You know that feeling where your racing heart-rate won’t slow down, your face feels sweaty and your insides are churning? Where your thoughts are spinning around your head in endless circles? Where you feel dread and complete nausea from everything? I live with that every day.
Anxiety isn’t intrinsic to autism. Not all autistic people even experience anxiety, but an overwhelming amount of us do. In an ideal world, autistic people would not have to feel this level of anxiety. We would be able to go about our lives without it following us everywhere we go.
I think that anxiety and anxiety disorders are different, though of course autistic people can have anxiety disorders too (which can be influenced by their autism). This is because autistic anxiety often occurs due to things in our lives which our autistic brains find hard to cope with.
Our anxiety often occurs because of change (in routine, environment and social situations), unfamiliarity (when we don’t know how to behave or what to expect), sensory overload (like loud noises or painful textures) or feeling unable to communicate our feelings or needs.
We may be fearful of particular things or situations, exacerbated by our tendency to hyper-focus on these things, causing obsessive worries and anxiety which we cannot switch off or let go of.
Our difficulty in understanding other people can also make us feel anxious. How am I meant to not feel anxious when I have no idea what this person is thinking or what their facial expression means? When their behaviour seems so unpredictable and illogical to me?
A huge part of my anxiety is fear of misinterpreting people. I have misinterpreted people so often in the past, which has led to being laughed at and shamed. It has also led to disagreements and difficulty in relationships. This means I constantly second-guess everything.
Worrying about what other people think of you is a very common worry for many people. But, for autistic people, we may be constantly worried about whether our facial expressions are ‘correct’ or whether we are coming across as rude in our mannerisms, because these things have caused us problems in the past. I think this is one of the things which affects my anxiety the most. I am so used to feeling like I don’t fit in, and have so many ingrained memories of hearing people talk about me behind my back and of being bullied, that a repeat of this is one of my worst fears.
The way I react to this anxiety can be different to how non-autistic people may react to their anxiety. It can result in meltdowns and shutdowns, when we are completely overwhelmed and unable to process anymore information.
We can find it difficult to verbalise our feelings, especially at a point of heightened anxiety, which can make us feel trapped in the situation and unable to access the support we need from those around us. This can cause other people to become frustrated with us, which can make our anxiety even worse!
Anxiety can be debilitating for anyone, regardless of neurotype. I’m diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and I think that’s due to how much anxiety has impacted my life, though it could be argued that that’s just a result of being autistic in the society that we live in.
My anxiety meant daily panic attacks for years. It meant struggling to leave the house. It meant I missed a lot of my education. It meant I would panic and run away from school and social situations. It meant I would go to bed at night, begging not to have to do another day.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, you don’t have to face this alone. I know it feels so lonely and isolating, and I know you don’t want to keep going, but anxiety fluctuates just like everything else does. There will be days to come where you won’t feel so broken. Hold on for those days.