Ryan Riviera: Asperger Syndrome and Anxiety

Ryan Rivera is an expert on Asperger and anxiety and provides some additional insight into this important subject.

The subject of anxiety is always one that provokes discussion in Asperger circles. In a work or management context, it becomes profoundly important for someone with Asperger syndrome.

In the article below I probe Ryan on some of the issues.

Men and women with Asperger’s Syndrome often have an above average intelligence, but studies have shown that those living with Asperger’s are at an extremely high risk of developing anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders – especially for those with Asperger’s – can be a considerable problem, because it may prevent people from learning behaviors or interacting with others in a way that would be beneficial for their long term outlook.

Unfortunately, the problem is often exacerbated by a lack of knowledge about Asperger’s, not only by the general population – but also by adults living with the disorder that may have been diagnosed later in life or grown up in a community where treatment and education was unavailable. Even those that were cared for in a community that was able to recognize the disorder early and provide appropriate treatments may still feel alone, especially if they suffer from anxiety.

Below are some commonly asked questions about Asperger’s Syndrome and anxiety.

Q: How Many People with Asperger’ s Syndrome Suffer from Anxiety?

A: While no specific number is known, it’s estimated that as many as 7 or 8 out of every 10 children suffering from Asperger’s will also show signs of an anxiety disorder. Whether these numbers continue into adulthood is less clear, but most experts believe the numbers are still high. In fact, it’s likely that adults with Asperger’s suffer from a degree of anxiety at least equal to children with the disorder, both because they’re likely at the same risks and adults that are diagnosed with Asperger’s at a later age will not have benefitted from helpful treatments. It can also be assumed that those in positions of power within a company, like upper management, are likely to suffer from an increase in stress and anxiety over the importance of their position. With around a 70% anxiety rate, these numbers are far greater than the rest of the population, where only 18% suffer from some type of anxiety disorder in the United States.

Q: Is It Just One Type of Anxiety?

A: No. While social anxiety is by far the most common, because social anxiety and Asperger’s are often linked, those with Asperger’s may also suffer from other anxiety issues, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic attacks. Some may also suffer from a combination of these conditions.

Not all of these anxiety disorders will be related to Asperger’s. Men and women of all ages develop anxiety disorders for countless reasons, so someone with Asperger’s may have panic attacks or a generalized anxiety disorder for reasons that are genetic, or based on upbringing and past history – not because their Asperger’s was much of a contributing factor. Mistreatment due to a lack of understanding about Asperger’s may also contribute to anxiety, but the Asperger’s itself was not directly the cause.
In addition, it’s possible that those with Asperger’s Syndrome develop anxiety disorders based on life experiences related to their Asperger’s. For example, those that struggle socially may develop a fear of various social situations, or a need to find more order in their lives, and these can both lead to other types of anxiety issues.

Q: Why is This a Problem?

A: Anxiety, especially at work, can interfere with your quality of life, and potentially lead to depression or the inability to enjoy everyday tasks. But more than that, those that are successfully living with Asperger’s are working to manage they symptoms, create friendships, and enjoy activities, and anxiety limits the ability to continue to achieve those goals.

Q: Why is This Occurring?

A: Numerous life experiences can contribute to long term anxiety. As children (and adults) learned to interact with others, it’s possible that issues communicating caused poor interactions, and those poor interactions contributed to anxiety. The Asperger’s Association of New England attributes it to what they call a type of emotional and mental “exhaustion” that comes from depending too heavily on cognition over instinct when it comes to relating to others.

There may also be issues with upbringing, as few parents and teachers know how to raise and teach a child with Asperger’s. Many people with Asperger’s Syndrome also appreciate routines, and life itself also has a lot of breaks in routine that would eventually lead to anxiety disorders.

A lack of understanding about the disorder was likely also a cause for many adults. Most adults with Asperger’s Syndrome grew up at a time when the issue itself was unknown. Since diagnosis was impossible until 1994, very few people were correctly treated, resulting in potentially ineffective or counterproductive treatment by others as a way of managing the disorder. In addition, most people living with Asperger’s struggled to even understand their own thoughts and feelings and why they were different than others. That may also have contributed to higher than average anxiety rates. Overall, however, there is no exact cause for everyone living with Asperger’s, but a variety of contributing factors.

Q: What Are Some Signs of Anxiety in Those With Asperger’s?

A: The general symptoms of each type of anxiety (physical anxiousness, worry, fear, negative thoughts) may all occur in those with Asperger’s. But other issues, like severe social withdrawal, irritability, physical pain related to emotional experiences, repetitive behaviors, and too much reliance on a set and potentially unusual or unhealthy routine may also be anxiety symptoms. Some may also rely too heavily on personal rules.
These will be visible at the workplace as well. Often in management there are confrontations over missing or late work, communication problems, and so on. This will often trigger anxiety symptoms in those with Asperger’s. In addition, if the workplace or certain tasks represent fear, then those with Asperger’s may struggle to engage in the tasks that create the fear, avoiding the work instead.

Q: Are There Treatments for Adults Living With Both Asperger’s and Anxiety?

A: Yes, and new treatments are still being researched every day. It’s been suggested that people with Asperger’s Syndrome benefit best by learning coping strategies for anxiety causes (rather than the anxiety itself). Learning to integrate these strategies for everyday events into their life can help reduce the severity of the anxiety. Similarly, it may be beneficial to teach relaxation techniques (deep breathing, visualization, etc.) and create a sanctuary where individuals can initiate these relaxation strategies in peace. Therapy can also be effective, but only by trained psychologists that understand how to work with Asperger’s patients.

At the moment, the greatest weapon that someone with Asperger’s can take with them against anxiety – especially if they were diagnosed as an adult – is the recognition that you are suffering from an anxiety problem. There are still issues with a lack of empirically validated treatment options, and traditional anxiety reduction strategies, while generally effective, were not originally designed for those living with Asperger’s – at least not where one could say confidently that they know the treatment will be effective.

But acknowledging your anxiety and implementing a willingness to find an effective treatment is extremely worthwhile. At the workplace, for example, anxiety can lead to misinformation or issues that affect the willingness or ability to deal with organizational problems. Since that’s part of your job, allowing that anxiety to overwhelm you would be problematic.

By acknowledging your anxiety, you can immediately utilize relaxation strategies that have worked for you in the past, and see if they lead to continued success. Start by writing down your worry-related thoughts in a journal so that you can take them out of your head and place them on paper. That will relax your brain a little as it deals with the stress of anxiety. From there, try writing down affirmations. Affirmations are positive statements about how the event that is causing anxiety will go. These statements don’t need to be true, but they do need to be unequivocally positive. This type of activity will start to change your mindset towards less anxiety-causing issues.

It’s also not uncommon to find that those with Asperger’s spend too much time focusing on the past. The heightened memory and introspective personalities make that a blessing and a curse, and it’s possible that people living with Asperger’s focus too much on past mistakes without finding a way to live in the present. Once again, few empirical studies reference this, so the best thing for anyone stuck in the past to do is look for methods that may help them focus more on the future.

Creating SMART goals is a good start. Goals give you something to shoot for, so that your past becomes less relevant. Also, the thought journals mentioned above may help here too. Look for your own relaxation strategies as well, at least until more research about Asperger’s treatment options are published.

Q: What Are Some Lifestyle Changes That May Also Be Beneficial?

Anxiety reduction strategies are not the only things that will help you maintain a healthier level of anxiety in the workplace.

Lifestyle changes can help as well. These include:

• Surrounding Yourself With Positive People – It can be hard to make friends with Asperger’s Syndrome, but those that you do surround yourself with need to be truly supportive and friendly. Aligning yourself with positive people reduces some of the pressure you experience at work, where you are less in control of who you associate with.

• Exercising – Exercise is also a valuable tool in the fight against anxiety. Exercise wears out your body and calms your mind in a way that few other activities can. Your mind and body are linked, so mental anxiety will be at least moderately relieved if your physical body is tired. Exercising before or after work is beneficial.

• Eating Healthier – Because of the link between your mind and body, maintaining your physical health with a good diet is also important. There is considerable value in ensuring that you’re getting the right nutrients, as these help regulate hormones, improve sleep, and otherwise cut down on anxiety producers. Make sure you don’t let your workplace anxiety disrupt your diet either, and always make sure you’re eating lunch throughout the day.

It’s also important that you get sleep, refrain from activities that bring you fear, and try to keep yourself busy and productive outside of work. While the career of someone living with Asperger’s is important, work should never be the sole determinant in one’s happiness. Since no one can control the entirety of their work life, ensuring that their off-work life is as healthy and productive as possible is an important next step.

Q: Will There Be Less Anxiety in the Future?

A: A greater understanding of Asperger’s Syndrome is going to go a long way toward reducing anxiety for future adults in the Asperger’s population. A large percentage of adults with anxiety disorders developed those disorders because of a misunderstanding about what Asperger’s really is and how to manage it. Now that Asperger’s is becoming a more well-known condition, especially in the research community, more effective methods of treating Asperger’s anxiety as a child and as an adult will be created, and the future of those living with Asperger’s will be brighter.

What these treatments will be remains to be seen. It’s possible that current treatments already in place for the rest of the population are effective enough at curing Asperger’s related anxiety that they can be implemented soon. But those with Asperger’s will need to first focus on their own successful anxiety reduction methods as researchers start to put more effort into developing new anti-anxiety strategies specifically for the Asperger’s population.

About the Author: Ryan Rivera is an anxiety specialist, and provides information on anxiety at www.calmclinic.com.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome