This year's Mental Health Awareness Week focuses on Anxiety. Today we're looking at it from the perspective of Anxiety and Autism.
Anxiety is something we can all pretty much relate to. The physiological feelings we experience through our body and the constant worrying thoughts in our minds. We know that small doses of anxiety can be healthy. They keep us safe, they make us cautious. We also know though, that large and regular doses of anxiety can have negative and adverse effects due to the stress hormones that course through our bodies. Increased risk of heart disease, migraines, weight gain or loss, weakened immune systems and gastrointestinal disorders are only a few of the side effects of anxiety.
So, what does this mean for autistic people? The National Autistic Society’s website shares details of research which indicate that approximately 47% of autistic people experience severe anxiety which can impact on their daily lifestyle and wellbeing.
We asked Christine, a senior MacIntyre employee who is Autistic, about her experience of anxiety as a logical response to life and what helps her.
I’ve suffered from anxiety since my primary school years, and as a teenager it frequently led to panic attacks and meltdowns. During my 20s I repeatedly sought counselling for anxiety and depression, and whilst some of the tools I was taught were useful, nothing ever stuck.
A rational response to a neurotypical world
It was only after I came to terms with my autism and started seeking a diagnosis that I realised my chronic anxiety was not irrational. Unlike how anxiety is usually portrayed, autistic anxiety is actually a rational, logical response to living in a neurotypical world.
I suspect this is why none of the neurotypical CBT techniques ever stuck. For people anxious over imagined things, they work fine; but in an autistic person those fears are usually grounded in real experiences of rejection and persecution, so CBT is something closer to gaslighting than therapy.
An example of this would be anxiety over being invited to a party with a new group of friends. Someone experiencing generalised neurotypical anxiety could be reassured that these friends wouldn’t have invited them to the party if they didn’t want the person to come, and that once they were there they would have a great time.
For an autistic person, this reassurance won’t work because we know it’s not true. The chances are good that we have been invited into social circles as a joke previously, and have been tricked into placing ourselves in a position to be rejected more than once. It’s a real fear based on experience, and you can’t “worry-tree” your way out of that!
My experience of attempting to access NHS therapy was exactly like the above: the counsellor simply couldn’t understand autistic anxiety and kept trying to push ahead with her techniques even after I explained why they weren’t going to work and what I needed instead.
What has helped
The biggest help for me in terms of managing my anxiety has been the medicine sertraline. I have been taking it daily for 4-5 years and have found that it just takes enough of an edge off the tendency to panic that I have time for logic to step in and help me work through my anxiety. I expect to be on it for the rest of my life, because it makes living in a neurotypical world bearable.
I have also become a lot more upfront about my anxiety, and will willingly say “I’m autistic, so this is making me anxious – that doesn’t mean we can’t do it, just that I need some extra time to process and get ready for it”. Thankfully, I have surrounded myself with people who want to give me that time. That, too, makes all the difference.