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Asperger’s Syndrome and Mental Health: Anxiety

Anxiety, for a lot of people on and off the Autism Spectrum, is an ever-present and ever-pressing problem. It can be all pervasive, seeping into every part of your lifestyle, like inkblots spilling onto the pages of your life, dirtying the pages and obscuring words and memories with worry and sometimes, blind panic.

What exactly is anxiety though?

Anxiety stems from a malfunction of our natural ‘fight-or-flight’ response. The fight or flight reflex is our response to perceived threat, and whether we deal with it by attacking it head on, or whether we flee from it. Anxiety is a ‘misreading’ of that perceived threat; it is an activation of our fight or flight reflex in situations that don’t call for it, and an overstatement of the danger involved. It can be completely debilitating, resulting in ‘panic attacks’, causing hyperventilation, palpitations, a sensation of imminent doom, heavy anxiety and loss of reasoning.

Anxiety attacks, culminating in panic attacks, can strike at any moment, walking down the street, a conversation in a bar, a university lecture. We have an increasing amount of social ethics tied up in conversation and how we act, and a lot of the time anxiety can stem from the fear of breaking this kind of ‘code of ethics’.

Obviously, when it comes to social code and conversational ethics, people with Asperger’s Syndrome can struggle, and as you can imagine, can be more prone to anxiety. The stakes are higher; the difficulties with crowds and social situations are constant, and there is always the fear you’ll do, or say, something wrong.

So how do you deal with this kind of anxiety, especially as someone with AS?

Well, there are a few ways to deal with the symptoms inherent in anxiety. Unfortunately, one of the biggest things I can advocate, and the one that really, really works, is to challenge yourself. Anxiety is constant for me, I get anxious just walking down the street, but I push myself to do it. It takes practise – you’re basically teaching your body, by doing the same things without incident, that certain situations are not threatening, or that any threats presented can be dealt with. Make sure you give yourself due credit for pushing yourself – it’s not expected, and you aren’t in any way a failure if you struggle. Take it slow, and steady.

Meditation, either from outside sources or self-led, helps too. There’s a link here to a 9 minute Mindfulness meditation session by Sam Harris, but you can start simple. Breathing techniques are incredibly useful, as one of the first things leading up to a panic attack can be shallow, laboured breathing.

When you’re in situations which can provoke anxiety, try and, wherever possible, make sure you have an ‘out’. When I’m in situations I struggle with, it’s a habit of mine to make sure I know where the exits are and that I’m able to take five minutes if I’m struggling. Often just knowing that if you need to, you can escape a situation is enough to prevent you from needing to.

Finally, awareness is key. While it’s important to make sure you don’t keep bringing up the issue, let friends know that you struggle sometimes. You may find people are more understanding than you think.