At about 10:00 pm last night I called two friends – one right after the other. I was in a highly stressed state. I thought my hot water service was broken as the fuse switch had flipped twice and I had run out of hot water. Many people would find this somewhat stressful particularly on a weekend before an interstate trip. For me this anxiety was heightened many, many times. Home maintenance issues are by far the most stressful thing I experience at the moment. More stressful than Mr Kitty being unwell or issues with any of my work. I don’t fully understand why that is but I suspect it relates to fear of the security of my home. I spent many years homeless and living in supported accommodation before I moved to Canberra in 2007 and then bought Whimsy Manor in 2008.
I love Whimsy Manor but when anything goes wrong – or appears to – I am thrust into misery and terror. This has been the case since I moved here. It has nothing to do with monetary issues or anything else remotely practical but it is very, very real. Last night I thought I smelled smoke coming out of the cupboard where the water heater was. I wasn’t sure of this but it seemed pretty convincing. Knowing how my mind works in time of stress I thought I should call a friend and confirm if there was an issue warranting immediate attention before called the fire brigade! Both of the friends I called were very supportive and understood how this issue was such a big one for me. One friend came right over and told me there was no smoke in my cupboard. I sort of believed this but slept with the door to the kitchen – where the water heater is – closed and took Mr Kitty into the bedroom and got out his carrier in case we had to make a quick exit. I left the bathroom light on and set my alarm for 6am too! It actually seems to be the case that the water heater is OK and the fuse box had the issue as I now have hot water and am feeling a little foolish. I thought this was a great example of how to manage stress – and particularly supporting someone else to manage their stress.
Stress and anxiety are different for every single person. There are some things which almost everyone finds stressful. Common stressors are things like moving house, starting or finishing a job, having a serious illness – either your own or someone close to you, bereavement, serious illness or death of a pet, a relationship ending – those sorts of things. Most people will recognise these as stressful but for many people – and often for autistic people – our stressors can include some atypical things, such as home maintenance! One of the worst issues wth having unconventional stressors is that other people often don’t recognise on any level how serious these stressors can be. They might think ‘I don’t worry about that so when would anyone else?’
Some of the things people might find stressful that others may not really understand include:
- Sensory issues especially if they are somewhere the person needs to spend time regularly such as home or their workplace
- Interpersonal issues – often finding a person difficult, abusive or unpleasant but who nobody else can see an issue with
- New situations of any description, even ‘positive’ ones
- Something which brings up traumatic memories which others are not aware of, e.g. an activity (sports etc)
- Any number of specific situations which ‘shouldn’t’ be stressful in the eyes of others but are, such as my own anxiety.
Being highly stressed about something others do not see as warranting that level of anxiety can result in a sort of invalidation, often unintentional, where the response we get is nowhere near commensurate with our stress level. An unsupportive response will most likely come across as unhelpful and dismissive. It also tends to increase the stress level even more as people feel that they can’t even get support from a friend!
One issue that I have around this is that I have downplayed the extent of my own anxiety when speaking with others as I thought it was somehow silly to worry about hings which nobody else really worries that much about. It is actually impossible to get help if you don’t explain the magnitude of the problem or downplay what the problem is. In the last couple of years I have explained my issue and how even though it may seem to be an extreme reaction to a relatively minor problem, the stress is very real. I wish I had always done this because it makes it exponentially easier to get a suitable response form people.
Some thoughts to help support someone going through high anxiety – from any cause:
- Even if it doesn’t seem worthy of worry to you, somebody’s anxiety is very real to them.
- Validation is great gift. Just saying to someone something like ‘I recognise that this is really awful for you. How can I help?’ can make a massive difference.
- Remember that it may have been very hard for the person to share how anxious they are with you. They might feel a bit silly or ashamed to be anxious about something that they apparently ‘shouldn’t be worrying about.’ Acknowledgement of their very real anxiety can help the person a lot.
- Be available where you can. Having friend to talk to about issues can be extremely helpful.
- If in doubt of what the problem is, ask.
- Asking your friend ‘What would you like me to do?’ can be helpful. Suggestions about a plan of action can also help to but be aware that your friend may decline your suggestions and that is OK.
- If you feel things are beyond your capacity to assist with or are worried for your friend’s safety, there are counselling services offered by Lifeline or Beyondblue in Australia and similar services in other countries. There are also mental health crisis services. will add a caveat, particularly for autistic people, that these services can be helpful but sometimes can be a bit patchy in terms of how helpful they are. However, if you are concerned about a friend’s safety then it is advisable to contact either their doctor / health practitioner or a crisis service if it is after hours.
Your help and support can make all the difference. I know my friends’ support last night was invaluable.