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When Autism and Anxiety Go Hand in Hand

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Which came first? The anxiety or the autism? For me, anxiety and autism have always gone hand in hand. I have heard from multiple people, including past agoraphobics, that my anxiety is the worst they’ve ever experienced. My anxiety manifests in many different ways. My panic attacks can range from a five-minute crying spree to not being able to breathe correctly for a week. I also have a relatively new type of panic attack that feels like an actual heart attack. I have a lot of trouble with highway driving anxiety as well, especially when I’m going through a difficult time. It can cause me to become disassociated and make me feel unsafe.

When I get anxious, I can get really fixated on things. I need to complete the task or find the object before my anxiety can go away. This can lead me to do the same things over and over again, even when I know it won’t work. I can usually tell when something actually needs to be worried about vs. my irrational anxiety, but I don’t have the capacity to stop the irrational anxiety.

My social anxiety is another difficulty for me. I practice what I am going to say, especially around people I don’t know, including ordering at a restaurant or being checked out somewhere. If my practiced conversation doesn’t go the way I plan, I usually flap and have often yelled, “I have social anxiety” and then run out the door. The other day, I messed up on holding a door open and I ran around in a little circle until my husband rescued me and the person I was trying to help. My husband and I joke that we have a list of places we can’t go to anymore because of this. I also have to psych myself up pretty hard to make or answer phone calls.

My biggest tip for coping is to not diminish your anxiety. My anxiety about all the little things might not make sense or seem important to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s not 100 percent valid and real to me.

My husband often doesn’t understand my anxiety. They don’t understand why my work schedule changing an hour can cause a panic attack, but they know how to talk me through it. They also know what can trigger my anxiety, which has come from a lot of trial and error. Just because I’m anxious about a certain thing now doesn’t mean I’ll be anxious about it tomorrow and vice versa. They also know the more overloaded I am, the more my anxiety comes through. When they can, they separate me from whatever is making me anxious or overwhelmed. This could mean going into a room with just the two of us so I can have some space or letting me sit in my car by myself for a few minutes.

Coping with anxiety as an autistic person means knowing your limitations and how to help yourself. I always have a book and a sensory toy with me because those are two things that can help my anxiety level go down quickly. I also know the crowded grocery store at 10 a.m. on a Saturday is way too much for me. I’m able to plan ahead and make sure that when I venture into the outside world, it is as easy for me as possible. Stimming helps me alleviate my anxiety as well. I can pour all my nervous energy into my fingers twitching. I also make sure to have an emergency plan in place for social situations I have never been in before, just in case I misjudged my abilities.

Nothing is going to make my anxiety go away or even get better. I’ve learned how to cope with anxiety and not let it rule my life. I have my supports, both human and objects to lean on. I’ve even gotten to the point where my body is displaying the panic attack symptoms but my brain is not on board. That is a huge leap forward for me. I am so proud of how I deal with my anxiety every single day.

Getty image by IG Royal.

Originally published: March 29, 2023
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