Anxiety and depression is a common factor for many of us on the autism spectrum and something we battle, struggle, tussle, manage, and cope with most days. Many of us have our own strategies to manage the difficult times that consume us, and some of the Spectrum Women wanted to share with you their personal insights into how they tackle anxiety and depression. We also want to highlight for Mental Health Awareness Week just how important good mental wellbeing and self-care is, especially for all of us on the autism spectrum…
I often get depressed over how much anxiety I have each day, and have anxiety about how depressed I am. Yes, it’s a dilemma. Which one do I tackle first? I usually try to find answers to my anxiety because it’s the first thing I wake up to in the morning. I open my eyes and feel anxious because a new day has come and I don’t know what will happen. Most likely, I’ve dreamt an anxiety-ridden nightmare about the events from the day before or something traumatic from my past. I wake up clenching my teeth together with a feeling of impending doom and a pounding heart. Today it was because I have a dentist appointment later in the day. It could be anything though. It could be nothing. It seems as though my anxiety has become a part of me and is here to stay.
But, it’s when my back is up against the proverbial wall that I can reach deep down inside of myself and find the resilience to battle my anxiety. And, it’s exhausting because my depression just wants me to do nothing and staying in bed all day long is an ever present temptation. It’s just not an option with a family, work, and other responsibilities.
What to do? I try music first. It has to be the right kind of music. I like the soft rock from the 70’s. Music can be very comforting, especially when the lyrics fit my thoughts and/or are encouraging. Better yet, if I can take a walk in the woods or on the beach while listening to music I can usually feel calmer pretty quickly. The fresh air, exercise, and music all together combat the anxiety I’m battling swiftly and effectively. That trio of coping skills is also helpful to bring my mood up and help with the depression that is always lurking around in my mind.
I have learned to keep trying if a proven coping skill doesn’t help for whatever reason. I’ll try baking, reading, watching movies, and if nothing works; I sleep. The worst days are when all the coping skills I have come to depend on don’t work, and I can’t sleep. Those are the days I reach out for help to someone who has already told me it is ok to contact them. Telling someone seems to help if it’s the right person. The person needs to be non-judgmental, caring, and able to just listen.
Anxiety and depression are two mental adversaries that must be respected and taken seriously. There are many coping skills to use and are different for everyone. The most important thing to do is to not give up. While living with anxiety and depression is a dilemma, there’s always a solution and finding it can keep your mind so busy, that even the act of looking for a solution can lead to success!
I have a fair amount of personal experience of depression. And, while I do not have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, like so many other autistic people, I have significant issues with anxiety, mostly social anxiety, ‘overthinking’ things and catastrophising. Good mental health is an important part of living a good life, but for many of us it can be elusive.
I always say that I will never raise an issue without suggesting a solution. This is also true in my approach to my own life. Mental illness has at times made my life close to unlivable but I had responded to this by building some nifty strategies which work for me. The trick with strategies is to find some that work well for you.
Some specific strategies I use regularly include:
- Opposite action. I find this particularly useful in addressing mood issues and depression. To practice opposite action, simply do the opposite of what your mood is telling you to do. If you wake up really depressed and want to stay in bed all day, then get up. It might sound silly but it somehow tricks your mood into going along with the action you do. I didn’t invent this — it is part of any accepted therapy model. I have taken things from the different therapy models which I find helpful.
- Another nice practical strategy that I employ for any kind of mental health unpleasantness is distraction. This strategy involves doing an activity that you enjoy or find engaging when you are experiencing mental health or other distress. Shifting your brain’s focus into something else often blocks out the unpleasant or distressing thoughts and feelings. It is best to distract yourself with an activity which will engage your whole attention. It is about finding what works well for you and doing it when you need to.
- Mr Kitty, my little black cat, is the best therapist I have ever had. When I cuddle him or even just watch him playing I feel better and sometimes, even feel good. His existence also provides a bunch of useful protective factors to help me maintain my mental health. I work four full days a week. When I get home at the end of the day, instead of a cold, lonely house, I am greeted by a furry friend who is always happy to see me. Having to take care of Mr Kitty helps me remember to take care of myself and I try to stay well so I can keep looking after him. Many autistic people have a similar bond with animals and their pets as I do.
- My final strategy is seek help if I need to. Through some trial and error I have discovered what works for me and what I need in terms of mental health support. Once again, this is different for everyone.
Nothing stays the same forever in mental health. I have found the older I get, the more I learn about how to take care of me.
“We want to give our employees a better work environment, so please let us know how we can help you.”
“We can’t help you with that.”
“We don’t have time for that.”
“That’s just the job you applied for.”
“What is it that you’re finding difficult?”
“We notice that you keep getting these things wrong.”
“This isn’t about the others, this is about you.”
“We need to have a little chat.”
“You do realise the seriousness of your errors, right?”
“What help do you need?”
“Well, we don’t have time for that.”
“We need to refer this to HR.”
“I’m sorry, but we’ve tried everything.”
“We pride ourselves on putting our employees first.”
Anxiety, depression, executive functioning difficulties, and PTSD, are among many other mental health conditions present in autistic individuals. Autistic women, in particular, work extremely hard to mask their symptoms and camouflage themselves into the wider group so they don’t stand out, but when the pressure is too much, we crack like anyone else.
The statistics in relation to under- or unemployed autistics are staggering, and it’s no wonder if the workplace is such a hostile environment for neurodiversity. Just because our cognitive differences aren’t visible does not mean that they are not there, and these companies are missing out on incredible employees and their beautiful cognitive talents. Giving autistics the opportunity to shine in the workplace and grow as citizens in the world will improve their mental health and be fantastic for companies as well — it’s a win-win.
However, a guaranteed way to lose “ausome” employees is to effectively punish them for their neurological differences… and that’s discrimination. “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Liane Holliday WIlley…
Anxiety and depression are the unwelcome twin towers that block my view from cheerful possibilities. It takes a great deal of fortitude and supportive care to help me get beyond their blockade. Bi-monthly therapy with my social worker is essential. Together, we figure out behavior changes I can try, baby steps after baby step. With his help, I’ve discovered some very small intentions help. For example, my horses offer me the best defense against depression. I’ve learned to always carry mementos that remind me of my horse. I might wear my horseshoe necklace, a horsehair bracelet, or a shirt that has some clever horse saying like, “Horse people are stable people.” Not only do these little mementos help me send my mind to the happy place of horses, they also tend to encourage horse talk with strangers or friends.
The latter can do much to alleviate my anxiety. Just a little bit of talk on a subject that brings me joy, can calm my nerves and keep me settled for at least the time it takes to get back to one of my safety zones; the barn, my office, or my home. Knowing my limits and finding a few simple ways to get immediate relief, bring me closer to well-being. I’ve no magic pill or activity that erases all that throws me off center, but at least I have a few things that help me hold on to healthier bits of time. The longer my time with healthy moments, the better my odds to keep building on more and more wellbeing.
Anxiety is a normal way of life for me. On a good day I have minimal to moderate anxiety. My mom used to say that even if there wasn’t any reason to be anxious, I’d find something to create it! And she was right!
Over the years I’ve had to deal with major anxiety. The worst thing was taking care of my mom and dad until they died. My mom died in August of 2013, then my brother died in February 2014, and my dad two months later in April 2014. My parents lived with me. Caring for them until the end of their lives was both mentally and physically depleting. My mom was my best friend, and we had been inseparable my entire life. When she died a part of me died too. I remained working full time as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, which is extremely demanding and high-stress. I had Hospice at the house for each of them in their final days. That was yet another stress, having strangers in my house 24/7. I was averaging three hours of sleep each night. I could write a whole book about that period. My anxiety of nearly suffocating. Of course, I spent a lot of time crying. In fact, after a good cry I’d feel a sense of relief. But I did do things to decrease my anxiety level. I think if I didn’t specifically do that, I wouldn’t have made it. I wasn’t married then or even in a relationship with my husband at that time. My savior were all my animals. Cats, dogs, horses, and chickens. They were my solace. I would go and sit with them and tune out everything, focusing on feeling their fur, listening to the cats purring, and the dogs snuggling with me on the couch. With the horses, I’d go outside and put one on the cross ties under some trees. I’d brush him as I listened to all the birds singing, and feed him treats. I’d go and scatter treats amidst the chickens. They were all the best therapists in the world.
I’ve been working as an Anesthetist for over 30 years now. Even for neurotypicals it’s a high stress job. You are taking patients’ lives in your hands each day. I’m doing general anesthesia, spinals, arterial line placement in one case after another for nine hours a day, five days a week. It’s not the actual act of doing anesthesia that’s anxiety-producing. It’s dealing with the ocean of neurotypicals all day long! How do I cope? I focus on doing my job during each case. Between cases, I go to the hallway of the operating room suite which faces our airport. I’ll stand at the window and watch the big commercial aircraft taking off and landing. A few minutes of that goes a long way!
Anxiety and depression have been constants in my life. I learned early on that I needed to have strategies to trick them if I wanted to have a somewhat manageable life. They have different patterns though, so the strategies need to be a little different. I will describe my techniques to manage both, but one thing, common in both cases, is crucial: they absolutely need to involve something I am passionate about. The autistic brain has a way of falling in love with things and completely focusing on them, leaving everything behind. While so many people like to see it as a negative, I see it as a fantastic tool we have ourselves that will allow us to deal with the biggest challenges our overworking minds present us.
Anxiety for me is like a switch that got stuck on the “on” position and is never going to get fixed. It goes from mild to unbearable but never turns off. So when it overwhelms me, what I need to do is to find a diversion. I need to quickly engage in an activity that numbs my brain, makes it start working on a kind of “automatic pilot”. Since I am both a very logical and visual person, it needs to be something heavily on those sides. My biggest interest is video games, so math or image-based puzzlers are what I choose. When I am playing these kinds of games, it feels like my brain is doing all the work automatically while I am watching from afar. It is hypnotic and very soothing. I also adore nature, so if I am near it, a walk might do the trick, simply because beautiful natural imagery feels like an anesthetic for my brain. Combined with other pleasing sensory inputs like smells and birds singing, this really transports me to another dimension.
Depression is a very different beast. It is not always present like anxiety, but when it comes, it is a lot more noticeable, and a lot more crippling. While fighting anxiety feels like constant small battles, fighting depression is like being in a huge, devastating war. Fighting it requires a great deal of strategy, patience and consistent work. It takes a lot of time to overcome it, but it is doable. Instead of numbing my brain, I consider what I do in these cases something similar to physiotherapy. Just like when you injure a part of your body and need to artificially simulate its movements until it is able to do them alone again, I trick my brain into feeling happy and accomplished automatically while indulging in my interests, until it is able to feel it by itself during my daily life. Again, I primarily resort to gaming, but in this case, I would chose different types of games — both cheerful ones, that will make me instantly happy, and challenging ones, that will make me feel smart and accomplished. I make room in my schedule to play them every day even if just for half an hour, so I keep my “training” consistent. It works gradually and never fails, no matter how long it takes. I also try to put nature in the mix doing as much activities near it as possible, but here it acts as a complementary therapy. Gaming is, and has always been, what takes me out of the pit.
The suffocating fear of anxiety creeps up on you for no reason, and, at the most inopportune of times. This anxiety is different to the anxiety I can usually plan for, for example, when I am doing something new, and take measures to keep it at some sort of manageable level, but that unexpected, out of the blue anxiety is a killer.
I can be watching a favourite show on television and bam; I feel the sense of fear climb up my chest with icy, spindly fingers creeping up to my throat. I know that feeling all too well and I don’t know if it senses my sudden panic as I try to suppress it with all my might. My throat tightens as the fingers tighten around my neck… I fight with all my positive mind, happy thoughts, happy thoughts… but I am failing and losing the battle as it takes root in the fearful parts of my mind. I’ve lost… for now.
A cold air blows through my mind, a dark twisted and leafless tree contorts and flexs with the fear that consumes the nightmare that now has roots to the depth of my soul. All I feel is dread and at times, feel like the world is about to the end… is this how it happens? Everything feels wrong, I feel there is no hope… the anxiety has morphed into depression. That world where nothing thrives, it is bleak, it is cold, dark and alone.
I mindlessly make a coffee to try and ignite a tinge of warmth inside, but to no avail. I venture outside into the bright sunshine in an attempt to fracture the bleakness inside. At this particular time I also had two dogs and a cat I was looking after and sat on the ground with my coffee and surrounded myself with furry four-legged companions. When I am stuck in such a bleak place I try to ground myself and make a concerted effort to connect back with my senses. The touch of the fur, the feel of their warm breath, the purrs, the heartbeats come looking for me within. The warm sun finds cracks and filters through to my soul and the earth beneath my feet ground me and remind me that I need to set my own feet, my inner roots into the earth below. Ground myself, steady myself, find strength in what nature and animals have to give.
It is comforting and helps bring me back to a place where I can now think, just be and to feel that this day will be ok and I have survived.
Keeping the black dog of depression and anxiety at bay is hard. I’m not going to pretend for a moment that it isn’t — reminds me of rising damp. Some days the damp has spread all over the house and you want to give up, other days you’ve worked hard, scrubbed all signs of it away and although it may still be there some place, you are free of it for a time. I try to focus on achieving these days whenever it is possible.
For me, a little escapism is healthy. I find that if I am approaching a depressive state, my mind and body instinctively wants to take me to places I have felt safe in the past, memories of good fantasy books, computer games, childhood memories start to prod at me and want me to take notice. It’s a prompt to stop for a while and spend some time on something to make me feel better.
Something else that works for me, is tidying up, rearranging my furniture, removing things that create visual clutter and finding them a proper place. I think it’s because I can’t necessarily fix everything that is wrong in my life but I can take control of this and shake up my surroundings. And when I’m done, it’s visible that I’ve achieved something. There are also a few theories that shifting stuff around can spiritually help to sweep your house clean as well, dislodging things that might have got stuck where they shouldn’t be.
I also let a few people know, friends or close colleagues for example, that I’m struggling a little at the moment. It feels like I’m giving myself permission to be off my game and it takes the pressure off, additionally if your colleagues or friends cut you some extra slack right now, this is no bad thing.
For me personally, I take a very low dose SSRI anti-depressant, I find it quietens the noise in my head, stops me wandering off down dark alleys in my mind that are very unhelpful. I think ideally I’d like to achieve this state without the medication but I don’t seem to be able to do that and I won’t shame myself for needing this help. In conjunction with this, when I feel my mind being pulled in unhelpful directions I use mindfulness techniques to help me stay in the present. I concentrate on focusing on what my physical body is doing right now, where I’m sitting, what I can see, feel, touch, smell, it’s great if I have an animal to pet, that really helps and makes me smile.
I would lastly suggest, tell a friend how you’re feeling. It’s helpful to have someone who can look out for you and check in to make sure you are safe. Autistic sisters are brilliant at this, they have a better idea than most about what you need and whether you might be at risk so are great look outs.
For quite some time, I have humoured myself by saying; the method to my madness is the madness itself (and probably why I am a writer). All joking aside, I have been dealing with chronic depression and anxiety my entire life. The medical model calls them co-morbid conditions that can occur alongside autism, I call them autism co-stars (and yes, they are morbid fuckers, the villains that are always messing with the superpowers). FYI, autism is a neurodevelopmental condition and NOT a mental illness, and many of us who are autistic live with mental illness for a number of reasons that are unique to our life experiences along with living in a neurotypical world. Though I am sure they are out there somewhere, I have yet to meet a fellow autistic that doesn’t struggle with some form of chronic mental illness (so readers, if you are one of those unicorns, please tell us all your secrets, please and thanks).
Living and moving in a world not set up for our unique brain (and body) functioning is bloody daunting, sometimes scary, and exhaustive because we expel a lot of emotional labour and energy in the navigation of said world to begin with. We also have to contend with a narrative that sees the autistic person as less of a human being (rather than one who subverts from the neuromajority way of being) and some of the ignorant individuals who pander to it, so it is no wonder depression and anxiety have cast themselves as co-stars, and I am just scratching the surface here.
Depression and anxiety are common in neurodiverse populations, and are not exclusive to autism. So in honour of Mental Health Week, I will share some handy tips on what works for me. Bear in mind, I am not a professional. Just a fellow autistic person doing what I can to navigate the world I live in.
- Don’t beat yourself up for being different or put yourself down if you are having a bad day. We already get enough negativity from others, because stigma. Recognize that it is a bad day and these things happen. Be kind to yourself.
- The feelings are not permanent. Though it may feel like it in the moment, know that they will dissipate in time.
- Go for a walk. Removing yourself from familiar surroundings can help give your mind and body a re-set.
- Listen to or play music or do whatever relaxes you the most.
- Reach out to someone online or through a text. We autistics tend to conceptualize things best in writing. And you never know, maybe the friend you reach out to also feels like shit and could use some support. Or seek out a support group online. Buddy system!
- Swipe through funny memes or watch a show.
Allies: you can help assist us in our well-being by promoting autism acceptance and educating others on what we deal with and how to treat us with respect and dignity. Autistics cannot do this alone. Thank you!
I realize many of these ideas may seem obvious no brainers, but they have worked for me and others I know and probably bear repeating. Take care of yourselves and know that you are not alone in these struggles. Much love to you.
If you are need of crisis support, the following link is a worldwide list of numbers to contact for help. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_suicide_crisis_lines
You can read more about the Spectrum Women Writer’s here.