Is Anxiety Neurodivergent?
It is common for neurodivergent people to deal with co-occurring mental health challenges. Learn about the relationship between anxiety and neurodivergence here (spoiler alert: it’s complicated).
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
July 26, 2023
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Over the past several years, there has been a great deal of discussion surrounding the topic of neurodiversity, a term meant to highlight the wide spectrum of ways people think. The neurodiversity movement attempts to frame our differences in cognition and behavior as normal and valuable, as opposed to things meant to be judged.
This article will address whether or not anxiety can be considered neurodivergent—a question that (spoiler alert) doesn’t have a clear answer. By exploring this question, though, we can gain a better understanding of the terminology used within the neurodiversity movement and deepen our insight into how words and definitions can be used to challenge mental health stigmas.
Is anxiety neurodivergent?
Living with anxiety can make a person feel like their experience of the world around them is different from their peers. They may think and act in ways that set them apart from others. For this reason, some individuals that regularly experience anxiety choose to identify as neurodivergent.
“Neurodivergent” is commonly used as an umbrella term to describe how some brains function outside of the typical “norm.” It is important to understand that this concept is a relatively new one, having been introduced into the conversation surrounding behavioral and mental health in the 1990s. This is one of the reasons that there is no formal consensus among clinicians or the general public about which diagnoses qualify as neurodivergent. In other words, the concept is still evolving.
In effect, many different disorders, conditions, and learning disabilities are associated with neurodivergence. The term was initially introduced in reference to individuals with autism spectrum disorder, but over time has been widened to include several other neurodevelopmental, behavioral, and mental health conditions. Many people identify as neurodivergent because it validates their life experiences and helps explain feeling different from other people.
Thus, there is no concrete answer to the question of whether anxiety is considered neurodivergent. It is important to recognize that the term neurodivergent is not a formal medical or mental health diagnosis but rather a term that exists within a larger linguistic and social framework that aims to challenge the notion that being different from others is intrinsically bad or wrong.
What is neurodivergence?
In an article for Harvard Medical School, Dr. Nicole Baumer explains, “Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no ‘right’ way of thinking and learning and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.” For people that live with developmental, behavioral, or mental health differences, experiencing a lack of acceptance by their peers and society at large is not uncommon. One of the goals of the neurodiversity movement is to challenge the stigma and exclusion experienced by people who think and act differently.
In the 1990s, Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, introduced the term neurodiversity to promote equality and inclusion for individuals whose experience of the world differed from the majority due to their neurological uniqueness. The neurodiversity movement is primarily a social justice movement—one that attempts to educate the public about the existence of individuals who experience life differently than others. The movement also aims to create a self-advocacy community for people who identify as neurodivergent.
Through collaboration and education, the hope is that, as a society, qualities that at one point were considered deficits can eventually be better understood and celebrated. In other words, just because a person is on the autism spectrum, has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or struggles with their mental health, does not mean something is intrinsically wrong with them. The positive qualities and attributes that exist in these people should be celebrated. It is unfortunate that historically this has not been the case.
As mentioned previously, many conditions are commonly associated with neurodivergence and typically fall into the following categories:
Neurodevelopmental disorders or neurological conditions:
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Dyspraxia, a developmental disorder that affects motor skills and hand-eye coordination
- Sensory processing disorder
- Tourette syndrome
Learning or intellectual disabilities:
- Dyscalculia, which is related to difficulties learning math
- Dysgraphia, which is related to difficulties with writing
- Dyslexia, which is related to difficulties with reading and identifying speech sounds
- Intellectual disability, which is an umbrella term to describe difficulties with thinking and comprehension broadly
- Down Syndrome
- Prader-Willi syndrome
- Williams syndrome
While it is helpful to be aware of the conditions that are regularly included in the conversation about neurodivergence, it is important to remember that there is no formal list or concrete set of guidelines for what constitutes inclusion in this category. More important than defining what does and does not qualify as neurodivergent is to understand the overarching theme of the movement, which is a nonjudgmental acceptance of people that are different from others.
Neurodivergence and mental health
Neurodiversity is often associated with mental health challenges, but not in all cases. Many of the conditions listed above are included in the DSM-5, the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals, but there are major distinctions among the different diagnoses. Keep in mind that not all neurodivergent individuals have mental health conditions and vice versa.
The link between mental health and neurodivergence is evident in research. There is extensive research that shows greater rates of depression and anxiety co-occurring with autism, dyspraxia, and ADHD. Additionally, autism has been associated with higher rates of anxiety, eating disorders, mood disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), personality disorders, schizophrenia, and substance use disorder.
Genetics is another important factor to keep in mind when considering the relationship between neurodivergence and mental health. Low levels of certain neurochemicals in the brain, such as dopamine, can be caused by genetic predisposition and can lead to several mental, behavioral, and developmental conditions.
Keep in mind that what falls under the umbrella of “neurodivergent” is constantly evolving and changing. Some clinicians consider mental health diagnoses as falling under the umbrella, while others do not.
According to an article by the University of Washington Medicine, for instance, “Neurodivergence is often different from mental health conditions, like anxiety or depression, because it doesn’t appear suddenly in adulthood or after a pivotal experience. (There are exceptions, such as schizophrenia, which often begins in someone’s 20s or 30s; along with treatment-resistant depression and PTSD.)” Based on this understanding of neurodivergence, the behavioral or neurological differences present in a neurodivergent person tend to exist for an extended period and are not transient.
Yet, there is no debate surrounding the reality that many conditions historically related to neurodivergence have a high correlation with mental health diagnoses, such as anxiety and depression.
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Neurotypical versus neurodivergent
The term “neurotypical” describes someone who thinks and behaves in an expected way for their culture and setting. These individuals tend to reach developmental milestones around the same time as their peers, can adapt to changes without much difficulty, process information easily, and succeed in school and within other social settings without immense struggle.
As discussed, the term “neurodivergent” describes people who process information and behave in a way that differs from the actual or perceived “norms” of their culture or setting. A person that deals with any of the conditions listed in the previous section may choose to identify as neurodivergent as a way to avoid framing their condition as a problem or illness.
Neurodiversity advocates use the terms “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent” to recontextualize the conversation around neurodevelopmental, behavioral, and mental health. Online, you might see people referring to neurodivergent people as “ND” and neurotypical people as “NT.” The idea is that by using these new terms—which lack negative connotations—people may begin to realize that having a different way of understanding and interacting with the world is not something that should be looked down upon.
How a person decides to describe themselves is a personal choice that others should respect. Within the neurodiversity movement, this new terminology has been developed to help people better communicate about their existence on the neurodiversity spectrum. That being said, it is always best to ask someone how they would like to be addressed. Using respectful language is important and can be a way to make people feel more comfortable and accepted.
Neurodiversity is a spectrum, and the reality is that all of us fall somewhere between neurotypical and neurodivergent. Understanding this simple fact can help us understand that we are all actually more alike than different.
How Charlie Health can help
If you identify as neurodivergent or think that you are but are not sure, the best thing you can do is reach out to a mental health professional that is trained in neurodivergence-informed therapy. The challenges that come with thinking and behaving differently than others can be overwhelming. Just remember that you do not have to address your concerns alone—Charlie Health may be able to help.
The licensed mental health professionals at Charlie Health practice neurodivergence-informed therapy and have extensive experience helping neurodiverse young adults and teens. Based on this knowledge, you can expect compassionate care that focuses on your needs.
Every person on the neurodiversity spectrum has a unique set of struggles and strengths. Remember that while it is important to address the issues that you are facing, it is equally important to celebrate the ways in which you are unique and capable. The therapists at Charlie Health can help you learn to do this.
Charlie Health’s personalized Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) offers mental health treatment for teens, young adults, and families, including neurodivergent therapy, neurodivergent-affirming therapists, and neurodivergent-exclusive peer groups. Click here to begin your journey towards a better tomorrow.