Like all humans I am a funny little mix of all sorts of experiences, emotions, loves and hates, worries and fears. Worries and fears seem to define some of us. For people like me with an experience of mental illness and Autism, worries and fears can dominate our lives, holding us back from things we want or need to do. If there is a beautiful paradise waiting for me after I die, the only thing I would want would be not to be scared like I have been my whole life. Fear is the backdrop to my existence – fear of the supernatural (how do I know that is my imagination?), phobias (‘the spider won’t hurt you Jeanette, No I won’t put it outside. Your phobia is silly and irrational’), fear of the horrific scene you glimpsed on TV and is now going to haunt your life for weeks, with no sleep and the light on for four days and telling your dad when he looks in at 2 am that you’re ‘studying’. The fear of the school bully, the rapist disguised as a friend. The abject terror of being a middle class socialist kid in prison with the underclass that you spent the last four years trying to spur on to revolution but now realise you are more of a target than any capitalist, with your polite manners and funny manner. Fear of losing your perfect job and your home because your brain is in the terrifying world of psychosis and there’s nothing you can do, fear that your health will never improve and you will be trapped in that purgatory forever. Fear that Mr Kitty is dead not sleeping. The list could go on further.
That was just the terror, the anxiety is even more pervasive. These things haunt me – haunt many of us, for I am not alone here. Autistic people almost all have struggles with anxiety. Some researchers have suggested that anxiety is not a seperate entity from Autism but a part of the condition. I don’t know what I think about that specifically and am happy to see where the researchers end up with their thinking. However I do know that Autism and anxiety often live together.
One of the worst things about anxiety is how some people fail to empathise with an anxious person. I have even heard some people in the Autism world complain about others’ anxiety as being annoying. I always tell people that if someone else’s anxiety is bothering them, how much more do they suppose it is bothering the person experiencing it!
Anxiety is not just debilitating and traumatic, it can stop us from achieving goals we would otherwise succeed at. I spent years being unable to work. Not because I was unintelligent or lacked skills and education but because I was such a perfectionist that I thought leaving a dirty plate in my dishwashing would result in the entire restaurant going out of business. On this occasion my anxiety grew a life of its own. When I had a shift in the evening, I would be highly anxious all day leading up work. Sitting on the tram to my workplace, I would be so anxious I couldn’t tell if I had peed my pants. Of course that didn’t really help the anxiety! After a few weeks, I was in that heightened state of anxiety all the time. The anxiety had stopped relating to anything in particular. I didn’t know what to do. Of course it got so bad I ended up in hospital and had to quit the job.
As an anxious 27 year old dishwasher, there were a few things I might have benefitted from (and some of these may assist readers if you struggle with anxiety. That being said there are many different experiences of anxiety and each person uses different strategies to cope):
- Try some activities to address the physical manifestations of anxiety. I tend to find that if you feel anxious in your body and your mind, alleviating the physical sensation will help the mental experience too. I find deep breathing very helpful when I am very anxious.
- Anxiety is not weakness. It is a biochemical status in your brain which is often impacted by what’s going on in your life. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
- Seek help. You don’t need to suffer in silence. Psychology, psychotherapy or medication prescribed by a doctor can help. You might need to try a few different options before you get the right one as everyone is different.
- Try not to hide your anxiety from people close to you. It is not shameful and sharing your anxiety experience can help others to address or accept their own difficulties.
- Some people find pets or assistance animals very helpful at addressing their anxiety. I know a good cuddle with Mr Kitty will always lessen my anxiety.
- Many people find mindfulness meditation very helpful for a number of mental health issues. Mindfulness is a practice derived from Buddhist teachings which helps you to focus on the here and now rather than regretting the past or worrying about the future.
- If possible, find a level headed someone to run your worries and concerns by. If they think you don’t need to worry about the thing, you can take that as a more objective viewpoint and hopefully it won’t be such an issue.
- One of the worst things about anxiety is that it can stop you from doing something you want to do based on the premise that something negative will occur that in fact almost certainly won’t. I find if I want to do something challenging and which worries me, I tend to force myself to do it even if I am worried as I know that all my stress and concerns will probably never eventuate.
- Remind yourself of all the difficulties and challenges you have overcome in your life and how these have given you resilience and strength. If you have got through all the challenges you did, you probably have a good chance of managing in the future, whatever may occur.