In my last post, I alluded to having a nice, long, academic post on Asperger’s/autism and anxiety all ready to go.
But then I backtracked and said, “but not today.”
Well, today, I’m saying, “yes, today.”
I’m not sure if it’s all that “academic”. I don’t have facts and figures. No numbers to crunch or informational sources to cite. But what I’ve tried to do here is dissect the subject in a semi-cerebral manner. And so here it is, for whatever it’s worth 🙂
It seems that we Asperger’s/autistic people are more prone to anxiety. This isn’t always true; some of us don’t experience much anxiety at all. But asking (and reading) around, I would venture to say that most of us do. And although I don’t have specific stats, I would also venture to say that we tend to experience more anxiety, or tend to experience anxiety more often (at higher rates or be at higher risk), or both.
Why? I hinted at our overactive limbic system in that previous post, so I’ll spare you the redundancy by not repeating myself here. 🙂
But I think there’s more to it than mere neurology. (As if neurology wasn’t challenging enough already…)
Other Causes of Anxiety…
I don’t think the problem rests exclusively with us. I think it’s more of a “culture clash” between our way of functioning and that of “the rest of the world”.
I can’t speak for everyone else, but I can say that my own anxiety is probably an amalgam of events/memories, influences, painful lessons, acting skills, and coping skills. It comes from many years of having learned the hard way what to do and say, and what not to do and say. It comes from years of feeling like I don’t fit in, the dawn of the early realization that I’m different from everyone else around me, in ways I can’t define, explain, or change.
I can say that for myself (and probably many of us), anxiety comes from conflict. Conflict between ourselves and other people (family members, classmates, even friends). Conflict between the way we know the world ought to be and the way it really is (which often makes no sense to us at all).
Conflict between the environment we need and that which is provided to us. Conflict between what we know we can and can’t do, and other peoples’ expectations of us (parents, teachers, counselors, supervisors, coaches, employers, etc). When I say I can’t do something, I mean it. I may look able-bodied, and I’m not stupid, but my brain simply shuts down in certain situations.
Those other people may expect things from us that we just can’t deliver. Conflict that arises from lack of understanding. Conflict that arises from different styles of communication (I was being neutral, Mom thought I was being a smart-ass. I took something literally; the other person meant it as a joke. I thought someone actually liked me, when it turned out that they were just pretending. And so on…So…bloody….on).
Finding ourselves on the ass-end of these types of conflict often enough can fuel a feeling of insecurity. Never being good enough. Always messing up somewhere. Always missing something. Always praying for an uneventful day at school or work. In a world where the “other” neurotype outnumbers ours somewhere between 50 and 100 to one, we’re simply expected to be (and function) just like “everybody else”. It’s not even a question.
And when we can’t, we don’t exactly feel great about ourselves. This insecurity can become paralyzing; slowly, we may feel apprehensive about leaving the house or meeting up with a friend.
Insecurity might as well be visible; the predators of society, which include bullies at school and/or tyrants at home (I survived both), can smell it. For all I know, I had a “kick me” sign permanently taped to my back until sometime in junior high school. I might as well have. The predators will respond to the scent of insecurity, and they’ll feed off of it. It fuels them. Bullying doesn’t just fuel more insecurity; it creates terror. The anxiety becomes panic.
I got it at home, too. The criticism seemed relentless. Nothing was good enough. My homework wasn’t done, my room was messy. Rather than simply close my bedroom door, the picking on me continued at home after having endured a full day of the same at school; it seemed like my classmates simply handed off an invisible “pick on her” baton to my father once the school day was finished.
There is no antidote; there’s only prevention. My preventive methods were primitive; I had limited means at my disposal. I learned very quickly, “out of sight, out of mind”, and I did my damnedest to be sure I never entered into sight. My room was my refuge, my stereo and CD collection my therapy, my Nintendo my escape, and my art/writing my solace. Thank God I was never physically or sexually abused; that’s another huge source of terror (here, too, “anxiety” is too mild a word).
I’m pretty sure I suffered emotional abuse; I’m sure “shut the f*ck up, stupid” coming from your father counts. Especially when you’re only, what, three? Four? Five years old? Although that’s the most particularly memorable one-liner, it wasn’t an isolated event.
And so, the anxiety mounted.
As an adult, school is finished, and I moved out of my childhood home to attend university when I was 18.
And again, the anxiety remained. Its volume has been turned down, but it’s there. I’ve traded some sources in for others; instead of prank phone calls from classmates, I deal with unreasonable expectations from clientele or abrupt changes in my schedule. I’ve traded parental criticism for self-criticism. At least I’m a lot easier on myself than my dad was.
Anxiety Arises In Many Different Environments…
Work, school, and home have been touched on already, but let’s explore a few others…
Family gatherings still suck at times because I’m surrounded by too many people, in someone else’s house, with someone else’s menu, on someone else’s timetable. It’s too much noise, too much gossip, and I never feel like I fit in. Even my parents (with whom I’m close–yep, even my dad) kind of leave me to fend for myself. Occasionally, part of me wishes I were still three years old so that I could grab my mom’s leg and hide behind it, and be affectionately dismissed (“she’s just shy”). But that’s not acceptable when you’re 39.
Holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas (and Easter, for some) or any other family/social-oriented holiday can be overwhelming. Just the “buzz” of the people around us often sets off our nervous systems and makes us uneasy. Public places are always a challenge, particularly a mall or other Big-Box store, restaurant, airport…you get the idea. Again, too many people, too much noise, too much action. If I’m properly prepared for it, my energy/tolerance reserves are high, my “fuse” is long, and my resilience is strong, then I can probably handle it…for at least a little while.
Anxiety Might Manifest Differently In Aspie/Autistic People…
We might get irritable. We may have lower thresholds for stress, stimuli, conversation, low blood sugar, etc. Our energy levels might change; for some, energy might dip, while for others, energy might “redline”. We might start to notice an impending “on edge” feeling. We might even be more susceptible to meltdowns and/or shutdowns.
A stressful event (either a one-time event in the past, or an ongoing/chronic event occurring over time) might have “primed” our nervous systems so highly that we now have PTSD.
Sometimes, our anxiety might feel like this low-level, always-there, “buzz”, “rumble”, tension, or some other term or concept. Sometimes, we can identify a causative trigger for it; this trigger might be subtle or dramatic. It might be a one-time event, a prolonged repeated event, or something else from the past or present. Other times, it seems to come from out of nowhere; we may not be able to tell that we’re anxious, much less what might’ve caused it.
What We Can Do…
In a recent post I wrote about Asperger’s/autism and depression, I went through a list of basic evaluations we could do ourselves: of ourselves, of our environment, of our relationships, of our lifestyles, etc. The same applies here, but with a different twist.
Environment – Here, you’d be checking home, school, work, etc for anything (or anyone) that makes you apprehensive. Is there anything in the physical environment that drives you crazy, such as a flickering light, a cramped work/living space, too-close proximity to other people, too much noise going on, too much echo off the walls/floor/furniture/etc? Do you have clientele (at work) or neighbors (at home) that act like a thorn in your side? Is there too much unpredictability in your schedule, your workday, your household, etc?
Relationships – Do you live or work with someone who is difficult, toxic, explosive, or drama/attention-seeking?
Are you getting bullied, criticized, or teased in any of these environments?
Are the rules/policies at school or work applied inconsistently, leaving you “walking on eggshells”?
Do you feel a lack of support from people who are supposed to be supportive (such as from parents, partner, etc)?
Is a lack of communication, a suspicion (about anything from suspected infidelity from a partner to stealing/theft to the feeling that someone is hiding something from you) causing an underlying fear?
You can also think back over recent conversations; when I do this, I sometimes suddenly remember something I said that I’m not sure the other person understood correctly.
The Basics – lack of sleep, excess stress, excessive demands placed on us, caretaking roles, commuting in traffic, etc can all cause anxiety. Strangely enough, so can diet. For some (including me), foods can unknowingly cause stress responses. Common dietary culprits are gluten, dairy, and/or artificial flavors (vanillin, the artificial vanilla flavor, causes this for some), aspartame (has Aspartic Acid and Phenylalanine, either of which can be stimulating on their own), caffeine, MSG additives (which parade under many names, so I recommend Googling this!), and/or artificial colorings/dyes (Red Lake 40, I think it is, is a major issue).
Other – Physical pain can cause anxiety; I experienced this myself over a two-year timespan of major dental pain. Financial issues or fear for job security can also be major anxiety-producers, as can grief.
And there are some acupuncture channels that, when blocked, can increase anxiety (you can laugh if you want, but don’t knock it until you’ve experienced it!) 🙂 There are several genetic variations (“mutations”) that slow the breakdown of certain biochemicals like adrenaline; this can amplify and prolong their effect, even long after the original stressor has lifted.
And of course, the most important question to ask is: do you remember the last time that you didn’t feel anxious?
And if applicable and possible, the next question becomes, what might have happened since then that might have kicked the anxiety in motion?
Sometimes we’ll never get to the root cause of anxiety; it’s just there. But those two questions above are worth thinking about.
I’d like to be able to say you’re not alone, but that’s not correct. You’re indeed not alone, and yet, you are. No one’s experiences are exactly the same as yours, not even those who also have anxiety. We all have our unique situations and no one can possibly understand anyone else’s completely.
I wish I had better news. But I don’t want to lie to anyone and spout some socially-expected cliche just to then pat myself on the back, self-satisfied that I fulfilled a social “obligation” to say something positive. I’d certainly like to be able to, and believe me, I would if I could.
Maybe in writing this, I did. I hope so, anyway 🙂