‘Oh so i’s just anxiety?’ I have heard these words before and they always confuse me. There is no ‘just’ about anxiety. Anxiety is an experience which I think is common to the vast majority of autistic people and it is not always well understood.
I have generalised anxiety – which means I am stressed a lot of the time and it can be about anything and sometimes I can’t pinpoint a cause at all. In fact for me the event causing the anxiety is usually less distressing than the anxiety itself. My brain has an annoying quirk that if I am anxious for long enough the anxiety chemical in my brain turns into psychosis chemicals. So if someone dismisses my experience of anxiety I get quite upset because for me a psychotic episode could do a range of unpleasant things form me being terrified for years to not being able to do my work.
The reason I am writing about anxiety is to share some strategies which help me to address it. Different anxiety and mental health strategies are of value to different individuals and not everything works for everyone. I always see the task at hand as being to discover some strategies which work well for you and go with those. There are some strategies which tend to work better for autistic people. These strategies work well for me and hopefully they will give you some ideas if you don’t already use them.
- Seek help. This could be a family member or friend or a psychologist or counsellor or other health professional. As many autistics have alexithymia or emotion blindness and struggle to be aware of their emotions, having someone who can see you from the outside can be very helpful, not only in giving assistance to work through the anxiety but also by being able to alert you to the fact that you have anxiety in the first place.
- If the anxiety is about a specific situation or change then learn as much as you can about the situation. Autistic people tend to benefit from a ‘road map’ for new things. The road map means learning as much as you can about the situation. Each event which is ‘ticked off’ the list of new things can lessen anxiety.
- Meditation / mindfulness. Some people find tis incredibly helpful and others find it infuriating, The idea of mindfulness is to see your mood or anxiety as transitory and know that it will change. The idea of mindfulness is around ‘being in the moment’. The ethos of this is basically don’t dwell on the past or worry about the future but instead focus on what you can do in the here and now. This can be a great way to address anxiety. There are mindfulness exercises and many resources on this kid of thinking and approach.
- Stimming / positive sensory expertness. I have a number of sensory things I use when I am anxious. I have a fibre optic lamp that I take to bed with me if am anxious and play with. I have fidgets for when I’m out in the world. I find these really helpful. Also physical movement like rocking is a great strategy for de-stressing.
- Pets. Mr Kitty is the best mental health strategy I have. Cuddling him makes almost every worry go away, at least while I am cuddling him. I know I am not alone here and that may other autistics – and neurotypicals – benefit from cuddle time with their non-human friends. Before I got Mr kItty I was vey anxious and unwell with psychosis and depression too. Within weeks of adopting his furry little self my life changed for the better thanks to the addition of my little black shadow. Pets are awesome!
- Distraction. This one is a skill from dialectical behaviour therapy. It basically involves focusing on something other than your anxiety. While you are focussed on the thing you are doing it is harder for anxiety to get a hold on you. You may need keep practicing distraction repeatedly although sometimes the first time you do it will banish the negative feelings. Find distractions that work well for you and that you enjoy doing,
- A very, very simple but effective strategy is deep breathing. If you mostly experience anxiety as a physical experience then strategies which work on the physical manifestations of anxiety – like deep breathing – are likely to help. There are different deep breathing techniques. The one I use is to consciously stop thinking, then breathe in deeply and hold it for a few seconds and the breath out. You can do this as often as you like.
- Being aware of your anxiety, out it in perspective and understand you are in control. This is a difficult one to master and may need some practice. It probably warrants an example. In 2013 I was about to give a talk for TEDx Canberra. I was terrified. I had never been so anxious about a talk. I thought I would get on stage and to know what to say. I was going to ruin the TEDx brand and disgrace myself to a roomful of hundreds of people! The day before the TEDx conference we had a rehearsal in the venue. I was even scared at that and then I had a wonderful moment of clarity, I realised that I was in control of what I did and said. I had prepared myself and practiced my talk and I know what I was saying. I will still anxious but that sense of agency carried me through. I was the boss. If I choose not to let the anxiety win, then that would be what happened. And the talk? It went well. It remains one of he best talks I have done to date. If you look closely at the video I’m sweating but what I said was clear and helpful and my delivery was good. Here’s a link if you want to see me being anxious but in control. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqdGb4TraFk&t=7s
Anxiety is something which so many of us experience. When people invalidate our experience of anxiety if can add to the problem. Telling people to ‘stop overthinking it’ and similar statements can leave us doubting ourselves and feeling we shouldn’t discuss our anxiety. In fact anxiety is something it is important to talk about. It is not a weakness. Anxiety is something to learn to manage and people who experience it need support not blame. For autistic people being told you are worrying about nothing is incredibly unhelpful. Autistic people need to feel supported to discuss and seek help for their anxiety and other mental health issues.
And finally a shameless book plug….Dr Emma Goodall, Dr Jane Nugent and I wrote a book on autism and mental health which has more detailed information on the ideas in this post.https://www.jkp.com/aus/the-guide-to-good-mental-health-on-the-autism-spectrum-34026.html
My most effective anxiety strategy, Mr Ronnie Kitty Purkis