My autistic brain likes to research. I have an almost pathological need to understand things. I can’t take things at face value, I must dig deeper. So, I have an anxiety disorder and in true ‘me’ fashion, I have to know why.
I’ve spent 49 years living with anxiety and the last eight years researching it. I don’t know what it’s like not to have anxiety on some level. I think I came out of my mother’s womb hyperventilating, but having anxiety and understanding it are different things.
I understand anxiety.
I understand panic disorder.
Knowledge is power.
So, the educational stuff..
The Cortex (or Tex because I like to give things names)
Tex is the thinking part of my brain. He’s what makes us human, able to reason and know when some chancer has short-changed us. It’s also where we develop negative thoughts and irrational thinking. This is cortex based anxiety.
Tex is a good bloke but sometimes he gets overwhelmed by the volume of negative self-talk we throw at him with the ‘I’m a shit person’ and the ‘What if’s?’ These negative thoughts repeatedly trigger the fight or flight response which releases stress hormones into our bodies. We have lots of uncomfortable physical symptoms, then we worry that we have a life threatening disease. When this happens, we have become mentally ill.
Simplified: Tex thinks.
The Amygdala or Amy for short. (see above)
Amy is small, almond shaped and responsible for the response and memory of emotions, especially fear. She is also the reason humans don’t become extinct because: No amygdala = no fear = extinction. Whenever your flight or flight is triggered, that’s Amy doing her stuff.
Amy is responsible for phobias. The reason I break out into a cold sweat when I clap eyes on a spider is because I found one crawling around in my nightie when I was five years old..
I SCREAMED THE HOUSE DOWN!
Amy remembers this event so every time I see one of the eight-legged motherfunglers, my heart starts banging like an old barn door in a gale, ya get me?
I have bad dreams every night and wake up in a state of anxiety because my fight or flight response has been triggered by my subconscious. This is amygdala based anxiety.
Simplified: Amy reacts.
Some people have cortex based anxiety. Some have amygdala based anxiety. Some unfortunates have both.
I have both.
My physical symptoms have given me cause to imagine the very worst is happening to me, as in terminal illness instead of anxiety. This is cortex based anxiety. Basically, one of Harry Potter’s Dementors has Tex in a choke hold and is draining all the happy from him. How’s that for an analogy?
Every night my Quentin Tarantino-esque dreams prompt Amy to leap into action, cape and all. She’s literally a super hero trying to save my life. Only, she doesn’t understand that the ‘danger’ to my life is a harmless dream – not an axe murderer making his way up the stairs..
None of this is Amy’s fault. She is trying to keep me safe. She must be knackered though. I know I am. Therefore, changing how I think is necessary if I want to control my anxiety instead of it controlling me. Note I say ‘control’ as opposed to ‘cure’. I have to be realistic here. I’m autistic and the autistic brain is prone to anxiety. I’ve always been anxious and, failing a lobotomy, I always will be.
Changing how we think is important but there are other things we can do to take back some control. The first thing is to understand the stress response and how relaxation can reverse, or at least improve it.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
- The sympathetic nervous system is part of the fight or flight response.
- Adrenalin and cortisol are released.
- Heart beats faster.
- Blood pressure goes up.
- Digestive system slows right down.
- We experience trembling, sweating or chills.
- The urge to open our bowels or have a wee (because needing a poo isn’t helpful when we need to run like buggery or punch a mugger in the face, right?)
When SNS kicks in, the amygdala has been activated. Remember, Amy doesn’t know if you are in danger of being run over or if it’s merely your thoughts that are asking her to step up and save your life.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
- Heart rate slows
- Blood pressure lowers.
- Gastric juices increase enabling digestion.
- Breathing slows down.
- Body temperature returns to normal.
- PNS is the body returning to normal.
We need BOTH responses to live. It’s just a question of balance.
Research shows that doing deep breathing exercises, mediation and relaxation exercises helps to activate PNS. If you do relaxation exercises regularly it’s possible to stop your amygdala from responding to your thoughts as if they are a threat on your life.
If your anxiety is cortex based, you need to work on your thoughts.
Things you can do include:
- Writing your thoughts down.
- Try and look at your situation in a different way.
- Do what makes you happy.
- Avoid people off who make you feel like crap. (If you are in the quicksand, you want someone who will lift you out, not push you down even further.)
If your anxiety is amygdala based, relaxation therapies are the way to go.
Relaxation therapies include:
- Guided meditation
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Deep breathing exercises
Any of these therapies will help with anxiety but you have to be prepared to put the effort in. It won’t happen by itself. The beauty of breathing exercises is that they can be done anywhere and nobody will know you are doing them except for you. Also, progressive muscle relaxation will teach you exactly where you hold tension in your body. For me, it’s my jaw, shoulders, stomach and, believe it or not, my arse.
We need to breathe or we die. Simple.
Anxious people don’t breathe properly. They breathe so shallowly that they hyperventilate which causes a whole load of unpleasant symptoms.
Learning to breathe properly is probably the most valuable thing we will ever learn.
Try it when you feel stressed.
Take a big breath in.
Feel your diaphragm expanding.
Then let it out s l o w l y.
Do this another three or four times.
If you’ve done it correctly your heart rate will have slowed down a little and you will feel calmer.
If you do nothing else, learn to breathe properly.
When it comes to therapies find what works for you but be consistent.
I find it helpful to acknowledge when my thoughts are turning funky and to do my breathing exercises.
It slows my heart rate down.
It calms me.
It stops Amy from launching into action.
I tell her, ‘Stand down, Amy. It’s just my crazy thoughts. Go wash your cape or something.’
To summarise: Anxiety is truly horrible, but understanding how the body works takes away the fear of the fear. Once we understand how our thoughts affect our body we can work towards a more manageable level of anxiety. Be realistic. If you’re autistic, you’re always going to exist in some level of anxiety because it comes with the territory but I’d take manageable over full blown panic any day. How about you?
Most importantly, breathe.
(Out, in, out, in, out, in) ~ Breathing ~ Kate Bush