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I Expected My Autism Diagnosis, but Not My Anxiety Disorder

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Did you know you can have anxiety so severe it impairs your ability to concentrate and complete work? Here are some examples of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) at work:

  • Procrastinating because you’re afraid you’ll do it wrong and screw up and everyone will hate you? Anxiety.
  • Starting something and then getting distracted by some insignificant thing that doesn’t matter nearly as much as the original task you set out to complete, but now you’re obsessed and can’t get back to work until you get rid of that one silly little thing? Anxiety.
  • Refusing to ask for help because you hate to be a burden on others and you’re afraid you’re supposed to already know how to do this one thing so by asking you’re admitting you don’t know and now you’re afraid you’ll get in trouble and everyone will be mad at you? Anxiety.
  • Taking someone’s silence to mean they’re mad at you and will hate you forever for some silly thing you have no control over? Anxiety.

Notice a common thread here? An overreacting brain that constantly jumps to the worst-case scenario. For everything. Daily.

I recently sought out a formal diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) from a clinical psychologist, hoping to get some recommendations for reducing the level of stress I felt in my daily life. I wasn’t expecting to be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder as well.

Being anxious is one thing. I know everyone gets anxious. I just didn’t realize there is a huge difference between typical anxiousness and the “OMG, I can’t breathe and I’m going to throw up” anxiety I sometimes feel. Often feel. To the point that my evaluation report states my anxiety “continues to impair [my] ability to function in everyday life and presents a significant concern.”

And while I’m feeling this severe anxiety, my face is blank and I look completely normal. But on the inside, I feel like I’m falling apart.

The recommendations in my evaluation report suggested I find an Asperger’s support group, and maybe find a therapist who can help me work on my social communication skills. But it straight up told me to get help for my anxiety, be it from a therapist (with some good, dependable cognitive behavioral therapy, which has worked well for me in the past) or from medication, or both.

Since I was expecting the autism diagnosis, I was more thrown by the anxiety disorder. My husband and I had figured  most of my anxiety stemmed from my autism — e.g., it’s too loud in here so I’m anxious, there are too many people talking to me at once so I’m anxious, I want to finish this thing I was working on but now I’m being interrupted so I’m anxious. But after answering several pages of assessments that asked me if I was anxious in a variety of specific situations, it turns out I am in fact very anxious in a lot of specific situations.

So now I’ve got to work on it. I’ve adopted some stress-reducing strategies in my life already: meditation, relaxing white noise, writing things down to get them out of my head, making to-do lists, prioritizing tasks on my to-do list, using templates and outlines to help me to get started on big scary projects, etc. But there’s still more to do. Apparently, my frequent stomachaches and my near-constant fatigue will get better if I do. Isn’t it strange that I’m so anxious, my clinical psychologist says I am literally exhausted from worrying so much? It’s extreme.

And this is what I always thought “normal” was like, but now I’m reading more about anxiety and starting to realize I’ve been dealing with a lot of unnecessary stress in my life for a long time.

I worry about everything. I worry about literally nothing. My brain has trouble keeping quiet, and trouble gauging what’s truly life-threateningly important and what’s just of moderate importance. To the point that they put a name on it, qualified it as a disorder, a mental illness. Beyond normal limits. It’s intense.

People with autism are often also diagnosed with anxiety, but it’s still this whole other beast I’ve got to learn more about and get used to living with. I’ve got to learn more about how my brain works, so I can more effectively work around it and make my life a little bit easier.

But knowing it’s a problem is the first step.

Now, we can work on making it better.

Originally published: May 5, 2018
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