with a sense of confidence, based on the belief that “I can do this kind of task.” If, on the other hand, someone has met with repeated failure when attempting this or a similar task in the past, their body and brain may be working together to send out a chemical warning system that gets translated as “This is going to be way too difficult for you! Retreat! Retreat!” That’s bad stress in action. And remember, perception is everything! It doesn’t matter if a teacher, a friend, or a spouse believes that you can do something; it’s that you think you can do it that matters.” From the International Dyslexia Association 

As I mentioned above, a person has a reaction and that is when they start to hyper-focus on the future, the possible outcomes, and all the way things could go wrong. They could fail, and there is a whole list of items that cause worry and stress. That level of stress doesn’t go down, it only escalates from where it starts. The “what ifs” will get stuck on repeat.

It needs to be noted that for some people, this can lead to anxiety-induced sleep problems. Getting enough regenerative sleep is very important to the brain’s ability to implement dyslexic life hacks and when the brain is sleep deprived those hacks stop functioning and this can cause even more stress.

More people in society are talking about anxiety

It saddens me to hear about so many young people struggling with anxiety these days and to hear stories of debilitating anxiety attacks. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. It also tells me that as we find and apply the right words and language to a feeling or situation the more people are able to connect to it and recognize it in themselves. Maybe part of hearing about it more is the fact that more people understand it and identify that it is happening to them. That is a big step in the right direction and it helps to remove the stigmatism of talking about it with others.

There was just too much to unpack at one time so check out for Parts 2 and 3:

  1. Anxiety and Dyslexia in Adults Part 2 – What are the symptoms of anxiety
  2. Anxiety and Dyslexia in Adults Part 3 – What you can do about anxiety?

Here’s a short “What is Anxiety?” video for you. 




JoyGenea Schumer
Business Owner, International Neurodiversity Coach, and Speaker

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