Anxiety: Learning to Cope

Anxiety: Learning to Cope

Nobody Home?

It’s the strangest feeling, or it would be if it weren’t so familiar. I catch myself playing the part, acting “normal”, carrying on without conscious intervention while all the time I’m there, watching. I feel like a spectator in my own body, a mere passenger.

I remain aware of everything around me, fully linked to my senses, but my mind is free-wheeling, pursuing lines of thought unrelated to what my body is doing. And every so often I notice that my body has been walking around, even talking to people, while I’ve been occupied with my thoughts.

Role Playing

I guess it’s a form of acting: I’m performing a role that I’ve rehearsed so thoroughly I don’t need to think about what I’m doing, leaving my mind free to wander. This is the state in which I’m most at ease: there is a comfortable familiarity as I run along the rails of routine.

Am I a Stereotype?

The trouble is… as I watch myself I wonder whether I am being myself or whether I am merely exhibiting a set of learned behaviors with the aim of fitting in. What makes me suspect this? I get little nudges from my conscience – a feeling that I should be, say, flapping my hands or talking at length and in detail about some topic of personal interest. Things I used to do as a child but have suppressed as I’ve grown.

Since discovering that I have Aspergers I have become more aware that a number of things I used to do instinctively were characteristic of the condition. I see my innate Aspie traits on one side of a balance with my acquired “normal” traits on the other, and as one side rises into prominence the other side sinks from view. I’ve been feeling more and more that I am out of balance and I need to take corrective action to restore the equilibrium.

I’ve found that whereas in the past I had been led into thinking of my differences as aberrant behaviors to be corrected, I now consider them to be natural aspects of the way I am. I have accepted that I’m different – and the reasons underlying that – and I try to be more myself rather than struggling to “act normal”. That said, there are some areas where my instinctive reactions are a hindrance to living independently: it’s not possible to go through life without interacting with strangers at some point.

Identity and Self-confidence

My sense of self – my identity – is moderately strong: I know who I am and my core values are well-established in my mind. I might not always have the strength or confidence to actively uphold them but I find that I am incapable of acting against them. My self-confidence on the other hand varies according to the situation from bulletproof to non-existent. And that’s where my anxiety creeps in.

The Sum of All Fears

First a bit of background: there is a psychological theory of learning usually referred to as “The Four Stages of Competence”. Briefly, the four stages are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence where you are not aware of your lack of a skill.
  2. Conscious incompetence in which you become aware that you do not understand or know the skill.
  3. Conscious competence which is having the knowledge but not grokking it: knowing a sequence of steps and able to follow the sequence but without fluency. One still has to think heavily about the task.
  4. Unconscious competence where practice – rehearsal – has made the skill so familiar that it has become habit and little or no conscious effort is required to perform it.

What I described at the start is stage 4: I’m doing things that are so familiar I don’t have to think about them and my conscious thoughts can drift off. Problems arise for me at stages 2 and 3 where I come face to face with the unknown.

When I am faced with a situation that is unfamiliar or where I can’t predict what turns events may take I become anxious. I lack self-confidence in my ability to perform the task, whether it is making a phone call or interacting with strangers. I know I can manage well-defined, structured interactions such as ordering a pizza or going to the doctor because I have become familiar with the routines involved: I am around stages 3-4 in those cases. But with something that is off-the-wall where I would have to react according to the context I find myself back at stage 2 where I am all too aware that I don’t really know what to do.

Breaking the Circle

At the moment I find myself trapped in a vicious circle where I have evolved strategies of avoidance when faced with anxiety-inducing situations. This prevents me gaining the experience to deal with similar situations in the future, and results in greater anxiety if I can’t avoid them. I recently raised this problem with my GP and I’ve started a course of therapy to try to manage my fears so that they don’t continue to be an obstacle to me doing things.

Square One

One of the first tasks has been to analyze the roots of my anxiety: what triggers it, what is it I am afraid of? Many people have a fear of judgement: what will the other person think of them? But that’s not it for me. My core fear is of failure, of not being able to complete the task. Fears of this kind in particular can affect people who grew up with a “gifted” label as I did. A lack of experience of failing makes any failure, however small, appear catastrophic. This leads to risk aversion, a strong drive to avoid the possibility of failure. Perhaps if I can learn to accept failure than I will be able to attempt things where I lack confidence. I can hope.