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Coping With COVID-19 Pandemic Stress When You're Autistic

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As we pass one year since the COVID-19 pandemic began, I have to say it’s been incredible how much progress we’ve made. We’ve been able to keep up with our jobs, schools and lives as best as we can through virtual and safe face-to-face interactions, and there are three vaccines available to a select group of people with availability for everyone by the summer.

Through these uncertain times, I, along with many other autistic (and non-autistic) individuals, have had issues with anxiety. Most of my anxiety has had to do with not finding work in the scarce market, as well as not having exciting plans to look forward to every day. Most autistic individuals crave structure and a schedule, which has been nonexistent for me since I finished school 10 months ago. With not much to do other than send out applications and hope for the best, I have found a couple of approaches that have helped keep my anxiety in check and made me feel at ease.

One of the biggest factors that help me get through the pandemic is exercise, especially running. When I can, I’ll go out around four to five times a week for runs up to four to five miles, and they make me feel so refreshed afterward. I had a little setback with minor calf pain, but I’m near the end of physical therapy and I hope to go back to my regular pace as soon as I can. Running has major benefits that can help reduce anxiety.

Dr. Karen Cassiday, president of the Anxiety and Depression Association, goes over four reasons how exercise can have a positive impact on our mood and mind. They include:

  • Exercise helps to clear the bloodstream of stress-related chemicals and mechanically relaxes our muscles.
  • It decreases the inflammatory markers that are associated with poor mental health and helps to regulate and release chemicals in our brains that are associated with feeling good.
  • Exercise, specifically running, tends to expose us to sunshine which helps to increase our vitamin D3 levels, which we need in order to feel good and avoid depression and anxiety.
  • It also tends to regulate sleep and improve sleep quality, which has a positive impact on depression and anxiety symptoms.

Exercise is a huge part of my life and also is what helped me get through my final semester at Worcester State when I was faced with my anxiety with perfectionism. I highly encourage those who face anxiety to exercise as much as possible to help make themselves more relaxed and see their lives more positively.

I also find that music helps me relax when I’m facing anxiety or stress. I listen to music when I go for runs, and that helps motivate me to run farther and allows for positive thoughts to enter my mind. I usually listen to mellow pop and rock from the ’70s and ‘80s when I’m running and listening for fun, and the songs I listen to are upbeat and put me in a good place.

Neurological researchers have found that listening to music triggers the release of several neurochemicals that play a role in brain function and mental health:

  • Dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure and “reward” centers.
  • Stress hormones like cortisol.
  • Serotonin and other hormones related to immunity.
  • Oxytocin, a chemical that fosters the ability to connect to others.

The music I listen to always puts me in a good mood, and it always to shift my mind to more positive thinking and recall happy memories from certain songs. For instance, when I hear Beatles songs, I think of a Beatles class I took at Worcester. Since I have the ‘70s and ‘80s SiriusXM stations on all the time in the car, I can recall a song that played when we were on our way to a fun event. Music is a huge part of my life and has tremendously helped me throughout the recent anxiety I have faced.

Anxiety is a part of all of our lives. It’s never going to leave us because it’s a human emotion like happiness and sadness. Those emotions won’t leave us, either. While that may be the case, managing anxiety is the best way to tame it and help relax our emotions. While it can be hard to get rid of it sometimes, I recommend doing deep breathing, as well as using white noise or soothing sounds during relaxing times and at bedtime. I use the Calm app for listening to soothing waves or rain when I’m falling asleep, and it helps me get to sleep with happy thoughts on my mind. Anxiety is a part of who we are, and it protects and keeps us safe for living the best life we can.

Getty photo by Flamingo Images.

Originally published: March 29, 2021
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