What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a negative reaction to being unsure of something. ‘Worrying’ or ‘feeling nervous’ are other terms to describe anxiety. Anxiety is normal – everyone feels nervous sometimes. Although, anxiety can become a problem if you feel nervous ALL OF THE TIME. Some people have anxiety disorders, which affects their everyday life. Anxiety can sometimes be confused with adrenaline and excitement – you may get the same tingly feeling in your stomach!

How can I recognise anxiety?

There are many ways that you can tell if you’re anxious. Sometimes, it can be hard to know if you’re worried. Anxiety presents itself differently in different people, but there are certain things to look out for. Usually, symptoms of anxiety include:

My Experience

At secondary school, when I was going through a particularly difficult phase, I struggled with panic attacks. Any noises (that wouldn’t bother a neuro-typical), such as the scraping of a chair or pencil being dropped on the floor would set me off. As part of my foreign languages class, I had to watch videos including songs and children’s animations. Watching these videos were awful, because the stimuli would trigger a panic attack. I remember that during my panic attacks, I was unable to move. I was rigid – I couldn’t move my head, let alone remove myself from the classroom in front of everyone. I was frozen to the core. I couldnt focus on anything except my anxiety trigger. I often had cold sweats and felt faint. I had to doodle to calm myself down and just let my fear gradually disappear. It was mentally exhausting to experience these panic attacks in nearly every lesson!

Why am I anxious?

People experience anxiety for many different reasons. Remember, that no reason for feeling anxious is a stupid reason! Anxiety often increases during the teenage years, because people may feel more self-conscious and there’s more expectation to fit in with peers (conformity isn’t always a good thing!) Some reasons why people may feel anxious include:

  • They are being bullied
  • They are a perfectionist and things may not be exactly right
  • They forgot their homework
  • They don’t get on with their teacher
  • They have to change their routine (unpredictability is usually a big trigger of anxiety for people with autism)

Neuro-typicals (people who don’t have autism) may worry a lot about big things, such as wedding plans, driving lessons or exams. However, people with autism may have irrational and unusual fears, such as natural disasters occurring or worry about very small things, like running out of their favourite food. I once heard a person with autism say they were anxious that they would get stuck behind the radiator. However ridiculous this may sound to a neuro-typical, it was incredibly real for the person with autism. So, to combat this fear of getting stuck, someone had to measure them and measure the distance between the wall and the radiator. This showed them a concrete example, which would help decrease their anxiety.

Some people, who are extremely anxious, have panic attacks. These can be a short or longer burst of immense anxiety, where the anxiety trigger is the main focus. When people experience panic attacks, they may be unable to talk or express their feelings. They may fidget to distract themselves or go into a shutdown mode and withdraw themselves. It’s important to either remove the trigger from the person or them from the trigger to prevent the anxiety levels rising. Understand that everyone has different triggers and everyone’s way of coping will be different. Try to find out what works for the individual.

Some people with autism may display self-stimulatory behaviour (stimming.) This will often be a particular, repetitive behaviour to help calm their senses. Some examples of stimming include rocking, hand flapping, pacing, jumping up and down, fidgeting or humming. In public, this bevahiour may seem unexpected or may be considered as unacceptable, however it’s just a way for the person with autism to calm down or release their emotion (often anxiety, but possibly excitement.) Stimming isn’t the same as attention-seeking and shouldn’t be stopped. If anything, this behaviour should be encouraged, as long as it’s not harming themselves or others.

There are lots of things that people can do to manage their anxieties, if it’s controlling their everyday lives. Although everyone experiences anxiety at some points during their life, it can sometimes become so severe, that people start to withdraw and isolate themselves from others (this can be a very lonely trap!)

People manage their anxieties in different ways, depending on their personal triggers and the severity of their anxiety. I’m going to highlight a few things that could help you cope with your anxious thoughts. I hope they are useful!

  • Listen to music
  • Talk about what makes you anxious. Understand that you’re not alone.
  • Create a worry bag – put all of your worries in a bag and lock them away
  • Create a set of coping cards – little flash cards with reminders to think positively.
  • Challenge your negative thoughts – ask yourself what the evidence is that your negative thought is true (for example, how do you know that nobody likes you?)
  • Do a grounding exercise – find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.
  • Write down your negative thoughts, screw them up and chuck them away
  • Write a poem/story about how you’re feeling and use it in a positive way
  • Do breathing exercises
  • Understand that you cannot please everyone. Sometimes, it’s okay to say no!

The 5 Point Scale is a useful tool for understanding how anxiety can escalate. The scale shows you what anxiety looks and feels like. You can write or draw ways that you would calm down, once you reach a certain point. The 5 Point Scale can be displayed either at home or in a classroom to remind you of what to do when your anxiety rises. It’s important to try and stay at either a 1 or 2 so that you’re happy!

Knowing what makes you anxious (your triggers) is the first step. Once you’ve recognised what makes you anxious, you can measure how anxious each trigger makes you, using the volcano concept. For example, the bottom of the volcano would be ‘I am okay,’ and near the top would be ‘I am going to explode.’ The aim of this concept is to recognise where you are close to having a meltdown and put strategies in place to help you calm down. In some ways, it’s very similar to the 5 Point Scale (just called something different!)

CBT is a therapy used to help people to focus on managing their anxieties and see things from a different perspective. This therapy requires engagement and motivation. There are CBT self-help books to work through individually or a referral can be made from a mental health service/GP/educational provision.

The idea behind CBT is that our thoughts trigger certain emotions and our emotions affect how we behave. Our reaction to situations can give other people impressions about us – they may be positive or negative impressions.

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