Autistic people may experience alexithymia, or an inability to identify and understand one’s own emotions. This can make life difficult, especially if you are prone to stress or have an anxiety disorder. Here are ways to tell if you are experiencing anxiety.
If you suspect stress, stop for a moment. Examine your body and evaluate symptoms.
- Check your facial expression. Look in a mirror, or feel your facial muscles and imagine how your face looks. Consider comparing it to drawings of faces with different emotions. Does your expression look tense, scared, or angry?
- Consider your stims. When you are stressed, you may naturally begin using stims to calm you down (such as putting things in your mouth or rocking). Self-calming stims are different for each autistic person, so it’s important to learn your individual stims and what they mean. Here are some examples of stims that may feel calming to you:
- Feel your stomach. Stomachaches can arise from stress. This can be tricky to identify, because you must first rule out other possibilities:
- Did you eat lately? Have you eaten enough within the last 24 hours? Is it possible that you went to bed hungry?
- Are you on your period, or is it due?
- Is there a stomach bug going around? There is a slight chance that it may be a flu.
- Did you eat something different? For example, if you tried spicy bean soup, the beans might have irritated your stomach. This sort of pain can be piercing, but is temporary.
- Look for pain in your head (especially forehead), neck, and back. Headaches are a common stress symptom. Anxiety can form tense, painful knots in the back of your neck. You may also feel a sore back, as if you lifted something too heavy. Sometimes, stress will also make it easier to injure your back when lifting things.
- Think about your appetite. Have you lost your appetite during situations when you are normally eating, or do you find yourself eating a lot? Are you using gum, candies, or vitamin drops as an attempt to prevent overeating?
- Reflect on how well you have been sleeping. Stress may cause you to oversleep, or to experience trouble sleeping. Here are various examples of sleeping trouble that stress causes:
- Trouble falling asleep
- Waking up during the night
- Trouble getting comfortable; rolling around a lot
- Waking up before your alarm clock (Note: sometimes this will happen if your body adjusts to a rigid schedule, so this alone may not be a problem)
- If you sleep with a partner, they may report something unusual about your sleep
- See if your friends or family members notice anything different. It may be difficult for you to tell, especially if you have trouble figuring out what others are thinking. Here are some signs that they’ve noticed something is wrong:
- They’re helping you more, or being more careful with you.
- They ask you if something is wrong.
- They’re offering support: “Is there anything I can do to help?” “Let me know if you need to talk, okay? I’m here for you.”
- They look worried about you.
- (Remember, some people will do some or all of these naturally, such as always offering to help. See if this happens more than usual, or feels out of the ordinary to you.)
- Learn how to recognize the signs of a panic attack. Panic attacks are when you have severe anxiety that causes incapacitating physical symptoms, sometimes completely out of the blue. If you get panic attacks, tell a doctor so you can get medical help. Here are a few of the many potential symptoms:
- Pounding heart (heart palpitations)
- Breathing too hard/rapidly (hyperventilating)
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or “pins and needles” in extremities (from hyperventilation)
- Fear that you are dying
After considering your body, evaluate your own thoughts. Reflect on what you were just thinking about before you stopped.
- Do you feel powerless or small? If you are anxious, you may feel that you have no control over what happens, and that you can’t protect yourself or others from bad events.
- Feeling powerless or overwhelmed may also be a sign of an oncoming meltdown or shutdown.
- Were you just thinking about something bad? If you were imagining how to respond to a negative situation, or worrying about something that could happen, this could make you stressed.
- Is something bad going on, or did something bad just happen? (See the next section.)
- Were you perseverating on a problem?
- Were you thinking about a difficult situation or relationship in your life?
- Were you thinking about a group of people who upset you, like racists or anti-autism organizations?
- Are you perseverating? Perseverating isn’t always a bad thing, but it can be trouble if it hinders forward progress, or if it is making you upset. If you are perseverating on a problem—getting “stuck in a rut” and having trouble snapping out of it—this can be a sign of anxiety.
- See if you keep on focusing on “what if” ideas. A little “what ifs” can lead to creative problem-solving, but if you cannot rein them in, you have a problem. Focusing too much on the future can prevent you from staying calm in the present. Here are some examples of thoughts that can overtake you.
- “What do I do if my social skills prevent me from holding down this job? How will I support a husband and kids someday?” (what ifs)
- “How am I ever going to get my degree in time? I don’t have the organization skills for a side job yet!” (hows)
- “I can’t believe I forgot the homework for the second time this month! I’m a terrible student! Maybe I’m too disabled for college after all…” (spiral of faulty logic)
- See if you are “clinging” to a person, or staying in a certain area. You may stick to a place or person because they feel safe to you, and feel anxious about leaving them. (If this is a pattern, it may be agoraphobia.)
- Following around a person (This includes constantly trailing behind your dad or big sister to avoid your homework. Just because they don’t mind doesn’t mean it’s a good pattern.)
- Avoiding leaving the house
- Feeling/faking sick and wanting to avoid work/school
Due to Alexithymia, you may not realize that you experienced something stressful until later on. Delayed emotional reactions happen—you could be upset by something that happened just now, five minutes ago, half an hour ago, or yesterday.
- Reflect on what you were just doing. Did you just witness something you consider bad or wrong? Have you just gone through something difficult? You may not have immediately realized that an experience was hard.
- Were you reading/watching the news and hearing about sad things?
- Did you just witness or fail to stop injustice (however small)?
- Did your schedule abruptly change? Was somebody late when you were expecting them?
- Did you undergo a rocky transition?
- Were you on an anti-autism website?
- Consider your most recent social interactions. Since autistic people can have trouble understanding social boundaries, you might not instinctively realize when someone else crossed them, and was being rude or mean to you.
- Did you seem unable to get through to them?
- Did they cut you off?
- Did you feel at all small or insecure after the conversation, when you weren’t before?
- Did they make you feel that your feelings were invalid or unimportant?
- Did they make you look bad in front of other people?
- Think about your current workload. If you have a major project, or exam/evaluation coming up, the approaching date might make you nervous. Anxiety can also happen if you feel that you are falling behind, or that you put off your work too much.
- Is it painful to think about your workload? Would you prefer to skip this step and keep reading?
- Do you feel prepared?
- Do you feel that your boss/professor/supervisor likes you, or at least feels neutral towards you?
- How are your time management skills?
- Are you preparing for or going through a major life transition? This might make you more stressed and anxious than usual.
- Moving house
- Changing jobs or schools
- End of a vacation
- Independence milestones (first sleepover, first sleepaway camp, preparing for college, moving out of parents’ house or supported living)
- Consider the relationships in your life. Are any of them particularly strained? This may lead to stress in your life. Run through the major family, school/work, and therapy-related people in your lives.
- Do you feel that they will listen to you if you have a problem?
- Do they listen when you say no?
- Do you feel on edge, worthless, or incompetent when you are around them?
- Do they force compliance or do things that cause you physical pain (including sensory-related pain)?
- Does a specific person come to mind as you read this list? (Someone may jump out right away. Or it may take deep thought to realize that some of these things are true.)
- If you are a self-advocate, or if you are especially educated on autism, you will be exposed to additional stress. Autistic people are often silenced and spoken over, which makes your job particularly difficult. You must be careful to take care of yourself, because your empathy for other autistic people may make it difficult to handle the things you read. Be especially cautious when learning about the following:
- If you are often stressed, tell a doctor or therapist. You may have an anxiety disorder or severe sensory processing issues, which can be treated with insurance-covered solutions.
- Don’t neglect a pattern of anxiety. The sooner you get help, the easier it is to turn it around.
- Cope With Sensory Integration Disorder
- Sleep With Severe Anxiety
- Calm Down by Using Your Senses
- Fall Asleep if You’re Autistic
- Deal With Anxiety
- Discern Friends from Foes As an Autistic Person
- Be Calm
EditSources and Citations
- Mayo Clinic Guide to Anxiety and Panic
- List of Anxiety Symptoms
- Autism Help: Stress and Autism
- Autism Help: Panic Attacks and Autism