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 or fear about something that is happening in the near future. If something is causing our anxiety, we normally have two options. One is to avoid it. The other is to stay strong and stick it out. This is often called fight or flight. Most of the time we have to fight, as the consequences of avoidance are too high.
Anxiety can have many negative effects such as:
- An unpleasant tingling feeling (e.g. in our arms, or pins and needles)
- A very fast heart rate
- Difficulty breathing
- Feeling extremely worried
- Feeling deeply upset (depressed)
- Affecting our eating and sleeping
- Causing severe panic attacks
Why our Autism Makes us More Susceptible to Anxiety
There are many reasons why people like us, who are autistic/Aspie, become more anxious than everyone else. The main cause of our anxiety is social situations. Such as: a party, meeting friends, family gatherings or everyday occasions like eating lunch with co-workers or friends. Reasons for these difficulties include:
- Sensory overload (e.g. too 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 focus on eating.
- Preferring to be alone.
- Having past negatives experiences, that we don’t want to be repeated.
- Fear of joining in conversations and saying something out of place.
Dealing with unexpected changes also causes anxiety. Whether this is a new job, moving home, changing schools or something small such as covering for an absent colleague.
How Anxiety Affects My Life
At this moment in time I’m anxious regularly in my life, but in the past I was anxious every day. I get anxious in normal stressful situations such as: having a job interview, getting married and moving house. But there are times where I get anxious due to my autism/Aspergers such as:
- Going to any social event. Such as meeting a close friend, family member or going to a relation’s party.
- When my manager officially observes me.
- At the start of a new academic year. It will take me a few weeks to get into the new routine.
- Returning to work after annual leave.
- Changes to my work pattern.
- People visiting my home, who I don’t know very well.
- Going to the hairdressers, dentist or doctors.
- Going into certain shops.
When I’m anxious I will often wake up in the night, and cannot get back to sleep. Then I’ll worry about not getting enough sleep, to get through the following day.
These days I’m mostly in control of my anxiety. But in the past I had jobs that caused me crippling anxiety. Where it affected my life so much I was: depressed, lost an incredible amount of weight and hardly slept. I was so anxious I dreaded leaving for work every single morning.
I don’t know how I got through those difficult times. But I kept fighting, each and every day. Then it got to a point where I decided, regardless of the consequences, I had to give in.
I knew quitting my job would also mean facing more anxiety as I had to: work my notice, have a fall in my income, 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, entering an unsafe place, or having minor money worries (which motivates us to save for emergencies). But it has to be manageable and in small doses.
If anxiety is caused by worrying, it’s worth realising that most things we worry about don’t actually happen. Worrying is almost always pointless. This can be tested by thinking about the last few things we worried about. Then asking ourselves if all that worry made a difference to the outcome.
How can we Manage or Cope with Anxiety?
Methods that can help us control anxiety include:
- Deep and slow breathing for a several minutes. Which really helps to control nervousness, as it triggers the body to rest naturally.
- Realising that we cannot be in a highly anxious state forever, and that the feeling has to pass soon.
- Looking at the current time and understanding in a few hours it will be over, and we will be free again. This works especially well when dealing with parties.
- A good technique is from a book called ‘The Chimp Paradox’.
- When we feel anxious
- Say to ourselves “Stop” and imagine ourselves hitting a stop button.
- Then we imagine going up into the sky and looking down on ourselves.
- Seeing our lives as a timeline start to finish
- Look five years into the future
- Then think: will this thing that I’m anxious about be important then?
- The answer is nearly always no.
- Sometimes choosing not to go to an event is the right answer. So if parties make us really anxious then we can only go to the most important ones. Then allow ourselves to miss a few of the less important ones.
- Learn more about anxiety. I can remember whenever I presented in front of a class my mouth would dry up. 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 more. Which reduces our anxiety, as it improves self-confidence and makes us feel happy.
- Learning that anxiety is good in small doses. When we feel that tingling, we can learn to enjoy the feeling instead of fight against. Even smiling when it comes, which naturally makes us happier.
- Keeping busy, so our minds are focussed on something else.
- Talk to others about our anxiety to get it off our mind. Plus to get their perspective on what’s happening.
- Reward ourselves afterwards. For example, treating ourselves to a meal, chocolate, computer game or something we really want to buy.
- Consider giving up caffeine. Which can cause anxiety for some people.
Anxiety is a difficult thing to deal with. It’s horrible to feel anxious on a regular basis. If none of the techniques above work, and the anxiety is extreme, it’s always worth talking to a doctor. They can prescribe medication, therapy or counselling. I know autistics/Aspies that have done this and it’s really helped them in their lives.