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.

Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here

Outside the Wall

To be a fly on the wall, an unseen observer. How many people have wished that at some point? Usually because of curiosity: they want to be in on private events that they would normally have no access to. It’s a normal human feeling… and I don’t experience it; I don’t have that curiosity about the minutia of other people’s lives.


What I do experience is a desire to be unnoticed, to fade into the background, to become invisible, hidden. Not so that I can observe others but so that they can’t observe me as I go about my daily activities.

Paranoid Eyes

Obviously I’m not the invisible man. But is what people see really me or am I hiding behind this fleshy facade? Looking out through the eye-holes in my mask? Like a mask, my face doesn’t show much of what I’m thinking or feeling: this is a common autistic trait. And I like it that way. I’m not comfortable with the idea of my private thoughts being broadcast involuntarily by a traitorous subconscious via facial expressions or other body language. I want to have full conscious control over every aspect of my communication.

In the Flesh

That’s an aspiration; the reality falls short and I find that people are able to “read” me in a limited way. But I find I get misread almost as often, so I guess I’m sending mixed signals. I’ve been wearing this body for nearly 40 years and I still don’t have effortless control over its motor functions: it doesn’t always move in the way I want so I can be physically awkward and clumsy. And this also applies to facial expressions and even speech: it takes me a degree of concentration if I’m not to speak indistinctly, mumble or slur my words.

Speak to Me

I normally speak softly, only raising my voice when I’m overloaded or in meltdown when I don’t have much control. Sometimes too softly and I get asked to repeat myself, which is fair enough given the number of times I have to ask people to repeat themselves. That or I just stand there for a spell while I try to decipher what I just heard into meaningful words. Chinese whispers has got nothing on what I think I’ve heard at times! It can be quite amusing but mostly it’s just confusing and distracting.

Us and Them

What is behind this desire to be apart rather than to be a part in social situations? It’s partly a lack of affinity with in-groups: I have never identified with any group or class. Most people maintain an identity based on attributes shared with others, whether they support the same football team, listen to the same bands, go to the same church. I am, and always have been, just me. While I am well aware that my interests and activities overlap with those of other people I know, I don’t feel that this makes me part of any social group.

I’m just me, on my own, always on the periphery. Not so much a fly on the wall as outside the wall, looking in through the windows. The eternal outsider.

Handle With Care

Handle With Care

Brittle tranquility, a fragile egg-shell existence from moment to moment. Trying not to think about the instant when it will shatter under the weight of my suppressed feelings.

At times I can go for hours, even days, with a happy, carefree cast of mind before the darkness encroaches again and I fall into the depths. It is so sudden, as if a switch were flicked to extinguish the light, that the onset is shocking in its abruptness. One minute I’m my “normal” self, the next I’m falling with an aching void where my heart used to be – such intense, painful loneliness.

At these times I feel the urge to curl up in a warm, dark sanctuary. To hold myself tightly, comfort myself in the most basic way. Tears prick at my eyes but will not flow even though I feel a need for that release – my inhibitions remain too strong. This frustrates me immensely.

All my worrying, anxiety, insecurity: it is little wonder that I have had trouble sleeping on and off recently. I feel mentally exhausted from the effort of keeping going. Reprising my role for endless curtain calls; no respite. I feel trapped by my responsibilities and face a strong temptation to run away but I know that any escape would be temporary. Not sure I could face crawling back to my old life after a hedonistic spree. Can’t face severing the ties that bind me to my current station. Trapped.

It is a leaden dullness that holds me to the ground when I yearn to fly, to shine. I sit in the midst of winter-gray concrete uniformity and dream of running through the woods and meadows of childhood’s infinite summer. Soap-bubble dreams that burst and disappear so easily: from weightless, iridescent beauty to oblivion in the blink of an eye. As fragile as my veneer of happiness.

Breakdown Timebomb

Breakdown Timebomb

Handling strong emotions is extraordinarily difficult. Trying to keep them under control – rein them in – is like trying to close a suitcase packed with so many clothes that they threaten to burst out from every side.

I am caught in the currents of my feelings, one minute floating calmly and the next being pulled under by the rip tide or whirled around in a maelstrom of despair before sinking down in darkness. The illusion of control lies shattered around me as I huddle fetus-like in the middle of an barren landscape, no feature to break the monotonous emptiness fading to the horizon in every direction. Out here there is only loneliness. No sound. No breeze. Nothing moves, not even me. Yet within my mind nothing is still: huge, demanding thoughts and emotions slug it out in a battle for my attention while I struggle to avoid being overwhelmed.

And then, as softly sudden as the bursting of a soap bubble, the turmoil subsides and I experience a period of relative calm.

I feel the need to escape – a basic animal instinct to flee from threat. But there is no path to the place that draws me because it exists only in my memories, in the past. An illusory golden history, a carefree time of happiness. An amalgam of times and places synthesized into idyllic fantasy. Such a temptation!… to slip away into this perfect dream world.

A number of factors have likely contributed to my current state of mind but they all boil down to one thing: change. Too much has changed and is changing in too short a space of time and it all pushes me out of my comfortable routine existence into an unstable, unpredictable, disorientating state of uncertainty and confusion. I’ve not been sleeping well as a result, compounding the problem with tiredness – I feel tattered, ragged, frayed, worn out.

Please, somebody stop the world. I want to get off – I’ve had enough of this ride.

Losing Patience

Losing Patience

Several times, especially in recent weeks, I have been put in an awkward, discomfiting position when out socially. One minute I will be feeling at ease among friends and then one person will start behaving badly – disparaging and insulting others, being antagonistic, even spiteful, and completely shattering my sense of calm.

This person absolutely refuses to accept that they might be in the wrong, instead reacting angrily to criticism and blaming anyone and everyone around them; the phrase “chip on the shoulder” comes readily to mind. I’m starting to wonder if there’s some psychological problem behind these personality traits – the Wikipedia entry for narcissistic personality disorder includes the following:

Narcissists have such an elevated sense of self-worth that they value themselves as inherently better than others. Yet, they have a fragile self-esteem and cannot handle criticism, and will often try to compensate for this inner fragility by belittling or disparaging others in an attempt to validate their own self-worth. It is this sadistic tendency that is characteristic of narcissism…

But this speculation does not address the issue at hand, namely that this person is causing an increasing amount of ill-feeling and upset. I know that I’m reaching the limit of my patience in dealing with this person’s demands and prima donna antics, and I’m far from the only one feeling this way.

I find that I am dealing with the stress caused by this person’s behavior by switching off from these interactions – I have become increasingly emotionally detached as a form of self-defense. While I still care, I am no longer willing to be subjected to this kind of bullying behavior.

The Support of Friendship

The Support of Friendship

I fear that this Diamond Jubilee weekend just gone has left me sadly out of sorts with the upheaval and disruption to my regular routines. I accompanied a group of friends to London on Saturday, a lads’ day out. I will admit to having reservations in the run up to the day itself – I don’t generally enjoy the crowds and hectic work-day pace of the city – but I had not been there on a Saturday for many years and never in the company of a group of friends. As it turned out I ended up in a smaller group of three or four for most of the day and by focusing on just this group I was able to insulate myself sufficiently from the many thousands of people all around us – it felt to me as if we were in our own protective bubble.

The day passed so quickly and I had a wonderful time – my companions were good company and all the strangers around barely registered in my mind – I was relaxed and happy, and had one of the best days out ever. The next day, Sunday, was quiet and flat by comparison – I have no clear recollection of it – but Monday brought another social gathering. This time it was a barbecue hosted by another friend, and again I started out with some trepidation because of the number attending: over thirty people, but nearly all of them people I know well.

I needn’t have worried. They were welcoming and genuinely pleased that I had come along and my anxious insecurity was soon forgotten as I joined in the fun. I ended up not going home that night, spending the night at the home of yet another friend where I slept on the sofa – I can scarcely believe that people not only appear not to object to having me around, but even invite me over.

That long weekend is over. But despite my lingering tiredness I have memories of some very enjoyable times, thanks in such a large part to my friends. I cannot overstate the importance that such acceptance has to me – it gives me such a sense of support.