I tried to simply comment, but found myself writing entirely too much for just a comment… so here’s the post:
The first step to controlling anxiety is understanding the purpose behind fear. Fear is designed to give mortal beings a heads up that they are in danger. It evokes the “fight or flight” response. Most people when they are startled or in a tense situation (or even if a terrifying thought goes through their heads) are able to automatically assess the situation and respond appropriately. An Aspie is likely to go into full “fight or flight” mode without that assessment. It’s just going to hit, and we’re going to respond. The assessment part does not come naturally. I had to learn to do that part ON PURPOSE. (Just like I have to make eye contact on purpose.)
When I was a teenager, I was terrified (still) to sleep in my own room. The things that terrified me were mostly imaginary, but the physical response was the same. I learned a trick for dealing with that. I learned to take cues from my cat. If Peter was sleeping calmly on my bed, then I knew that everything was ok, regardless of how I felt. It was safe to go to sleep. I transferred this cue taking trick into other areas and learned to assess the situation to see if there is real danger… if not, then it’s time for the next step.
The next step is to take control of the physical response. I learned first to purposefully breathe very slowly and to feel the response of my heart rate to each breath. Somewhere along the line, I learned an excersize that taught me to purposefully contract and relax each muscle group from the ones in my face all the way down to the ones in my toes. Eventually, I learned to do it all at once… which is a little tricky because it has occasionally resulted in appearing to have passed out… and it’s a little difficult to “come back” after doing it. The trick is to find a happy medium, not relaxing so completely that I turn to jello. (Unless I’m trying to sleep anyway.)
The whole thing is about learning that I do have control, if not over the situation, at least over my response to it. Do loud noises still bother me? Yes. Do crowds still bother me? Absolutely. Can they hurt me? The answer to this one varies, but statisticaly it has been no. So my response can be to tune them out and focus my attention on the positive aspects of the situation. I have to ask myself sometimes, “What do I like about this?” It took a lot of effort at first. It took energy… but after a while it does become habitual, even if it is not entirely automatic. As I’ve had to put less and less actual thought into it, I’ve learned to enjoy things more and more. Instead of the “instinct filters” that most people seem to have, I’ve learned to build “thought filters.” My “instincts” tell me to respond to every possible little threat (real or imaginary)… my reasoning has taught me to assess the situation and CHOOSE my response.
Because of this method, I have done a whole lot of really cool things that should have otherwise freaked me out. I’m a Skipper on the Jungle Cruise at Disney World. (If you’ve ever been there, you know what that entails.) I’ve sung in front of audiences of more than 800 people. I got my driver’s license. I learned to drive a stick shift. I got my motorcycle license. I’ve fired a gun at a shooting range and hit center mass 96% of the time. I got married. I have three kids. I moved from PA to FL. I held a job at a gas station in Philly for three and a half years. (Trust me, that was anxiety central with Philly having such an insane high crime rate.) This is not in chronological order. I still feel the anxiety. I just don’t let it control me. I control it. It is a purposeful choice. Life has too much to offer to spend it hiding from every little thing that makes me uncomfortable. (Uncomfortable is a gross understatement, but there isn’t a better word available at the moment.)
Most people here are dealing with children, and kids typically don’t have fully developed reasoning skills. Talk about the things that make your Aspie kids anxious. Get them to put their thoughts into words or pictures and work them out. What does a loud noise feel like or look like inside your head? What does a person standing too close feel like? or smell like? or even sound like? Then rationalize it: Can anything about this situation actually hurt you? The answer is usually going to come down to a, “No.” In that case, you (being the parent) can tell the kid “Let’s get over it.” Then work together to face situations little bits at a time where you go into it knowing that you are going to practice the steps to not freaking out. Assess the situation. Choose your response. Put the response into action.
Kids need practice to feel assured of their own abilities. Thing is, it seems that Aspie kids have to know that’s what they’re doing. Most kids will learn without realizing they are learning. An Aspie kid, probably needs to be told, “You’re doing THIS to learn THAT.” Then, when you’re faced with a new situation where you’re not practicing on purpose, you can just say, “Hey, remember, we practiced this? Let’s do it!” Teach them to apply what they’ve practiced in real situations and eventually they won’t need the reminders as much because it will become habit.
They’ll pick up on your anxiety too. So, if you’re anxious about how they are going to respond… expect their anxiety level to be even higher. If YOU can relax, your Aspie can learn to watch you for how to respond as well. Just like I learned to watch my cat and trust his instincts. Kids don’t know that they CAN do things on purpose. You (the parents) can teach them how.