How Learning Disorders Fuel Anxiety, Depression, and More

Lewis Howes

Former professional football player Lewis Howes, who hosts the wildly popular podcast The School of Greatness, seems to have it all. But in a candid session with Dr. Daniel Amen, Howes shares that he didn’t always feel like a success. In fact, the bestselling author and entrepreneur says, “I felt like I was dumb pretty much my whole life.”

Howes struggled in school, where he says he was always at the bottom of his class. He had a tutor and attended special needs classes during recess and after school, but no matter how hard he studied he still got Cs and Ds. When he entered eighth grade, he tested at a second-grade reading level, and administrators wanted to hold him back a grade. It was a real blow to his self-esteem.

“[Learning] was always stressful. It was always exhausting,” says Howes. Eventually, he thought, “What’s the point of trying?” As a result of constantly trailing behind his peers academically, he struggled with confidence, insecurity, and anxiety that lasted into his 20s.

With the help of psychotherapy, workshops, and other therapeutic experiences, Howes has managed to overcome it, but not everybody does. In fact, having any form of learning disability is linked to a greater risk of lasting mental health problems.

Having any form of learning disability is linked to a greater risk of lasting mental health problems. Click To Tweet


Learning disabilities encompass a range of issues that negatively impact academic performance. Common learning disorders include:

Specific learning disabilities are the most common form of learning disorders, accounting for 33% of the 7 million students in U.S. public schools receiving special education services, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. A specific learning disability (SLD) is a type of neurodevelopmental disorder that causes problems with reading, writing, spelling, thinking, speaking, or doing math. SLDs include dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia.

Irlen syndrome is a visual processing problem in which certain colors irritate the brain. Although it is not widely known, Irlen syndrome affects nearly half of individuals with reading or learning problems. Being unaware of this underlying condition can lead to a lifetime of frustration.

Autism spectrum disorder is a brain-based disorder that is characterized by developmental delays, difficulty with social skills, communication problems, and more. Approximately 1 in 59 children are affected by autism, but some people with high-functioning ASD may not get diagnosed. Instead, these individuals may spend a lifetime feeling like they don’t fit in.

Behavioral problems that involve ongoing aggression, defiance, or temper control problems can interfere with the ability to learn.

ADD/ADHD is a brain disorder that causes symptoms—such as short attention span, difficulty with focus, distractibility, and procrastination—that impair learning. ADD/ADHD affects over 6 million children ages 3-17 and an estimated 4.4% of adults.

Traumatic brain injuries are not considered a learning disorder, however, they can have lasting negative impacts on learning. Brain SPECT imaging shows that mild head injuries are associated with trouble concentrating, memory problems, brain fog, and other issues that disrupt the learning process.


Anything that interferes with the learning process and impairs academic performance can increase the likelihood of emotional problems and mental health issues, including:


Close to 24% of youngsters with a specific learning disorder experience severe anxiety, according to research in the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Worries about taking tests or being nervous about looking unintelligent in front of classmates can become overwhelming. These feelings can last into adulthood where you may continue to get anxious at work or when going for a job interview. This type of anxiousness can hold you back from reaching your potential and achieving what you want in life.


A 2016 study reveals that over 14% of children and adolescents with specific learning disorders suffer from severe depression. Not being able to get good grades despite studying hard can make you feel like a failure. And when extra help doesn’t improve the situation, it can leave you feeling hopeless and helpless. On top of that, making friends can be more challenging, and people with learning disabilities may withdraw voluntarily from social activities or be left out. Either way, social isolation combined with feelings of being unworthy are a recipe for depression.

Chronic Stress

For people who grow up with learning disorders, stress can be a constant companion. Research in the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that nearly 17% of youngsters with specific learning disorders suffer from severe stress and 75% have low levels of resilience. Relentless stress exacerbates learning problems as it impairs the ability to focus and can disrupt the memory formation process.

Substance Abuse

Having learning disabilities puts you at increased risk of substance abuse. It’s easy to understand why this might happen. Living with a sense of inadequacy or struggling with anxiety or depression related to learning problems may prompt some individuals to use drugs or alcohol to cope with these emotions. Such behavior makes learning even more challenging. If substance abuse begins at an early age, it can have a negative impact on brain development, which further complicates issues in adulthood. Researchers writing in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine suggest that “children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities should be screened for substance abuse.”

Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors

For individuals with learning disorders, depression and low self-esteem can spiral into suicidal ideation. A 2017 Canadian study found that adults with a learning disability were 46% more likely to attempt suicide compared with people without learning disorders.

Because learning disorders can cause a lifetime of mental health struggles in addition to suicidal behaviors, it is critical to screen children early. And as an adult, if you suspect that a learning disability may be an underlying cause that is holding you back from reaching your goals and living the life you want, it’s time to see a mental health professional. Considering how often undetected head injuries are involved in these issues, looking at how your brain functions with SPECT imaging can also help provide the answers you want.

Learning disorders and the mental health issues that come with them can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. Pls help with chronic stress and anxiety

    Comment by Jodi — September 19, 2021 @ 9:45 PM

  2. Jodi – I’m so sorry for your pain with having chronic stress and anxiety! There are so many helps available for you, and you’ve taken one step by reaching out. Please dive into Dr. Amen’s website and YouTube channel, and find a good bible-based church, where no one has already put a label on you, and ask for counseling, prayer, groups. Another good YouTube channel is -“The Crappy Childhood Fairy”, where she helps with anxiety and mental/emotional pain.

    Comment by jcz — September 22, 2021 @ 6:49 AM

  3. i am 55 and have all these things

    Comment by James Jerge — September 22, 2021 @ 7:55 AM

  4. Thanks for your article addressing how we different some of us learn. I didn’t know until I was well into my working career until I was diagnosed with severe learning disabilities. I was told graduating from high school & college was a fluke , telling me life wasn’t fair & just get on with it. I did but, what I learned at an early age was go my own path, to learn spent a lot of time alone, got frustrated but, worked on finding a solutions. Those with learning challenges have uncommon gifts such as high intuition, compassion, empathy, creative, preserve, work hard & more. Entrepreneur, Mastery Coach, Technical, Creative writing helping others transform their lives in the areas of health, fitness & relationships.

    Comment by Leanne WyletHousden — September 22, 2021 @ 10:30 AM

  5. It was very hard for me to learn as a child and young adult and it continues to be so. It takes me forever to learn something. I’m in my 50’s and I do believe that I have a low IQ, which is why I never had a career like I wanted and why I live in poverty. It’s too late for me, but at least I know that it isn’t my fault like others were telling me it was.

    Comment by Margaret — September 22, 2021 @ 10:40 AM

  6. My flashbacks are turmenting. I want telehealth therapy. I have medical and Medicare I need help
    Sincerely me

    Comment by chaplain — September 22, 2021 @ 11:30 AM

  7. Having grown up with an abusive father with a hair-trigger temper, I have always had a terrible memory for events that I have been told that I participated in, even after leaving home. I had some school difficulty as well in the area of focus and completing tasks. At age 77 I still maintain a hypervigilance and often attribute some of my father’s traits to my husband of 55 years. Reading this article, I now understand in part why those outcomes exist.

    Comment by Mary I. Voigt — September 22, 2021 @ 1:23 PM

  8. I would like like to talk to you

    Comment by Dianne — September 22, 2021 @ 2:33 PM

  9. Much of this is in my past. When I took the exams when I entered the NAVY, I found that my IQ was much higher than I thought. I couldn’t figure out in high school why I was in MGM classes. When I took the exams in the NAVY, I fell asleep during the exams which gave me my approximate IQ. That IQ was more than 40 points higher than I thought it was. Yes I have ADHD. I now have a BA in MATH and I did that by creating my own time for study from 11pm to 4am. Further tests by my mother and me have shown my IQ to be between 20 and 30 points higher than the NAVY tests. I hope this helps someone.

    Comment by Dave — September 23, 2021 @ 12:13 AM

  10. Hello Chaplain, thank you for reaching out. If you want the convenience of staying at home, we are offering Telehealth and Video Therapy options. For more information about Telehealth:

    Comment by Amen Clinics — September 23, 2021 @ 1:48 PM

  11. Hello Dianne, thank you for reaching out. Amen Clinics currently has 9 locations: For more information about scheduling, please contact our Care Coordinators:

    Comment by Amen Clinics — September 23, 2021 @ 1:49 PM

  12. I’m 75 yrs young and I have all of these things.I started drinking at age 10 I’m an alcoholic in AA for two years now I have a very volatile temper and have always had a hard time learning an retaining things.Ive gone thru depression and anxiety for as long as in can remember always afraid of being or seeming stupid I never felt that I was that smart.But now looking back at all that I’ve done over my life I think that I wasted alot of time worrying about nothing.Thats not to say that I don’t still have many problems, like multiple head injuries, problems concentrating, remembering,foggy brain etc. I would really like to know the root of my problems.

    Comment by terry woods — September 29, 2021 @ 8:46 AM

  13. Hello Terry, thank you for reaching out. For more information on brain SPECT imaging and our services, please contact our Care Coordinators:

    Comment by Amen Clinics — October 1, 2021 @ 7:16 PM

  14. What’s the youngest age you will tear for learning differences ?

    Comment by D LaPosta — July 3, 2023 @ 5:06 AM

  15. I’ve had learning difficulties all my life. As a child I wasn’t able to understand what was being said to me. I’m 72 years old and there wasn’t much help for students with learning difficulties. I was held back in the second grade, embarrassed because my friends were off to third grade and me left behind. I spent my childhood trying to hide my disability. Putting on a show, to make people think I was smart. It affected me all of my life. To make up for it I became the student and the teacher. And could still learn at my own rate. So as I grew I I learned many skills and landed jobs because of my self teaching. But to this day I feel I’ve missed out on so much. There wasn’t a lot of encouragement from my parents. In fact I was told I was to stupid and I felt bad and thought I’d never find a job or be able to attend college or trade school because my reading skills and writing skills were poor. But in high school I was at a c average level. An English teacher told me I had writing skills and should continue to write. So I did and I’ve been an amateur writer for at least 50 years. So there is hope. All I can say is @ you have to believe in yourself, and push yourself forward.

    Comment by David Kidd — August 26, 2023 @ 9:51 PM

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