Robert Watkins is feeling emotionally spent. He reaches out to his fellow autistics for their advice on managing anxiety.
For the first time in ages I felt tired. Not exhausted-tired (mostly emotional exhaustion) which is what I’d been feeling for far too long, but the tired that comes from having been constructive and having exerted a fair bit of physical energy. I had just moved. I moved from a very toxic environment to my own place. I’m getting a divorce, you see, and moving into my own space and making it my own. It is the first step in reclaiming my life. This was a week ago.
The really weird bit is that I clung to this feeling of tiredness.
It was the closest I’d come to feeling relaxed in quite some time. My anxiety had been through the roof: the impending divorce, the impending move, the horrible tension in the house — these and other things conspired to make me a nervous wreck. I’d been averaging about three hours sleep a night for perhaps a month. I was a mess. Feeling tired was amazing. I relished it. It felt almost lavish to me.
Then something struck me: I hadn’t even thought about moving to the next stage. Sleep. That state had eluded me for so long it was gone from my repertoire. But with the anxiety reduced to the point of my actually being able to feel a healthy sleepiness, there it was again, right in front of me. As good as the drowsiness felt, I realized that sleep would be deliciously luxurious, like a chunk of quality dark chocolate, eaten slowly.
Life changes can cause anxiety in anyone, but for those of us on the spectrum, that anxiety can be debilitating. Some studies have been done, and numbers vary, but it’s safe to say that the prevalence of comorbid anxiety disorders in autistics is much higher than the general population: perhaps 50% compared to 16%. It has even been suggested that those of us who have fewer noticeable impairments are more prone to anxiety because we are more aware of what’s going on around us. My usual approach to handling anxiety involves meditation. This time, however, the anxiety was too strong, outstripping my ability to remain present, to quiet the noise in my head. So, I looked for help.
Initially I turned to Google.
And there’s lots of advice from experts on how autistic people can deal with their anxiety. Here are two of the most helpful and comprehensive I found, one from the National Autistic Society in the UK, the other from preeminent psychologist and Asperger’s expert, Tony Attwood. But I was less interested in what the professionals thought than in how my fellow autistics managed their own anxiety. I wanted to hear from the trenches.
I put the question about managing anxiety to a number of autistic/Aspie groups on Facebook, and the response was fantastic. We really are a community. I was quite open in my post, asking for advice, and many of the responses were just as personal. All were marvelously supportive. Interspersed among my words in this article will be quotes from autistics who commented, offering their experience and advice.
Collating the responses turned out to be rather interesting, as the responses fell into two broad categories: self-care and distraction. Of course these groupings are entirely my perspective; you might see things differently. And there are some overlaps.
Focus on Self-Care
Taking care of yourself is vitally important, and not just when things are bad. In fact, self-care is a very powerful preventative measure against things spiraling out of control. Self care is at the root of well being.
“Go back to the very basics of survival. Make sure you do meal planning, sleep hygiene, and lots of self care. Extra rest, low sensory, very light calendar. Regroup and reorganize. Much of that is internal so focus a ton on monitoring your internal conversation. Are you being kind to yourself in your thoughts? Thoughts become things.”
Take a bath. Light some candles. Fix yourself a scrumptious meal. Eat some ice cream (but not the whole tub!) Pay attention to you. Doing this sort of thing is helpful because you are, with your actions, saying that you are valuable, you are worth the effort. You won’t climb out of a hole if you don’t think you’re worth rescuing.
It can be hard to avoid obsessing about the negative stuff going on in your life, but try to keep some perspective. Part of that is realizing — and accepting — that the situations that have brought on the anxiety are only temporary. That can be difficult in the moment, but if you remind yourself often enough you start to accept that it’s true.
“The only thing that’s guaranteed in life is change. Remember that.”
“Our stress and accompanying anxiety is rooted in fear. We are ultimately afraid of change. Everyone is afraid of change. Once you embrace the change, accept the loss, accept your regrets, then you can look to a future and actually go after the change … no stress … no anxiety.”
Another part of gaining perspective is figuring out what to do next. I know all too well how easy it is to get caught up in the spiral of negative thoughts. One way to break free from that repetitive self-flagellation is to actively plan for the future (near or far). Planning makes you aware that there is a different state of mind than the one you’re currently in, and it gives you something to work toward.
“If it’s something big I sit down and draw out a full plan with goals and objectives and flow charts so I can clearly see where I am and where I need to be and what I have to do to get there. Sometimes just keeping a notebook where I can track what I’m doing is helpful. I like doing that with financial planning.”
I recently wrote, in large letters, a different task for each day on two 11” x 14” sheets of paper and tacked them up in a prominent place. Now, in addition to the unpacking and arranging that I’ve got to do to get my new place together, I work for a few hours each day on the day’s assigned task. Not only does it give me a sense of accomplishment, checking something off a list, it also gets stuff done!
One theme that came up a number of times was exercise, which is another form of self-care. Physical exertion is a great way to reduce stress. And, your mind works better when the blood is flowing. Get out there, work up a sweat.
“The best way for me to deal with stress is yoga and working out. It helps take the edge off but not the hurt.”
Exercise is one of those areas where self-care and distraction overlap:
“I like to sing really loud. Also, exercise. It’s hard to get motivated at first, but once you’re in it, it helps your brain focus on what you are currently doing instead of all the other crap.”
In addition to the “sing really loud” approach, screaming was also mentioned as a way to release negative energy. It’s best if you do so where you aren’t going to alarm the neighbors, of course!
Some fellow Aspies suggested alternative approaches, based on what is generally classed under the term, “spirituality”. Listening to Alan Watts or Adyashanti; reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, Neville Goddard’s Feeling is the Secret, or Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul.
The use of crystals was mentioned as was something I’d not previously heard of: ASMR, which stands for the grandiose, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. A friend described it humorously as “genetically superior humans speaking softly and giving you personal attention”, but officially ASMR is the use of triggers (whispering, personal attention, crisp sounds and slow movements) to engender a state of relaxation. ASMR is gaining traction, with at least one scholarly article as well as articles in The Guardian and The Smithsonian Magazine. It’s interesting. Check it out. There are lots of ASMR videos on YouTube.
Pets are a proven stress reliever, often cited as lowering high blood pressure in their owners, and increasing longevity. Emotional Support Animals are helping many people. I’m very lucky to have a cat that is not only intuitive but also seeks out my company. She has been an amazing help.
“If it’s the middle of the day I climb into my puppys’ bed with them in their huge crate and cuddle them.”
There are times when you need help to take care of yourself, and that’s okay. This article arose from me seeking the help of others. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Many of the comments I got amounted to the very simple yet supportive declaration, “you are not alone”.
At times we need to seek help not just from peers but from professionals. Two forms of professional help came up in the comments I received: therapy and drugs. Seeing a therapist is sometimes exactly what’s needed. I’ve done it before and probably will again. Interestingly, a number of fellow autistics mentioned CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy. The approach of CBT is very practical, in many ways akin to the earlier advice of making a plan. In this case, the plan is devised to allow you to change your thought patterns so that they are healthier and more constructive.
And drugs. Yeah, this is a loaded one. Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of pharmaceuticals. I’ll admit, though, that things can get bad enough so that you might need some sort of medication to get you to the point where you are able to tackle any of the other approaches in this article.
“When my emotions go super slippy-slidey and I’m truly off the rails, I turn to meds, but that’s only when my mind won’t stop looping and I am heading for a really bad depression spiral.”
I get it. I was prescribed a benzodiazepine, and took the recommended dose for a couple of weeks. It may have helped a bit, but I was far too concerned about the side effects (Ha! More anxiety). It took me far longer to wean myself off the [expletive deleted] things. It is, of course, a personal choice, but please proceed with caution.
There are also vitamins and supplements that can help. One person mentioned a commercial mineral blend I’d never heard of, Min-Tran, a combination of calcium, magnesium and iodine. Reviews are generally favorable but of course, as with all supplements, your mileage may vary.
“I use Min-Tran. Its just minerals but its works quickly on even extreme stress, anxiety, and anger.”
And, of course, there’s weed. Cannabis. Marijuana. In places where weed is legal, I believe this to be a viable option to reduce anxiety. But, and I stress this: everything in moderation. It won’t do you any good to ignore your problems; they’re still going to be there when the high is gone. With moderation and common sense — and where it is legal — cannabis can give you the breathing space to allow you to tackle, rather than avoid, what it is that’s making you anxious.
You may have raised your eyebrow at my having classed half of the suggestions proffered by fellow autistics under the rubric, “distraction”. Surely distraction is merely a form of avoidance, not dealing with the issues of stress and anxiety at all, no? Instead, I like to think of it as a way to “stop the bleeding”. If someone is having a panic attack, the first thing to do is to help the person calm down; then you can deal with whatever it is they’re panicking about. As any parent knows, redirection is an extremely useful technique to help regulate a younger child’s behavior.
That said, it is entirely possible to distract oneself from the issues at hand in a way that is just an avoidance. Once you’ve redirected yourself you actually have to take advantage of your calmer state of mind and do something. Watching television or playing video games all day may take your mind off things, but those things will still be there when you’re done. To be fair, there are times when we all need a break, so a day or two here and there just vegging out can be a good thing, but only if the “break” does indeed have an end to it.
Mindfulness is perhaps the most prevalent form of distraction, with meditation and breathing being the most common approaches. When it comes down to it, the essence of meditation is to distract the busy mind from all the noisy thoughts that are keeping it from functioning at its peak. By focusing on the here and now, by becoming “present”, that focus is the distraction. You’re distracting yourself by paying attention. When I am overly anxious or stressed, I find myself inundated with thoughts and concerns that don’t really go anywhere, they just revolve in cacophony inside my head. I can’t move forward, can’t solve anything until the noise abates. Meditation — redirecting my thoughts to something neutral — puts me in an emotional state that has me thinking more clearly, allowing me to make decisions and take action that otherwise would have been all but impossible.
“One idea is to ground yourself by trying to focus on your surrounds. Example what your tasting (if anything) seeing, hearing, feeling. How does the chair feel how does the air feel blowing against you stuff like that. As well you could try to get a relaxation app on the phone. There are a few which are pretty good when it comes to anxiety.”
Deep breathing is a very close cousin to mediation. Well known author and autism scholar and consultant, Barry Prizant told me last year that breathing is most effective with a minimum of three breathing cycles (slow inhalation, hold for a beat or two, then slow exhalation). When I do deep breathing I work in groups of three breaths, pausing between each group. One of the Facebook comments offered a rather detailed approach to breathing that cannot but distract:
“Press on one side of your nose, breathe deeply through the unblocked side. Press on the other side, breathe out through the unblocked side. Breathe in through the currently unblocked side, then switch sides again. Repeat until feeling calmer.”
I have used meditation for years, but admittedly there are times when the anxiety is so intense that meditation doesn’t do the trick for me — like recently. Luckily there are other ways to distract an anxious mind. Harking back to methods touched on when talking about self-care, physical exercise is not only good for stress and anxiety in and of itself, it too forces you to lend some of your focus to something other than what’s stressing you out. Even just a walk in nature can do wonders.
“If there are any nice nature places around you, go for a walk and take as much time as you need.”
“When worries hit, if you can, take a walk. I try to turn my worries into actions I can control.”
“Long walks on the coast, listen to music as you go, visit theatres, make an effort to go to a café and meet a friend.”
That last comment introduces another frequently mentioned form of distraction aimed at anxiety reduction: listening to music. With both nature walks and listening to music, I think the key is beauty. By focusing on the beauty of nature or the aesthetic pleasure of a favorite piece of music, one is, in essence, meditating on that beauty, immersing oneself in it. That’s therapeutic.
I would be dishonoring my English heritage if I didn’t mention tea. There are, of course, calming teas — chamomile, valerian root, and such — but the act of making tea is itself restorative. Note that I drink no tea with caffeine: it’s all herbal teas and decaffeinated green tea for me. If you drink enough tea (as I certainly do) then the act of making the tea is a familiar and thus comforting routine. Because it’s so familiar there’s a danger that the act can be done through rote rather than thought, but I generally find that getting up, putting the kettle on and putting tea bag an honey into the mug gives me enough distraction that I am pulled away — distracted — from whatever was on my mind.
That simple act of making tea is busy work. Keeping busy, being constructive, was also mentioned a number of times by fellow autistics commenting on my Facebook post.
“I don’t unleash quite as much energy in a meltdown as I once did. I try to let it out in more constructive ways, mostly involving work or work-like hobbies.”
“Stay busy. Puzzles, work out, walk, cook, color pictures lol.”
“Doing what you love should bring down your anxiety in a heartbeat.”
The great thing about keeping busy is not only that you distract yourself from the negative thoughts circulating in your head, you also get stuff done! While talking about gaining perspective, above, I mentioned planning as a self-care technique. Often the first step in doing is planning. Just making a well honed list can bring a sense of accomplishment. Then, being able to tick something off that list or even just to recognize that you did something worthwhile can do wonders for your emotional state. Not only can you start to see light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, you are actively working your way towards that light.
Whatever approach or combination of approaches appeals to you, the important thing is to do something. It can be hard to make that first step when you’re feeling a lot of anxiety, but do yourself a favor and make that step. The vicious cycle of negative thoughts that comes so easily with anxiety isn’t going anywhere on its own, so find some way to dislodge that cycle. Can’t decide what approach to take? Then just pick something at random an do it. Action beats inaction when it comes to fighting anxiety.
The Greek philosopher Thales said, “A sound mind in a sound body” (although he said it in ancient Greek), highlighting the tight link between a healthy body and a healthy mind. We know that a great deal of anxiety can have negative effects on our physical well being, so it stands to reason that if we take care of ourselves mentally, we’ll feel better physically. So, be selfish, focus on yourself and your well being. Being selfish in this way will help not only you but also anyone close to you. Being around an anxiety-ridden person can itself cause anxiety! Do you. Whether it’s listed above under “self-care” or “distraction”, you are really caring for yourself. And that’s necessary. Be good to yourself. You deserve it.
Thanks to all fellow autistics who commented on my Facebook posts. Your words of advice and encouragement helped me over the hump, and will hopefully help others who read them here. You have helped to keep the community strong.
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