Anxiety belongs to everyone. Anyone, anywhere, at any time, can suffer from this disconcerting and debilitating condition. For different people there may be different reasons why anxiety worms its way into what should be a confident, happy and outgoing disposition. From childhood trauma to unpleasant experiences with regard to illness, accidents, crime, finances, relationships, and broader situations such as war and famine. The list is long and different for everyone.

And there’s no different list for people with intellectual disability. But no matter the source and catalyst, if you add in the problems faced by those with impaired intellectual function, then you have yet another increased kind of experience – one that may not be as simple to manage with the usual remedies and reasoning. This is because intellectual disability is generally characterised by limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviours, including difficulties with communication, socialisation, and daily living skills.

Individuals with ID are therefore at an increased risk of developing anxiety disorders due to cognitive and emotional vulnerabilities – and coping with anxiety can be more challenging as a result of these limitations. Nevertheless, there are several strategies and techniques that can help to manage anxiety symptoms more positively, and improve the quality of life.

Relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques can help individuals with ID reduce stress and anxiety levels. These techniques include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and meditation. Relaxation techniques can be practiced in a quiet and calm environment and preferably taught by a professional or a trained caregiver.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy
Cognitive-behavioural therapy is an arm of psychotherapy that helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviours that contribute to anxiety. This approach can be adapted to the needs of the individual and delivered in a structured and simple way that is easy to understand. The focus is always on developing coping skills to manage anxiety and build self-confidence.

Social support
Social support from family members, friends, or caregivers can help people with intellectual disabilities to cope with anxiety. Social support provides a sense of security, comfort, and belongingness, and can help individuals feel less isolated and alone. Social support can be provided through structured activities such as group therapy, peer support groups, or social events.

Physical activity
Physical activity is a tactic that can help everybody to reduce anxiety and improve their overall well-being. Physical activity can include walking, dancing, swimming, or any other form of exercise that is appropriate for an individual’s specific abilities and interests. Physical activity has been shown to release tension and stress, and significantly increase self-esteem and self-efficacy, which are twin attributes that fight anxiety.

Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of the present moment and accepting one’s thoughts and feelings without judgment. Mindfulness can help individuals with ID reduce anxiety by focusing on the present and letting go of worries about the future or regrets about the past. Mindfulness can be practiced through meditation, yoga, or other mindfulness-based activities.

Sensory-based interventions
Sensory-based interventions can help individuals with ID regulate their emotions and reduce anxiety. Sensory-based interventions include deep pressure therapy, weighted blankets, tactile stimulation, and aromatherapy. Sensory-based interventions can provide a calming and soothing effect that may assist ID individuals to feel more grounded and relaxed.

Psycho-education can help people to understand their anxiety symptoms and develop coping strategies to manage them. Psycho-education can be provided through structured programmes or individual counselling sessions. It’s a technique that builds self-knowledge, and knowledge of the condition of anxiety, and broadly increases skills related to the management of anxiety. In essence, it helps people with intellectual disabilities to feel more empowered and in control.

While we recognise that individuals with intellectual disability are at an increased risk of developing anxiety, these strategies and techniques are proven to help individuals manage their anxiety symptoms effectively and with greater confidence. However, it is important to adapt these strategies to each individual’s needs and abilities, and also to involve caregivers and professionals in the process, and to move at the pace and comfort of each individual. With proper support and treatment, it is very possible to successfully manage anxiety, and live a fulfilling and meaningful life.

The story of Sunfield Home

Chris and Lynne Bennett, parents of a young girl with Down Syndrome, pursued their dream of establishing a home for their daughter and other intellectually disabled young adults in the Western Cape. Together with other parents, they founded the Sunfield Home in Wellington, providing a loving and nurturing environment for over 100 residents and day-care adult individuals.

Each individual is screened to evaluate their strengths and allocate activities according to their abilities. A protective workshop has been established where contract work is undertaken, as well as arts and crafts activities. An employment scheme has also been developed and as a result permanent and successful positions have been found within the surrounding wine and cheese industries.

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