Anxiety Management with Autism

Anxiety Management with Autism

By Natalie Miller

As you’re no doubt aware, the pandemic and subsequent social distancing had multiple side effects on Americans beyond the immediate concern of being infected with COVID-19.  One of the most prevalent of these effects has been anxiety. Many foreign to it are experiencing it for the first time, and those who are familiar with it have felt their symptoms increase.  Like many people on the autism spectrum, I have dealt with generalized anxiety most of my life and have certainly felt my fair share during this chaotic time in our world.  Luckily, dealing with it for almost two decades has given me plenty of time to develop coping skills and a few simple life strategies to help minimize the effects.  If you’d like to see what I’ve learned over the years, keep reading!  I’ve organized these by the stage of life I was in when I started developing them, but I think you’ll find these applicable no matter your age or situation.

Middle & High School- During grade school, anxiety symptoms are often amplified by going through puberty.  Not helping is that the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain associated with making decisions and seeing beyond the immediate future, is still developing. This is also a good age to really invest in developing good coping skills as they’ll serve you well in the adult world.

  • Take up an extra-curricular activity (or two) – It’s a lot harder for anxiety to consume your mind if you’re actively engaging in a productive activity, and schools have all kinds to choose from.  Whether your pursuits are athletic, academic, or artistic in nature, anything that engages your mind and doesn’t allow you to stare at screens all day will prove quite beneficial.  It’s also a great way to make friends.
  • Create a supportive social network – Speaking of friends, having people you can rely on is very important as they can help support you when times get tough.  Look for honest people who treat you with respect, support your ambitions, and you’re comfortable being yourself around.  You don’t even need many people either- quality over quantity definitely applies here.
  • Write in a journal – In eighth grade, my anxiety was starting to surge and my teacher instructed me to go into the hallway and write.  Though I found her suggestion silly at first, this literally changed my life because writing is a great way to let out what’s on your mind without turning to social media.  I was even able to use my writing ability to improve my communication skills, which got better in high school.

College- The first weeks of college are idyllic with your first taste of the freedom adulthood brings, but then you have to start balancing class, social life, and adult responsibilities. The prefrontal cortex hasn’t finished developing yet either, so many students either neglect their mental health or use destructive coping skills to try managing it.  Here’s how I managed college anxiety with minimal collateral damage. 

  • Take care of your physical health – Physical and mental health are very much connected, so invest in your well-being to give yourself a fighting chance.  Make the time to eat balanced meals, drink plenty of water, get some exercise in, honor when your body needs rest or sleep, and maintain good personal hygiene.  You’d be surprised what a difference a little extra care in this area can make. 
  • Be mindful of media consumption – From depressing new stories on TV to heated social issue debates on Facebook, the media we consume has a tremendous impact on anxiety.  Avoid such media, especially if you’re anxious or angry, as this will only make it worse.  Either find something uplifting to watch or take a break from media altogether until you feel more calm and secure. 
  • Have fun – College is fairly unique in that you have adult freedom without the full responsibilities you have in the workforce.  Take advantage of it!  Obviously don’t do anything stupid, but attend events on campus, make new friends, try new things that interest you and allow yourself to relax every now and then.  These experiences create memories that you’ll hold dear for years to come.
  • BONUS TIP- If you’re old enough to drink alcohol and decide to do so, use discretion and do NOT use it to self-medicate for anxiety.  It might calm your nerves at first, but this can quickly lead to binge drinking and making dumb decisions that will only lead to worse anxiety later.  Be mindful of how your body is reacting to the alcohol, and the minute you start to feel a little funny, put the drink down and have some water instead. 

Workplace- It’s become quite trendy to talk about “adulting” on social media and how much people wish they had fewer responsibilities.  Personally, I love the freedom that living on my own & being able to support myself financially brings, so I say it’s worth the extra work.  That being said, the workforce certainly is tough and makes me anxious at times, so here’s how to manage anxiety in this stage of life.

  • Know when to ask for help- This is something I still struggle with to this day as I like being seen as independent and having it all together.  However, needing help doesn’t reflect your capabilities, it reflects your humanity.  Whether it’s your workload in the office, a relationship issue or an anxiety disorder, I ask you to be brave and reach out when you really need it.
  • Give yourself a break-  When you have a heavy workload, it’s easy to feel pressured to get it all done in one go, particularly if what you’re working on is urgent.  That being said, people aren’t machines and can’t be expected to keep going nonstop.  Taking a little time to step away from whatever you’re doing for a short while helps clear your mind and return to your work feeling more focused.
  • Have a hobby- As silly as this might sound, I find that it helps to have at least one thing in life that is completely  unrelated to work, school, or other major obligations.  Whenever those things are particularly stressful, you can just focus on something productive that makes you happy.  For me, it’s playing my piano or cooking new recipes, but yours can be whatever you’d like.
  • BONUS TIP- If you’re on the job hunt, keeping yourself busy will make a world of difference.  Investing your free time in things like education, chores, and learning new skills will help you feel so much more prepared than if you spend it on social media, video games or self-pity.  I’d also encourage you to stay in touch with your friends as they’ll boost your mood and just might know good opportunities for you.

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