“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for everyvictory gained you will also suffer a defeat.If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
After doing some reflecting on my Asperger anxiety, I thought of sharing some of my first hand experience and insight.
The reason of writing this article is twofold.
- Maybe this article will help others, that are on the spectrum, to understand and cope better.
- Maybe this article will help others, that are off the spectrum, to understand a little better what’s going on inside that fumbling and stammering aspie, that sometimes seems to act so differently and unexpectedly.
I am not claiming that this is all the same for every aspie. We all are different. But still we have some similarities that could be helpful to have a look at.
The highway of my aspie brain.
My brain on the spectrum is like a one-way street on which I drive at lightning speed past others. Junctions and roundabouts are very troubling at my speed, but they usually go fine when I am on familiar terrain. Driving merely straight ahead, with nothing in the way, is easiest for me.
What’s confusing me on my highway is when I am forced to take abrupt turns that bring me to uncharted territory. I seem to drift out of myself when it seems that I am required to suddenly change to an exit followed by an unexpected junction and roundabout, followed by other exits and junctions that are approached in a “second to second” succession. For me that can easily go too fast to keep up with, so what happens is that I get confused. I lose my sense of orientation, not knowing anymore where I am and what I am supposed to do. This results in a sudden panic-shock-meltdown because I am driving at the highest speed, not able to slow down. The feeling I have is that I am going too fast. I am getting dizzy, disoriented, sweating while not knowing how to avoid crashing very hard.
This kind of confusion is the worst for me. If someone would ask me my name at that point then I wouldn’t know it.
Imagine driving fast and suddenly the steering wheel and brakes stop functioning while traffic is oncoming. Imagine those moments before the crash. That’s my moment before such a crash.
In social situations this road translates to circumstances in which my brain is fed with strong impulses that vary too much and too quickly. My brain can’t handle such a swarm of impressions because of its inability to mix. My brain is only able to process information in regulated chunks. It usually works exceptionally well when it has the space for singular focus on a topic or object. It works best in a calm surrounding with no other stimuli than the one that I am focused on. The less “foreign” impulses there are the more my mind is able to focus. The more “foreign” impulses there are, the less I am able to focus, because I am unable to filter out the noise.
So like anyone on the autistic spectrum, my brain is incapable of multitasking. It can only do its task in separate chunks…
When such a “single chunk” has my full attention, then I am able to look around in it, be aware of all its dimensions and intricacies. I go deep and high within an instance and am able to scan all its details and workings 360 degrees around me. When I am focused and efficient in a comfortable (safe) place then I am comfortable like a fish in water. It only gets dicey when there is a sudden chunk change.
One chunk change at the time is doable for me if the chunks are presented gradually while I can comfortably close off and exit the chunk I am in. I can handle that without getting too confused, like I am able to handle one junction or roundabout at the same time.
After every chunk-change I need to catch a short breath to re-orientate my surroundings. I need to know where I am before I can regain a sense of placement.
What is interesting too is that when I enter a new chunk completely that the former chunk/place/field/highway ceases to exist until I return. Two chunks will never overlap.
When a series of different chunks arise too fast then my brain has too little the time to process them. Jumping from one field/situation/direction/concept to the next one is usually stressful but doable for me, for as long it is only “one jump”. But if I am forced to “jump into the next and into the next and into the next” without having time to re-orientate my place, then my brain usually overloads after the third or fourth jump, causing me a sudden panic attack.
It’s like my brain suddenly short-circuits. Sparks fly around while it is filled with toxic smoke. I don’t know anymore where I am and what it is that is expected from me. Suddenly I have forgotten how to act even in the most common situations and feel totally dumbfounded with the sudden inability to verbalize eloquently.
I believe that a series of impulses my brain to seizure. I get a sudden loss of orientation and my brain crashes hard and I tend to react in a very primal way. When I am rested enough then I am usually able to feel it coming and can hide on a toilet without others noticing it really. But when I am tired or under a lot of stress already, then my whole system gets only one goal, and that is to escape the culprit of confusion. All I can do at such a moment is to look for the exit (which is any place of silence, peace, comfort, care, love, harmony). In such a situation anyone in my way to the exit or anyone contributing to the confusion can get pushed to the side in a rude and crude way by me while I am diving for the exit…
At the moment of panic I don’t realize my rudeness. I am only in a deep need for escape. It is like being in a death struggle for air while drowning. It is only after I have gotten some oxygen that I slowly start to realize that I accidentally behaved in a rude way.
I believe that the level of anxiety that I experience can be compared with having severe vertigo while being pushed over the edge with a bungee rope attached to your feet. The one pushing usually doesn’t realize what they are causing.
Chunky soup in the blender
A worst-case scenario is for me a situation from which I can’t escape. This means being in a situation where I don’t have the opportunity for a short break for some head-space. Without a short moment for reorientation my anxiety gets caught in a cycle that goes faster and faster, turning it in a full blown attack that can last for as long the situation lasts. In such a situation my body parts start tingling and I start to shake while I feel that I can black out at any moment. Then I need to focus all my effort then to stay conscious. In such a situation I react crude (and it’s like my vocal chords are refusing business) because all my energy is automatically focused on surviving my anxiety attack.
I imagine that it feels like jumping from a plane realizing there is no parachute attached. It is the most profound helpless feeling that I know of.
This debilitating anxiety only passes after having had a break from the situation, but usually leaves me feeling broken, irritable and overly sensitive for light and sounds for several days. Luckily this happens less and less because I stay close to my core. It used to be much stronger and break me for months.
As mentioned above my brain gets triggered by sudden chunk-changes.
So someone directing me rapidly to «do this», «no that», «no do that», «no do this», «no do that», or: «no here», «no there», «no there», «no here!», always results my brain to melt down instantaneously.
During rapid successions like that my brain can’t keep up with what’s expected and appropriate. It lacks the processing time that it needs to act in an appropriate and expected kind of way.
This kind of overload tends to happen strongest when I am actually on the very comfortable single track of my mind, while I am all at a sudden confronted with a succession of differentiating impulses.
It is harder to stay ahead of anxiety attacks when you don’t see them coming.
There are situations in which I am more prone for an anxiety attack because of an already heightened state anxiety. Usually I am able to handle these situations. But when I am in a state of heightened anxiety, and those “no this”, ”no that”, “no this”, “no that” impulses are introduced, then an anxiety attack is pretty immanent.
Situations like that are some sort of “anxiety background noise”. They are an anxiety-buzz that forces me to focus on my breathing and on the floor in front of me. The equivalent for a neurotypical would probably be like having an arachnophobia (fear for spiders) while walking around the spider house in a zoo. It’s possible to handle it but with a very high level of discomfort.
If a situation like this prolongs then it results in hypersensitivity. What this is like? Imagine the morning after a night of binge drinking a toxic mix of alcoholic beverages. The sensitivity for every sound and light is very similar to that.
The following soupy situations apply specifically strong for me:
Injustice towards me or anyone else. A situation like that displaces the reality that differentiates from the truth that I know. This disorients me. It makes me dizzy and have to be conscious not to hyperventilate in situations like that.
There are tree typical types of people that seem to heighten my anxiety.
- People that jump like bunnies from topic to topic. (My brain sizzles after three hops.)
- People that are loud and disruptive. (I can’t concentrate on my space.)
- Dishonest Sociopathic people that always seem hide the truth. (I don’t know where I have them.)
Other types of anxiety-soup are the places or situations with lots of people, noise, and visual. It totally confuses me.
Another reason for instant anxiety is when I am being focused on my behavior. It confuses me because I basically never really know for sure how I am supposed to behave. The worst part of this one is that my anxiety always disables my ability to explain my reasons well which turns me into the loser.
How to avoid ending up in the blender?
I think that it is easy for us on the spectrum to already know the situations that cause our anxiety. Situations like the above usually put me on high alert, which avoids attacks from happening because I stay consciously close to my silent center.
My tricks aren’t a magic spell that always works to cast out the monster of anxiety, but these things are helpful and have warded off many attacks.
These are are some ways that I use in general or in different situations. They aren’t in any specific order.
- Take breaks during the day without any impulses
- Connect to people that you feel easy and comfortable with
- Focus on what is true and real in the surroundings
- Rest and sleep well
- Eat and sleep in time
- Slow down a few steps
- Focus on only one single thing despite a whole score of other things asking for attention
- Breathe slowly through the nostrils
- Keep to your limits, even where others won’t understand them
- Stim and focus on the stimming movement
- Put on head phones with music if possible
- Avoid loud hectic places
- Avoid company of people that are disruptive and toxic
- Surround myself with people that are honest and caring
- In public places, don’t focus on all the different things
- Use shilajit and St. Johns Wort
One more thing!
I had to cope with overstimulation and anxiety all my life, but it never stopped me from living it. Life only gives gifts when we dare to stand in it. It has caused to me to fall in the most extreme anxiety that I feared to turn me into an institutionalized dribbling vegetable, but I went on without stopping ever. I have had more often Asperger related anxiety attacks than most people ate pizza in their lives, but it has taught me different valuable lessons.
ASD is a beautiful gift of extreme focus and sensitivity that I would not trade away for anything. It comes with glitches but also with superpowers. What I focus on has a depth for me that fulfils me more than others ever seem to be fulfilled. Just like most people on the spectrum I am very driven and passionate. My mind is able to analyze and categorize at an enormous pace. Anxiety is just a glitch that comes from living on a planet that isn’t really made for us. We are just normal in a different way.
- ASD is a beautiful gift of extreme focus and sensitivity that I would not trade away for anything. It comes with glitches but also with superpowers. What I focus on has a depth for me that fulfils me more than others ever seem to be fulfilled. Just like most people on the spectrum I am very driven and passionate. My mind is able to analyze and categorize at an enormous pace. Anxiety is just a glitch that comes from living on a planet that isn’t really made for us. We are just normal in a different way.
- I found that I am (just like you) the keepers of a silent safe and silent place of peace within myself. There is a point where I only simply exist in a nothing-space that is the ultimate freedom. Anxiety has helped me to stay as close as possible to that inner city of refuge. We find this space through following our talents and interests, by being in nature or by prayer or meditation. What ever we do, we do it deeply, so also that.
- Anxiety has been part of my daily life with attacks lurking behind every corner. This has made me stand stronger in myself and able to cope with situations that almost no one copes with so easily. I don’t panic when others do. There is hardly anything that I am really afraid for because I am used to anxiety and the pain it causes.
- Anxiety has taught me to bite the bullet and stay strong in any storm.
One more one more thing…
Our ASD and our anxiety can easily define us. Other may do so and maybe we do the same. But I would like to urge you not to let your ASD and anxiety define you in any kind of way as a person. You are beautiful and unique as you are. There is nothing wrong with being unique. The only thing that I believe really defines you is your compassion that is from your heart that is capable to be open, always looking for what is true and good and loving. That defines you and brings you peace. What others believe, or even what you believe yourself isn’t stronger that the truth and love that you have naturally within yourself.