Anxiety is a common problem in our world. And if you are autistic, you are likely to have experienced anxiety symptoms and difficulties coping with it. As a consequence, you may have felt that you are weak or too emotional, or made believe that you are by others.
What if there was a simple explanation for some of your symptoms of anxiety? And what if this explanation could help you regain control over your life, your routine and enjoyment?
In this article, I’m going to share with you the ONE explanation that has helped many people understand their symptoms of anxiety and the three simple steps that can help you to take control.
Here is the secret
You may think that your life is pretty standard, that the things you do are things that other people do. But you may have noticed that small things can be a challenge, particularly if you live in a busy city and you have to use public transport, if you are a student and attend a busy college or university, or if you work in an open plan office, etc. Even with an unremarkable routine, you feel that you have less energy as the day or the week go by, or you feel overwhelmed, anxious and/or irritable, and that you are more likely to want to be alone and withdraw yourself by the end of the day.
Many people do not realise that the culprit for this excess of emotion and draining feeling is sensory overload. If you are autistic, you have probably heard the expressions sensory sensitivities and sensory overload. Most autistic people will identify common situations that contribute to sensory overload (loud noises, crowds, food textures, etc.), but there are many other things that we encounter in our lives that we may not intuitively associate with sensory overload, but they do contribute to it.
For example, people walking towards you, people standing (and talking) behind you, hot weather, colours (including walls, clothes, etc.), pain, etc. The effect these stimuli have on brains stays well after they are gone or over, and the more of them you experience, the more saturated your brain will be.
What you notice is things like a sense of agitation, your heart beating fast, difficulty breathing, sweaty hands, dizziness, etc. and you will probably start experiencing anxious thoughts such as “something bad is going to happen”, “I can’t cope”, “I want to get out of here”, which is one of the reasons we often think that we are anxious. However, what is really happening is that our brains are overwhelmed by too much or intense sensory information.
The simple answer, our sensory bucket
The analogy of the sensory bucket has helped many people understand and manage sensory overload. It may also help you. We all have a bucket with a specific amount sensory information we can handle. Our capacity to handle sensory information can change depending on what has been going on in our lives.
For example, during a recent one-week heat wave we had in London, I found that my bucket was pretty full. I went out shopping and I noticed how much I was disturbed by the traffic noise, something that I don’t notice most days. I know that I generally struggle with high temperatures (unless I’m on holiday on a nice beach, where I can swim!). Heat definitely fills my bucket very quickly, and the hot days lasted for a week. Imagine how full my bucket was!
Having a full sensory bucket
Trying to function with a full bucket is like trying to work on your computer with too many windows open. If you have an oldish computer, having too many windows open often slows down the computer. The computer may still do its job, but it works very slowly or it may even crash completely. And this is what happens to our brains.
The three steps to manage sensory-related anxiety
- The first step to managing anxiety is to start noticing that your bucket is full. This often helps to be more patient with ourselves, as you realise that you are handling too many things, rather than thinking that there is something wrong with you. Unfortunately, some of the things that fill your bucket may not be your choice or you may not be able to avoid them.
- Then, make a list of the situations, people and activities that fill your bucket, particularly what fills your bucket quickly. Do you need to call someone you don’t really want to talk to? Are you expecting a phone call you are not looking forward to? Do you need to do a presentation at work? Is it too hot? Learning about what fills up your bucket can help you make space for the important things you need or want to do, and handle the challenges that come your way. And remember that what fills your bucket may be different from what fills someone else’s bucket.
- When you notice that your bucket is full, make sure that you take breaks or adjust the timing of your activities. For example, if you have a busy week coming up, or an event that will fill your bucket, make sure that you dedicate enough time to rest, to be alone or to do whatever it is that you need.
If you start to manage what goes into your sensory bucket better, you’ll notice that your anxiety will decrease as well!
If you want to know more about managing your sensory bucket, get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org.