‘My anxiety feels unmanageable.’ I feel my entire body get tight. I get incredibly tense, from my legs to my head.’: Autism mom explains anxiety during COVID-19, ‘Lack of control can feel paralyzing’

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“I read something today while scrolling social media that mocked those having anxiety about COVID-19, saying they were giving weight to something weightless.

It stuck with me in a way where I just can’t let it go. I know I normally discuss our journey with autism here, but I would find it hard-pressed to find a parent of autism who doesn’t deal with some kind of anxiety. I thought it might be time to own this one.

I’ve dealt with anxiety for what feels like my entire life. It’s appeared in all different shapes and sizes, and I’m not really sure how best to describe it, so bear with me as I try.

What is anxiety?

It’s a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

What does it feel like?

For me, I feel my entire body get tight. I get incredibly tense, from my legs to my arms and chest, and can even feel it in my head. Because my chest tightens, it can be hard to breathe and as my forehead feels the stress, it can easily cause a headache and be hard to think straight.

What causes it?

For me, the common causes of my anxiety lie in when I feel out of control, as if I’m being or could be judged, and when I’m letting someone down, in some way, or worst — myself. When it happens, I find myself to become truly dramatic, where the situation feels like the end of the world, despite being a very practical and realistic person.

How do I act during it?

I get defensive about anything and everything. I immediately feel like everything is my fault and there is no way I can be enough. I get irrationally upset or unreasonably sad. I turn into someone who is unrecognizable to the people who know me, as I’m simply the worst version of myself. And then, when it passes, I’m back to normal. What’s hard is, in the moment, it’s like I can’t manage it because it completely takes over me. Afterward, I sit in the reality and shame of it, knowing it’s not a place I want to live in.

How do I manage it?

I’ve learned both healthy and unhealthy ways to manage and cope with my anxiety. Some of the unhealthy ways tend to represent numbing of sorts. When I was younger, I’d go out and drink or party with friends, occasionally smoke cigarettes. Lately, since I grew up, got married, and had babies, half a glass of wine can make me pass out before 8 p.m. so now I eat my feelings. I’m a sucker for all things cake-like, but particularly whoopie-pies and those darn frozen Nutella sandwiches. (Not healthy and not helping the constant fear I’ll be judged for the mom bod I try to hide in compression yoga pants, but I’m just trying to get by here, y’all.)

Healthier alternatives that work for me? Six months ago, when I felt like my anxiety was at its peak, I searched for a local therapist — who I love — and have been seeing her regularly ever since because it’s giving me the tools I need to deal with, deter, and diminish the anxiety. When I was younger, right out of college, I realized how much running truly helped my anxiety. Pumping those natural endorphins through my body let me run out the stress. These days, I can’t even find time to do a 30-minute work-out. But the days I can do it, I notice a sincere difference in how I feel.

Because I can’t always find time to work out right now the way I’d like and a personal goal this year was to find both physical and mental wellness, I started seeing an amazing therapist 6 months ago and it’s really helping me. If you can’t find time to get out of the house, particularly during social distancing, many therapists are participating in tele-visits where you can connect either by virtual video experience or even over the phone. I cannot recommend this enough.

The Weight of Anxiety

The weight of my anxiety comes from feeling the responsibility to take care of a messy playroom, laundry that’s exploded over my bedroom, or a refrigerator of food laughing at me because it knows the twins won’t eat anything in it. The heaviness of it lives in late nights working on operation management for my wife’s company, after long days of childcare and working full time at my other job, aware I could be getting up just hours after finally going to bed with a twin who can’t sleep when all I want to do is rest. The weight becomes unbearable when Luca has an aggressive episode because he still doesn’t have the words to communicate what’s wrong, hurting his siblings or us until he gets his point across because it leaves me worrying about the day he is bigger than us. If we can’t get him the tools he needs to deal with his feelings, I’m not sure we’ll know how to manage it. My anxiety particularly feels unmanageable during this uncertain time for our country when all leadership can ask is for our understanding and patience as they navigate the pandemic with uncertainty.

The current state of what’s happening in today’s world is not weightless, especially for those who suffer from anxiety as I do. Although anxiety is invisible in nature, the weight of it shows on those who don’t wear it well. You can see it in the slump of their shoulders, the pause in their pace, the worry in their forehead wrinkles, or the grip in the way they hold their hands in place. The behavioral baseline of those running from or fully confronting anxiety can be different, but one thing is commonly found despite the stage of understanding, awareness, and acceptance someone is in with it: lack of control of the unknown can feel paralyzing.

My plan over the next few days, weeks, and months if needed, is to establish a routine for our family that allows us to operate in an expected manner I can control. This doesn’t mean things won’t go awry — they do on an hourly basis in life, let alone when you are on a journey with autism. My hope is when they do decide to derail to the unplanned, that I can take each situation as it comes, and hope to put the caveat of ‘unprecedented times’ where we are just ‘trying to survive’ until we return to the recognizable every day and find moments in that understanding to breath through whatever’s happening.

Because I know what anxiety feels like in my body, I can recognize it when it’s happening and work to stop it before the weight of it becomes too much to bear. What does yours feel like? What does the weight of your anxiety feel like? Maybe the more we share, the less those who haven’t met anxiety or someone working through it, will stop assuming we’re worrying for no reason.

Ways You Can Support Someone with Anxiety

Typically spending time together is a really awesome way to help someone in need of a break but with social distancing, that’s not quite as easy. Here are some ideas that could still help:

Dance It Out (Virtually): Find your friend’s jam, Facetime, and dance it out. Like I said, moving your body naturally produces endorphins and there’s science behind how this can help battle anxiety. If dancing isn’t your flavor (come on, Grey’s Anatomy fans!) maybe yoga or meditation together could work for you.

Check-in: Text, email, call, Facetime, etc. Anything to let someone know they aren’t alone can help while social distancing.

LISTEN: When you check-in, or if that person reaches out, the most important aspect is to listen. They aren’t asking you to fix it, but just to sit with them in it until they can breathe again.

Provide Laughter: Send a funny GIF, tell a silly knock-knock joke, share the thing that happened that day that is so ridiculous you couldn’t have written it for a comedy script. Laughter helps you to breathe. Put your funny pants on and make some magic happen.

If you are like me and feeling even the slightest bit anxious, remember this: we can’t control what we can’t control… but we can control what we can. Focus on the can. Find wins and reassurance in the everyday moments that you made possible to keep you grounded. And breathe. It’s so important to breathe. I’ll be right here breathing with you. We can do this because this too shall pass.”

Courtesy Christina Young

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Christina Young. You can follow their journey on Instagram and their website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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