Physically disabled people are generally more likely to have anxiety disorders, partly because of disability discrimination and social isolation. Because of the practical, social, and emotional barriers that are commonly faced by disabled people, these anxiety disorders can affect them in a unique way.
Most people understand the term “anxiety,” which is a sense of intense worry that could be irrational or random. We all feel anxious from time to time. An anxiety disorder, however, is a mental illness that is characterized by intense anxiety and fear around something. While anxiety is a feeling that most people understand, fewer people understand what an anxiety disorder is and how it can affect them.
Here are a few anxiety disorders that are common in disabled people.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is commonly associated with war veterans, but anyone who’s ever gone through something traumatic can develop PTSD.
Part of the reason why PTSD is strongly linked to disability is that the same things that cause disability may cause PTSD. For example, becoming disabled through illness, accident, warfare, or being attacked can cause PTSD.
Interestingly, the chronic condition fibromyalgia - which can be debilitating because of the pain and fatigue - is linked to PTSD. In one study, 45.3 percent of fibromyalgia patients had PTSD, as opposed to just three percent of a general population. It is believed that trauma can also cause or trigger fibromyalgia.
Disability discrimination - which can sometimes take the form of bullying, harassment, and even physical violence - can also cause PTSD as the mistreatment can be extremely traumatic.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
OCD might be an acronym that many people have heard, but few understand it. Movies often depict people with OCD as being ultra-neat, and people often describe their neatness and cleanliness by saying “I’m so OCD!”
But OCD usually has very little to do with cleanliness. OCD is characterized by obsessions (unwanted, intrusive thoughts that can be upsetting or creepy) and compulsions (rituals people use to make the intrusive thoughts go away).
For example, someone might have intrusive thoughts about burning the house down, so they have compulsions to check the gas stove ten times before bed. Another example: someone might have intrusive thoughts about murdering all their family members. They might clap their hands or walk ten steps to ‘get rid’ of this idea. People with OCD seldom act on their thoughts, and their compulsions seldom have a logical connection with these obsessions.
Much like PTSD, OCD is an anxiety disorder that can be caused by trauma. In fact, research shows that people with PTSD have a 30 percent chance of developing OCD within a year. OCD in disabled people may occur for the same reasons that PTSD occurs, as mentioned above.
Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
For disabled people, social situations can be made difficult by social stigma. A UK survey conducted by the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission found that about half of all disabled adults report feeling lonely. SAD, which is often characterized by a fear of being judged or bullied by others, can be caused by this disability discrimination and social isolation.
According to the survey, 49 percent of able-bodied people feel that they don’t have anything in common with disabled people, and 26 percent admit that they’ve avoided talking to disabled people. This underscores how disability discrimination can cause social isolation for disabled people.
Loneliness can also occur due to physical barriers. Inaccessible modes of transport make it difficult for many physically disabled people to travel to social gatherings, and many restaurants, clubs, and bars are also inaccessible. This can make it hard for physically disabled people to meet new people and socialize, leading to isolation.
Because of discrimination and inaccessibility, disabled people might find it harder to have healthy social interactions with people who don’t discriminate against them, which may make it harder for them to overcome SAD.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
GAD is one of the more well-known anxiety disorders.
While SAD, for example, is specific to social situations, GAD is characterized by persistently worrying about multiple different aspects of life. This could include issues relating to relationships as well as work, politics, the environment, daily tasks, and more.
The cause of generalized anxiety disorder is unknown, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). However, it’s thought that genetics and traumatic life experiences could cause the disorder. Stressful life events can also contribute to GAD.
The stress of a physical disability - which could lead to financial strain, unemployment, physical isolation, and social isolation - could make someone more likely to have GAD.
Much like PTSD, panic disorder can be caused by traumatic experiences, although genetics might also play a role. Panic disorder is characterized by recurring, intense panic attacks. Not everybody who experiences panic attacks has panic disorder.
During a panic attack, you might experience some of the following symptoms:
Pain in the chest, stomach, or throat
Numbness or tingling
Fear of death
Fear of losing control
Panic disorder can be common in disabled people for the same reason why PTSD is: the trauma and stress caused by disability discrimination can cause both disorders. Becoming disabled through a traumatic event can also cause panic disorder.
What to do if you’re a disabled person with an anxiety disorder
The good news is that anxiety disorders are treatable. Therapy, and in some cases, medication can be used to treat these disorders. If you don’t have a therapist, ask your doctor for a recommendation.
If your disability or anxiety disorder makes it difficult for you to travel or leave the house, consider using an online therapy portal like BetterHelp or Talkspace. Through these portals, you can talk to a qualified therapist via text, phone, or video call - whatever suits your accessibility needs - from the comfort of your own home. It’s important to note that therapists can’t diagnose a disorder or prescribe medication through an online portal.
Due to social isolation and disability discrimination, disabled people are often more likely to experience anxiety disorders. Of course, the stigma associated with disability and anxiety disorders can be even more isolating. Fortunately, anxiety disorders can be treated with therapy and/or medication.