Autism and How to Cope with Anxiety and Nervousness

Feeling anxious on a regular basis is a large part of being autistic (or having Asperger’s). There are many ways to reduce this anxiety, but it will always be a part of our lives. Feeling anxious occasionally is perfectly normal and healthy but it becomes a major issue if it happens all the time. What is Anxiety? Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness/fear about something that is happening in the near future. You could often choose to run away from the thing that is making you anxious (if you really had to). But it is often too important for you to run from, and you have to fight it. This is often called fight or flight.  You will usually feel the greatest anxiety, the closer you are to starting the thing that is making you anxious. Anxiety can have many negative affects such as:

  • An unpleasant tingling feeling (e.g. in your arms or pins and needles)
  • A very fast heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Feeling extremely worried
  • Panicking
  • Feeling deeply upset (depressed)
  • Affecting your eating and sleeping
  • Causing severe panic attacks

Why am I more Susceptible to be Anxious Because I’m Autistic?

Autism (Asperger’s) affects us in many different ways but there are many things that can make us more anxious than someone without autism. The main cause of anxiety is social situations such as a party, meeting friends, family gatherings or simple things like eating lunch in a canteen at school or work. Reasons for these difficulties include:

  • Sensory overload (e.g. many people chatting or strong lighting)
  • Unexpected encounters (people talking to us who we don’t know that well)
  • Having conversations with multiple friends whilst trying to eat

Because we keep getting things wrong or find it overwhelming it becomes a source of anxiety. Some of us choose to keep fighting it, whilst others will run away and avoid going to parties or eat lunch alone. Dealing with unexpected changes can also be a massive source of anxiety. Whether this is a new job (everyone will feel anxious for the first couple of weeks but for someone like us it can be many months), moving home, changing schools or something small such as covering for an absent colleague. All of these things cause tremendous and long lasting anxiety which can, if not kept under control, lead to depression. Preempting sensory overload can also cause anxiety such as going to a supermarket, going out for a meal or clothes shopping. In children their anxiety will often mean that they put up a fight to avoid it, or break down in floods of tears when accepting that it cannot be avoided.

How Anxiety Affects My Life

I am anxious regularly in my life but in the past I was anxious every day. I’m anxious about regular things such as having a job interview, being called in by my manager, getting married and moving house. But there are times more related to my autism such as:

  • Going to any social event (even meeting a close friend, family member or going to a relations party). This anxiety can build up from a few weeks before the event up until it’s finished.
  • At university for presentations, meeting assignment deadlines, exams or waiting for grades.
  • When teaching I was extremely anxious every evening before work and in the mornings before my first lesson, draining me mentally and physically.
  • As a supply teacher I was anxious every morning waiting for a phone call to find out if I was working that day or not, and then anxious on the way to going to a new school
  • I’m tremendously anxious when my manager officially observes me doing my job.
  • As a Learning Support Assistant I am always anxious at the start of a new college year and it takes me a couple of weeks to settle down. I am also anxious whenever I have had annual leave and then return to work or if there is a change to my working day.

I often wake up in the night and cannot get back to sleep worrying about not getting enough sleep to get through the following day, making myself more anxious which in turn reduces the chance of me getting to sleep. Presently I am mostly in control of my anxiety and I am not anxious every day, thankfully.  In the past anxiety has affected my life so much that I was depressed, lost an incredible amount of weight and hardly slept.  I was so anxious I dreaded leaving for work every single morning and was worried about it every night before. I don’t know how I got through those difficult times but I know that one of the biggest reasons for anyone to change something in life is if you experience pain. The anxiety became unbearable that I decided regardless of the consequences I had to give in. I knew quitting would also mean facing more anxiety as I had to: work my notice, find a new job, go through a nerve wracking interview process and start a new job. But having a few more months of anxiety was better than a lifetime of it.

Is Anxiety Sometimes Good?

Anxiety and fear are often seen as being good in small doses. Certainly when we hunted for food it was a life-saving ability to sense and anticipate danger. It made us more prepared and enabled us to survive. Even today I believe a little bit of anxiety is good such as not approaching a disease carrying animal like a rat, not fighting someone much stronger than you and losing or going for a new job or career even though it will cause extreme anxiety. But it has to be manageable and in small doses.

For example, before I trained as a teaching assistant I knew by doing it I was going to be anxious for the length of the course, but chose to do it anyway. At the time the anxiety was worth it, if I was able to achieve my goal of getting a job that was a better fit for me.

If anxiety is caused by worrying I have come to realise that most things I worry about don’t actually happen and worrying is almost always pointless.

How can you Manage or Cope with Anxiety?

There are some methods that can help you to control anxiety and I have used all of these in the past to help me.

  • Deep and slow breathing for a several minutes. This really helps to control nervousness as it triggers the body to rest naturally.
  • Realising that you cannot be in a highly anxious state forever and that the feeling has to pass soon.
  • Looking at the current time and think that in a few hours it will be totally over and you will be free again. This works especially well to deal with parties.
  • A good technique I got from reading a book called The Chimp Paradox (which is really worth reading). Was to say to yourself “Stop”, then imagine yourself going up into the sky and looking down on yourself, look at your life in 10 years time and think will this thing that I am anxious about be important then? The answer is nearly always no. This really helps me to calm down.
  • Don’t Do It – sometimes, but not often, it is right to avoid doing the thing that is making you anxious. For example parties make me anxious so I choose to only go to the ones that I really need to and miss others. There have be times where my workplace caused severe anxiety on a daily basis. I fought this for as long as and left at a suitable time. Sometimes I would last a year or two, other times a couple of months and once, when I worked in a pub my anxiety was so extreme, I only managed a couple of hours and walked out. It is worth remembering that work will always be harder for autistic people like us and sometimes I say to myself no matter how hard it gets I have got to do a full year for stability for me and my family. I usually find that I seriously want to leave several times in that year but after sticking it out it gets better.
  • Learn more about anxiety. I can remember whenever I had to talk in front of a class my mouth would dry up and I found it almost impossible to talk. My tutor at the time (who had a background in psychology) said “why do you feel like this?” which was enough for me to question my anxiety and find out more.
  • Exercise – which reduces your anxiety as it improves your self-confidence and make you feel happy and good about yourself.
  • Learning that anxiety is good in small doses. I used to tell myself “here is that feeling again” whenever I felt a strong rush of anxiety and I learnt to try and enjoy the feeling instead of fight against. I would often smile when I felt it and just go for it.
  • Distract yourself or keep yourself busy doing other jobs helps to take your mind off the thing that is making your anxious at the time.
  • Talk to a person that is close to you about your anxiety to get it off your mind and to get their perspective on what is happening. I will always talk to me wife when I am experiencing a great deal of anxiety.
  • Reward yourself if you get through it also really helps. For example, treat yourself to a meal, chocolate, computer game or something that you have really wanted to buy.
  • Something that helped me personally was giving up caffeinated drinks.  I became dependant on this regular boost to get me through the day and I would get anxious if I didn’t get it.  I believe the caffeine fed my anxiety, making it worse.

Anxiety is a difficult thing to deal with and it is horrible to feel anxious on a regular basis. If none of the techniques above work, then it might be worth talking to your doctor. I have never been so bad that I have needed medication or therapy but it will be worth going down that road it your anxiety in uncontrollable and affecting your life in a negative way.

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