Anxiety is a feeling, like all of our other feelings, but why in-particular do neurodivergent individuals experience anxiety so frequently?
Here are some reasons why neurodivergent individuals frequently experience anxiety;
Being 'different' from neurotypical people
Challenging symptoms that come with being neurodivergent
I am going to dive into some of these examples in a bit more detail.
Why does change cause anxiety?
Any kind of change can be extremely challenging especially in Autism. 'Extreme distress at small changes' is actually part of the diagnosis criteria for Autism.
What the diagnosis criteria fails to explain is the context as to why change can cause distress. Generally, Autistic individuals can feel unsafe in many situations. Routine and familiarity can help to increase the feelings of safety therefore when there is change and especially change that has not been informed about with enough time to process, the feeling of lack of safety can become heightened leading to a surge in anxiety.
Here is a tip for how to minimise anxiety due to change:
Frontloading - frontloading is a method to help reduce uncertainty. By discussing your day ahead (for yourself or a loved one) and the various ways it might pan out, you can reduce the uncertainty, increase predictability and overall reduce anxiety.
For example; discuss the route to school with your child including if there is traffic, which way you might take instead of the regular route. Today is Tuesday and on a Tuesday there sometimes can be a change of teachers for Maths. Discuss this potential change and what that can look like.
Dive into detail with any possible situations that may occur and ways for either yourself or your loved one to best handle the situation. By doing this you have now reduced the amount of unpredictability and instantly feelings of anxiousness in the moment and/or that could come up in the future due to the change.
Why does masking cause anxiety?
Let me start quickly by explaining what masking is (even though the name is a bit of a giveaway 🤪).
This definition is taken from the Canadian Medical Association Journal;
Neurodivergent people often feel pressure to “mask” or compensate for differences in order to succeed in settings that favour neurotypical behaviour. This may include mirroring what other people do to appear “normal,” or suppressing self-soothing behaviours like fidgeting or hair twirling, also known as “stimming.”
If you think about acting literally as someone else or an inauthentic version of yourself, it is exhausting and you can only keep up appearances for so long. Either you continue to mask and internalise the issues that may arise causing anxiety and a decline in your mental health or the mask starts to come off as you no longer have the capacity to continue to mask.
Evidence has been found linking "masking with increased anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts and behaviours" (Duong et al, 2022).
As you can see, masking is extremely serious and it is imperative to either encourage your loved ones with how to safely unmask or to work on this for yourself.
Here are some tips for how to minimise anxiety due to masking (or unmasking even):
1. Ensure your safety, first and foremost, when you begin to unmask e.g. around safe people, in a safe environment.
2. Unmask at your own time and when it feels right for you. Do NOT feel pressured!
3. If stimming (repetitive movements/sounds to help self-regulate) helps you to reduce your anxiety then allow yourself or your loved one to stim.
4. Notice when and where you mask then you can begin to identify why you mask in those situations. With this awareness you can help to change the environment so that it better supports you and in turn will reduce your anxiety.
5. Use affirming language with your loved ones when they unmask, encouraging them to unmask and to shine their unique light. As an adult ensure you surround yourself with a supportive tribe who will do this for you.
A final thought...
Try to accept your anxiety rather than fight it. Listen to it as it is usually telling you something. And with this knowing you can make positive change!
If I can help any further with this topic please get in touch.
Thank you for reading. Please do comment and share if you feel this was helpful for you.
Duong D, Vogel L. Untapped potential: embracing neurodiversity in medicine. CMAJ. 2022 Jul 18;194(27):E951-E952. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.1096006. PMID: 35851534; PMCID: PMC9299741.