How I put anxiety in its place
This article’s been a long time coming. And it’s not just for autistic people.
When I wrote the growing up advice article, I wrote it while looking back at how I grew up.
When I wrote the bullying article, I wrote it while looking back at when I was bullied.
When I wrote the article on how I learned leadership skills, that was definitely looking back.
But this time, I’m doing something different. I’m writing this right in the middle of a nasty bout of anxiety. (Yep, I’m a former primary school teacher who now leads autism seminars, and I seem to have gathered a reputation for giving calm, balanced advice. But I still suffer with my anxiety, and I don’t keep it secret.)
IMPORTANT NOTE: this article is not called “how I beat anxiety”. It’s called “how I put anxiety in its place”. I make no claim to have “beaten” my anxiety forever, but I have done something I’m very proud of: I’ve turned my anxiety into something just tacked on to the side of my life, rather than something that permeates every aspect of it.
(It’s also worth mentioning the little fact that anxiety is different for everyone. What works for one of us may not work for another. But hopefully at least some of the eight points below will work for you too.)
When I was 25, I was unemployed despite having two university degrees, lived with my parents, had been single for years and was in no financial position to move out. I considered myself a failure. (Anyone who’s read Conversations with my younger autistic selves will already know how negative I was at 25.)
Now I’m 30. I have a part-time job that I didn’t need two university degrees for (and currently doing a third), I live with my parents, I’ve been single for years and I’m in no financial position to move out.
But, despite how I feel at this moment, I don’t think my self-worth has ever been higher.
So… what changed?
- I have a much healthier self-perception these days.
- Beneath my anxieties, I love life deeply.
- When things get bad, I find distractions.
- I know which things are more likely to trigger my anxiety, so I avoid them.
- When life taught me lessons about anxiety, I kept them.
- I’m now in a place in life where I can play to my strengths.
- I’m a very brave person. (And bravery isn’t what some people think it is.)
- I actually talk to people about my problems.
I’ll cover each one in detail later in the article. But a few things first.
What is anxiety like?
Well, it depends on what type of anxiety I’m feeling. During chess games I often feel anxious, but that’s a positive type of anxiety- feeling ‘anxious’ about something that’s entirely under my control, and about something that is both fun and intellectually satisfying. (In another article, I mention chess as one major helping mechanism for people with anxiety. See point 8.)
But when it’s the wrong kind of anxiety, oh bloody hell.
At this Sunday’s church service, I learned that the cliché of feeling like you’re drowning is absolutely true. (And no, I was not being baptised for too long.) At first I thought it was because I was indoors with loads of people. But nope, the church building is enormous compared to the congregation it holds.
I had to struggle outside, disguising my feelings as best I could, barging through the crowds of friendly people who kept stopping me and smiling and asking how I was getting on, unable to escape their friendliness without coming across as extremely rude, but needing- needing the fresh air outside and hoping that nobody else was just outside the church doors so I could literally gasp for breath.
That’s what it feels like for me, anyway. Short version, of course.
What triggers anxiety?
Depends on the person. Here’s a list of what triggered mine this week.
- Other people’s opinions of me.
- Powerlessness to change a situation I’m emotionally attached to.
- People I care about going through a rough time.
- The perception of someone being annoyed with me, regardless of whether they actually are.
- The fear of getting a negative response from someone, despite it not being a realistic possibility.
- The weight of moral responsibility to help people, but knowing I can’t.
- The ‘ping’ of receiving a new Facebook message from someone I’m in the middle of debating/arguing with.
Your experience may differ. But the effects, I suspect, are the same.
Does autism make you more likely to suffer with anxiety?
Yes, but not the way you’re meant to think it does.
When I give talks, I usually make the point that “autistic anger problems” are not necessarily caused by someone’s autism. Replace ‘anger’ with ‘anxiety’ and it’s just as true.
It’s no secret that being on the autism spectrum often makes you susceptible to a range of mental health issues too. I’ve been told that 70% of people on the autism spectrum also have another condition too, and also that there are more autistic children with ADHD than without. And in the survey article from last week, 83% of almost 500 respondents said that they (or the autistic person they knew) had anxiety issues.
But (not just in my opinion, but also in my experience), these anxiety issues are not always due to the hardwiring of your brain. I don’t believe I was genetically doomed to suffer from anxiety, and I showed no signs of it as a young child. But nonetheless, I ended up with it.
Why? Because anxiety is a very typical response to growing up believing you’re wrong.
My anxiety has nothing to do with my Asperger’s, as far as I can tell. My anxiety was because I felt like the odd one out for too many years, and too many people had implied that my style of ‘different’ was ‘wrong’.
That, and the world seemed to have been designed with everybody else in mind. I felt like the unexpected guest at a dinner party who the hosts just try and fit in somewhere.
At its worst, I felt like I was trespassing on the rest of the world’s property just by walking on it.
So, short answer- yes, in several cases being on the autism spectrum makes you susceptible to other things too. But autistic people’s anxieties are not always “because of their autism”.
Ok, I’ve read this far. Now tell me how you kill it.
It may not work the way you think it does.
It is true that the more you do something, the less afraid of it you are. But I feel obliged to warn you, don’t expect your fears to be absolutely annihilated.
One of my biggest fears has always been speaking in front of big groups. These days I deliver autism talks, speak at the front of church once in a while, and for years I did it every day in front of classes.
But I still get nervous before I talk to big groups. You know why?
Because I’m a person!
Like I said, I’ve never believed that anxiety is something you can ‘kill’. If your goal is to destroy every single inch of your anxiety, you can reduce your anxiety levels to lower than everyone else you know, and still feel like a failure. And that’s a feeling you won’t deserve.
But you can put anxiety in its place. That is, most likely, the victory you need.
With that in mind, here are each of the bullet points I mentioned earlier.
How to put anxiety in its place
1. Have a healthy self-perception.
In 2013, I believed I was a failure. Or, as I would have put it at the time, I “knew” I was a failure.
This is a very dangerous opinion to have. Letting your weaknesses define you, and claiming any ‘knowledge’ that things cannot improve, are sure-fire ways of making sure they don’t improve.
Seriously (and I’ve given this advice to plenty of people I love), don’t spend your life defining yourself by your weaknesses. Define yourself by your strengths. It’s part of human nature to see the bad things before the good (in fact, I’m wondering whether it’s an old survival instinct we’ve kept), but when your anxiety’s using your weaknesses to trick you into thinking you’re ‘worthless’, it’s time to remember what you’re good at.
Oh, and if anyone reading this claims they’re ‘not good at anything’, they’re wrong. Find another person to help you find your strengths if you need to, but you definitely have strengths because you’re a human.
2. Have a deep-seated love of life.
I know I said this before in 200 Things to Love About Life, but I’m saying it again.
I haven’t talked about depression much in this article, but I was symptomatic of that too. And my biggest weapon against depression to this day is knowing that even if my own life isn’t going well, life itself is still beautiful.
So I started picking out the very tiny things to love about life. Trees, the design of human hands, the sudden warmth when you enter a room… tiny, tiny but beautiful things.
And the best thing about that? Now my anxiety’s less of a problem, I still get to enjoy all those beautiful things!
Find things to love about life. The rest will probably follow.
3. Find distractions when necessary.
My usual reaction to a bout of anxiety is to go on Facebook and invite my friends round. They know me well enough to know that a mass Facebook invite is often the equivalent of me firing an emergency flare into the sky. While they’re here, we usually watch a film or play board games. It works a treat.
If they’re unavailable, I write a story or play a strategy video game like Civilisation V. (Important note- do not let these video games become your life! It’s such an easy trap to fall into. And Civ V is famously one of those “just one more turn” games.) But whatever your interest is, find something that’s a total distraction from the thing you’re worrying about, and submerse yourself in it for just a little while.
4. Know your anxiety triggers and avoid them.
I’m not even sure how to elaborate on this. I think it really is that simple.
Find out what stuff makes you anxious, and keep away from it unless you’re in the mood to handle it.
(This is not the same as avoiding your fears altogether, as I’ll explain in a bit. But avoid the triggers at least.)
5. When bad times teach you lessons, keep them.
I’m not a big fan of regretting things. I find it difficult to regret mistakes as long as I learn something from them.
So, when I think about it, my regrets in life are little things such as bad chess moves- like blundering a queen in a winning position, and knowing that the only possible lesson is “don’t blunder your queen”, which I kind of knew already.
The more ‘traditional’ regrets: allowing myself to be backstabbed by people I should have been able to trust, or going all-in on a teaching career only to leave less than a decade later, or swearing in front of Dad at the age of eight when the computer crashed: I don’t regret them in the way you’d expect. If it weren’t for those events, I’d still be ignorant to the motives of other people, mourning a career that never had a chance to happen, and thinking the ‘s’ word is just fine in casual conversation with my parents.
So with that in mind, remember that life can teach you lessons about anxiety too. Keep them and use them to your advantage. Use your bad experiences to better yourself.
6. Find a place in life where you can play to your strengths.
I can’t believe how often I give this advice. At every single talk I deliver, certainly.
My anxiety was at its worst when I was supply teaching (or ‘substitute teaching’). Even though the schools I worked with were extremely supportive, all the support in the world could not shake the fact that every time I was in the classroom, I was teaching somebody else’s class using somebody else’s plan, which usually didn’t fit with my personality and my methods. At the time, I felt I had a choice between doing things their way, or doing things the wrong way. Therefore, my way must have been wrong.
And, on top of that, I felt I was missing out on the sense of belonging that comes with working in a school full-time. And that’s nothing against the wonderful schools I worked in (who were extremely accommodating): it’s just the nature of the work I was doing.
With my psychiatrist’s help, I identified that almost all of my anxiety issues came from the above (or at least were reinforced by it). So I made a decision: at the end of the school year, no matter what job I ended up getting, I was going to leave supply teaching forever.
I can’t describe how much better I felt within a week. Even with no plan for the future! I left supply teaching and went on to work in a special school, then had my own class for one final term.
Now I’ve left teaching altogether (and I left it on good terms too), I’ve got a non-strenuous job which allows me enough free time to concentrate on my other part-time job with autistic students, my public speaking, my Boys’ Brigade company, my masters degree in creative writing, and Autistic Not Weird.
And now, for the first time in as far back as I can remember, I am finally in a place where I am playing to all my strengths, being the person I want to be, and dealing with the world (mostly) on my terms.
Which is a little bit different to ‘knowing’ I was a failure two years ago.
7. Be brave.
As I said earlier, a lot of people have a misunderstanding of bravery. So let me clarify.
Bravery is not a lack of fear. Bravery is being afraid of something, but going through with it anyway.
Again, I still get nervous when I speak in front of crowds. But I do it anyway. And these days it really is only ‘getting nervous’ rather than anything truly anxiety-related. This is because I’ve spent decades facing my fears (yes, I avoid the triggers, but not the fears themselves).
You don’t overcome your fears by just avoiding them.
If you ignore your fears at the age of 10, they’ll still be your fears at the age of 20.
If you ignore them at the age of 20, they’ll still be your fears at the age of 30. And so on.
The question is, how much of your life do you want to have these fears for?
Not long ago I told an 11-year-old boy with severe anxiety that the best way of dealing with fear is by doing the things you’re afraid of. He’s putting it into practice now, getting better day by day, and I’m so, so proud of him. He’s still scared of a lot of things, but that doesn’t matter. As I told him a few weeks back: “it’s absolutely fine to be nervous. Humans get nervous all the time. Bravery is decided by what you choose to do when you’re nervous.”
And on Saturday, right in the midst of this anxiety bout, I talked to a 13-year-old lad who had just been afraid of performing in the front row of his marching band, but ended up producing a stellar performance. And (doing a spectacular job at hiding my anxiety about talking to him and his mum) we had a conversation and I said “I have Asperger’s and anxiety issues, and in my extensive experience of dealing with fear, your nerves will only stop you from achieving if you let them.”
Easier said than done, I know. And it takes a lot of time to get it right.
But it really says something that, right in the middle of my own weekend of darkness, I still believed this advice strongly enough to give it to a nervous teenager.
8. Actually talk to people about your problems
I cannot express this one strongly enough. This is the other reason why I invite people over whenever I get anxious- it gives me more people to talk to, and more shoulders to lean on.
This was also another reason why my therapy worked. I was talking to another person about what was going wrong, and that alone made me feel better.
And you know what? I’m going to practise what I preach.
I, Chris Bonnello of Nottingham, former primary school teacher, Boys’ Brigade captain and owner of Autistic Not Weird, do hereby declare that I still suffer with unresolved anxiety issues reaching back several years.
But I lead big groups of children anyway, I deliver talks on autism anyway, I’m loud and annoying at parties anyway, people value my advice anyway, and I’m told that I’m apparently a bloody good writer too.
Yes, that last bit had hints of showing off. But anyone who’s spent far too many years with a low opinion of themselves has earned the right to show off about their good points.
So anyone here with anxiety- show off to yourself. Find your awesome sides and recognise them for what they are.
And, of course, the summary of main points.
- Have a healthy self-perception. (As in, recognise your brilliance.)
- Remember to love life.
- Distract yourself when things get bad.
- Avoid your triggers (but not your fears).
- Remember valuable life lessons.
- Play to your strengths.
- Bravery changes everything.
- Actually talk to people about your problems.
All the best, guys. When I say “you’re better than you think you are”, honestly it’s not meaningless advice from this internet guy you’ve never met. I’m stating it as a fact, because everyone on Earth with anxiety is better than they’re often tricked into thinking!
And incidentally, the anxiety bout I was suffering when I started this has now subsided. That’s what happens when you commit to fighting your demons, I guess.
If you know any ways to deal with anxiety that I missed, please do post them in the comments.
Chris Bonnello is an autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window).
Copyright © Chris Bonnello 2015-2017
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