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Keys To Overcoming Excessive Worry: Help for Adults on the Autism Spectrum

If you are an adult on the autism spectrum who is prone to worry, you have two options: (a) give in and live with it, or (b) learn to overcome it. By giving in, you will continue to suffer and feel unhappy and anxious. It is far better to learn to overcome worry, or at least weaken its grip over you.

Chronic worrying wastes your time and energy and weakens you both mentally and physically. You help no one and solve no problem by worrying about this, that, and the other. The earth will go on revolving around the sun, even if you stop worrying and being so anxious. Always know you have a choice: to give in to worry, or to overcome it.

Here are the keys to overcoming worry:

1. Worry is simply another way that your body tries to communicate with you. Listen to your body. After years squelching your feelings, your body has had to up the ante to grab your attention. Pay attention to what it is that your body is trying to tell you and it will be able to tone the message down. Never feel good in the presence of your boss? Guess what? Wrong job! If you stifle a feeling over and over again, you will re-experience that feeling at higher and higher levels of distress until you finally "get it." These moments are incredibly powerful teaching moments if you can curb your desire to get away at all costs and instead, pay attention.

2. Stay busy and do something, because activity keeps your mind from worrying. When you wake up in the morning, start doing something right away, and keep busy all day. Working in your garden, reading, studying, etc., can help you keep your mind away from stressful thoughts. Staying idle and thinking about your problems won't make them go away.

3. Start meditating on a daily basis. There are many forms of meditation, so you can choose any style that you feel comfortable with. One form of stress release may be to imagine a golden sun in front of you and, with every inhale, imagine breathing light into your heart and, with every exhale, imagine it circulating through your body. Do this for 10 minutes, imagining all your tensions turning to light.

4. Exercise daily for one hour. This can include taking a walk, a swim, a yoga class, or a session of training with weights. One hour of physical activity will help everything to flow and work properly in your body, which will give you the stamina to deal with each day. Exercise will help to release endorphins and help you to get a deeper sleep, which will allow you to feel rejuvenated for the next day. Exercising your body and staying fit is a good way to keep the negative thoughts away.

5. Find reasons to laugh. This will bring light and happiness into your life, and drive worry away. Watch comedies on TV, be with happy and amusing friends, or read something that makes you laugh.

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6. What are the messages that you give yourself? Learn to observe the dialogue you have with yourself and the movies you play in your head, and you may be amazed. Your mind generates random and often irrelevant thoughts that you can follow for hours on end in concentric circles. This probably served a useful function back when man was figuring out where the saber-toothed tiger might be hiding, but this ability of the brain has out-lived its usefulness today. Follow your “worry string” sometime and be amazed at your mind's ability to invent worry-inducing scenarios.

7. If watching the news fills you with excessive worry – turn off the TV! Limit the time you watch the news, and don't watch anything that might upset you before you go to bed.

8. Pay attention to your emotions. You know those moments when you feel that you just can't take it anymore and you absolutely must escape in some fashion? We all have them. If you struggle with addiction, this is the moment when you absolutely must have that cigarette/drink/hit or else! Your body is trying to communicate with you at these times, and if you are present in your body, you'll know that you need to pay attention. What sequence of events has brought you to this point? Is it a feeling of powerlessness? Should you be speaking up for yourself and you are not? It's inevitably not a good feeling that you're having, but running away from it will not make it go away.

9. Practice deep breathing exercises. Breathe in for four counts, hold the breathe four counts, exhale four counts and hold the breathe out four counts. When doing this breathing exercise breathe into the diaphragm, placing your hands at the bottom of your ribcage and making sure the diaphragm expands on the inhale and deflates on the exhale.

10. Remain in the present moment as much as possible. Remaining in the present moment is incredibly difficult. Whether it's reviewing what you need to pick up at the grocery store on the way home, or trying to discern what your boss really meant yesterday when he said X, odds are you're doing anything but being here now. A few tricks to getting yourself into the present moment include bringing your attention into your body and sensing how it feels from the inside out. Paying attention to your breathing helps.

11. Review your diet and cut down on refined sugars and white flour, because they send the blood sugar levels up and then down, which ultimately affects your mood and energy levels. Caffeine should be cut from the diet if you are worrying a lot about things. Fried foods will increase fats in the body, which will lead to feeling lethargic and should also be cut. Fill your diet with at least 8 glasses of water a day and plenty of fruit and vegetables.

12. See a therapist so that you can talk and discuss the current issues on your mind. This can help you to get perspective on how you are perceiving, approaching and reacting to life. Cognitive therapy undergone with a therapist is a recommended form of treatment for dealing with excessive worry.

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13. Set a goal and work every day to achieve it. This action will direct your thoughts and feelings away from anxieties, toward something more positive and constructive.

14. Start the day with several minutes of positive affirmations. Tell yourself how you would like your day to be. Use positive, motivating words.

15. Take omega-3 fatty acids from fish or flaxseed oil. This will keep all the blood vessels, nerves and joints in your body healthy. Once you have been taking these for 1 month every day, your energy levels and ability to deal with stress will greatly increase. Taking a multivitamin containing the vitamin B group will help to keep the nervous system healthy. An herbal supplement such as St. John's wort will help to combat stress.

16. Talk about your tendency to worry all the time with someone you trust. Talking about your anxieties can alleviate them and put them in the right proportions, provided you talk objectively and with a real desire to get rid of your worries.

17. Visualize positive scenarios. You have some rewiring to do. Counter-balance all of the negative outcomes you've been visualizing for years. Challenge yourself to think of every possible thing that could go right. Get specific, be creative and enjoy yourself. Have some fun with this: Go overboard!

18. When you go to bed at night, think about the good things that are happening to you. There are always some good things happening, even if small and seemingly insignificant.

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The Prevalence of Avoidant Personality Disorder in People on the Autism Spectrum

According to some professionals in the autism community, Avoidant Personality Disorder (APD) manifests itself more frequently in adults on the autism spectrum compared to the general population. Reasons for this may include:
  • social rejection as a child
  • difficulty cultivating friendships throughout the lifespan
  • being the victim of bullying as a child
  • difficulty maintaining gainful employment due to social skills deficits
  • an over-reliance on parents in adulthood (i.e., “adult-child syndrome”)
  • “learned helplessness” (i.e., the adult believes he/she is fundamentally “flawed” in some way, thus he/she simply gives up and stops trying to “connect with” others in a meaningful way)

APD is characterized by feelings of extreme social inhibition, inadequacy, and sensitivity to negative criticism and rejection. However, the symptoms involve more than simply being shy or socially awkward. APD causes significant problems that affect the ability to interact with others and maintain relationships in day-to-day life.

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, an individual diagnosed with APD needs to show at least four of the following criteria:
  1. Avoids occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact because of fears of criticism, disapproval, or rejection
  2. Is inhibited in new interpersonal situations because of feelings of inadequacy
  3. Is preoccupied with being criticized or rejected in social situations
  4. Is unusually reluctant to take personal risks or to engage in any new activities because they may prove embarrassing
  5. Is unwilling to get involved with people unless they are certain of being liked
  6. Shows restraint within intimate relationships because of the fear of being shamed or ridiculed
  7. Views self as socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others

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APD symptoms may include a variety of thoughts, feelings and behaviors, for example:
  • avoidance of social or occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact because of fear of criticism, disapproval, or rejection
  • avoids physical contact because it has been associated with an unpleasant or painful stimulus
  • belief that one is socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others
  • emotional distancing related to intimacy
  • persistent and pervasive feelings of tension and apprehension
  • extreme shyness or anxiety in social situations, though the person feels a strong desire for close relationships
  • highly self-conscious
  • is unusually reluctant to take personal risk or to engage in any new activities because they may prove embarrassing
  • is unwilling to get involved with people unless certain of being liked
  • lonely self-perception, although others may find the relationship with them meaningful
  • low self-esteem
  • mistrust of others
  • problems in occupational functioning
  • restrictions in lifestyle because of need to have physical security
  • self-critical about their problems relating to others
  • self-imposed social isolation
  • uses fantasy as a form of escapism and to interrupt painful thoughts
  • and in some more extreme cases, agoraphobia

The adult on the autism spectrum may feel as if he is frequently unwelcome in social situations, even when that is not the case. This is because people with APD have a low threshold for criticism and often imagine themselves to be inferior to others. When in social situations, an individual with APD may be afraid to speak up for fear of saying the wrong thing, blushing, stammering, or otherwise getting embarrassed. He may also spend a great deal of time anxiously studying those around him for signs of approval or rejection.

The individual who has APD is aware of being uncomfortable in social situations and often feels socially inept. Despite this self-awareness, comments by others about his shyness or nervousness in social settings may feel like criticism or rejection. This is especially true if he is teased, even in a joking way, about his avoidance of social situations.

APD causes a fear of rejection that often makes it difficult to connect with other people. The affected individual may be hesitant to seek out friendships, unless he is certain that the other person will like him. When he is involved in a relationship, he may be afraid to share personal information or talk about his feelings. This can make it difficult to maintain intimate relationships or close friendships.

As with other disorders, a mental health professional can design a treatment plan that is appropriate for the affected individual. APD treatments vary, but they will likely include talk therapy. If a co-existing condition (e.g., depression, anxiety disorder) is also diagnosed, appropriate medications may also be used.

Other disorders can occur along with APD. Treatments in these cases will be designed to help with the symptoms of each disorder. A few of the conditions that most frequently occur with APD include:
  • Borderline personality disorder, in which adults on the autism spectrum have difficulties in many areas including social relationships, behavior, mood, and self-image
  • Dependent personality disorder, in which these adults rely excessively on others for financial support, advice or to make decisions for them
  • Social phobia, in which the individual experiences overwhelming anxiety and self-consciousness in common social situations

Many APD symptoms are commonly shared among these other conditions, particularly in the case of generalized social phobia. Because of this, the disorders can be easily confused. It may take some time for a mental health professional to make a clear diagnosis and choose the appropriate treatments.

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