One of the obstacles that many people with Dyspraxia have to overcome is that of anxiety, and something that many of us will experience at some point in our lives. Many people with Dyspraxia are prone to anxiety, depression, stress or low self esteem due to the multiple difficulties they experience. Just like Dyspraxia, anxiety takes on many forms and affects people in different ways. When you are Dyspraxic there is so much more to think about and consider, and this directly relates to how we feel and respond to our anxiety. It could be sensory overload, spatial awareness, judging distances or travelling to new places, that cause us to worry. I’ve read many times on social media, people asking for advice about how to deal with their anxiety or simply sharing experiences that have made them anxious. This got me thinking, and I decided to talk about the journey I have been on with understanding my own anxiety in this next blog.
Anxiety is far more than just simply worrying, we all have worries in our life from time to time but its when these worries dominate our thoughts and emotions, that they turn into anxiety. I know that I’ve always been an anxious and self concious person, dwelling on the little things and over thinking every single comment people would make about me. Eventually these worries started to make me physically ill, my panic attacks were at first misdiagnosed as migraines which didn’t help. I spent about four years of my teenage life unable to go to the local shopping centre without having an anxiety attack, I developed sensory processing issues due to the crowds, the heat and noise. This would result in me feeling incredibly ill and needing to escape as quickly as possible. I was also terrified of speaking on the phone, the prospect of my seventeen year old self needing to make a phone call always resulted in tears. I didn’t like speaking to people I didn’t know but speaking to people I did know also really scared me. At the time I didn’t understand what was going on and why I was so scared of a simple necessity that we all do everyday. Even today I feel this temporary bout of anxiety every time I pick up the phone, but it is now under control so that it doesn’t prevent me from doing so. I spent my teenage years going back and forwards to the doctors, until finally the possibility of an anxiety disorder was mentioned when I was nineteen. They were still toying with the idea of migraines, but eventually anxiety seemed more plausible. By this time I already had three labels (or four if you count the childhood epilepsy that was never really understood) so the idea of being given another label became overwhelming. Although like all the previous labels in my life, at least it explained why I do and feel certain things, and that I’m not really weird- there was a reason for my extreme panic in situations out of my control.
As I started university I began to control my symptoms, I found a way not to cry every time I had to use a phone and a way to cope in lectures full of hundreds of people. I found that I could blend into the crowd in big lecture theatres but I dreaded the thought of seminars. I studied History and Politics, so we were expected to be quite vocal and used to debating. I was always the quiet one, hoping that the lecturer wasn’t going to look at me. I was terrified of getting things wrong and looking ‘stupid.’ There were some people on my course who thought they knew it all and I was very intimidated by this.
I attempted to mask my anxiety symptoms by really pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I began to work for the university as a student representative, this involved attending many University events and dealing with the public, I also worked for the Aim Higher scheme that involved going into secondary schools to talk to young people about University life. This all terrified me but was also very structured so I was able to cope with it. I also maintained contact with all the friends I made through the Folkworks Summer school and tried to visit them as often as I could. I very rarely socialised with people on my course, I found freshers week very traumatic and I think this influenced how I would spend my next three years. I focussed on volunteering rather than socialising with my peers, eventually going on to win the Student Union volunteering award in my final year.
In my second year of University I decided to go on an educational visit that the politics department were organising to Brussels and Paris. The plan was to visit the European Parliament in Brussels and different sights of interest in Paris. I was excited for the opportunities this trip would give me, I didn’t really have opportunities to get to know people on my course and I had hoped that it would help me to overcome some of my anxiety. I wanted to fulfil my young adulthood rather than living in fear and worry- after all I had worked incredibly hard to get to university, I wanted to make the most of it.
On the coach towards Paris, our lecturer mentioned ‘Black Thursday’ and that we were essentially going into a riot the next day. He told us that millions of French people would be taking to the streets in protest and many trade unions had called on this national day of strike action. He also mentioned, that we as politics students would be experiencing it. I sat there and didn’t know what to think, I imagined French riot police and lots of angry French people, with us stuck in the middle of it. After he made the announcement on the coach, my lecturer came to talk to me, although instead of reassurance he told me that I wouldn’t be able to cope, that there would be tear gas and general commotion. He also suggested getting the Eurostar home. Not the best thing for someone with Dyspraxia to hear, who gets anxious by crowds, new places and unexpected events- all of which would be present in a riot or indeed my second option of traveling from a country I had never been to before on my own to another busy city of London, an equally daunting prospect. As you can imagine this terrified me, I was in another country with no real relief from my symtoms of fear and panic. It didn’t help that the people around me showed little understanding or empathy. I spent most of my first night having emotional breakdowns as my mind did overtime thinking about the next day and every possible outcome or catastrophe- you rarely think logically when you are anxious.
The next day we left our hotel and were gradually heading closer and closer towards the centre of the riot. We passed the police in full riot gear and as we entered the riot there were people chanting in a language I didn’t understand, noises from fire crackers that were being thrown in the crowd and people pushing past you. The sensory overload was overwhelming but I knew that I couldn’t breakdown into a panic attack in the middle of a riot. I tried to stay calm and thought about getting out and feeling safe again. I stayed close to the other students in my group and made sure I remembered to breathe. As we finally made our retreat from the riot I felt an instant burst of anxiety that had been building up inside me and suddenly felt very ill and overwhelmed. However I got through it, and despite this experience being one of the most terrifying situations ever, I learned so much about myself and my capabilities. I also learned how much lack of understanding there is in the world of the difficulties situations such as being in the middle of a riot can cause for individuals with Dyspraxia and other specific learning difficulties. I realised that as a society we still have a long way to go.
After University I didn’t want to give in to the anxiety, so I decided to go to India to volunteer for three months- not the most usual of plans for someone who is terrified of new places, new people and going out of her comfort zone. I wouldn’t change that plan for the world. It is almost five years since I left for India, I remember the fear, the uncertainty, the risks. In an experience like this you can either sink or swim- I definitely swam. On the plane and for the first few days in India I was so upset, I wanted to go home and I was really scared. I sat in our Hindi lessons with feelings of disassociation- I was there but I wasn’t connected to the world around me, I don’t think I took in much of the Hindi we were trying to learn those days. I was full of worry- worries that I didn’t understand but was actually due to my social anxiety and sensory difficulties. In India I grew as a person, I learnt that it’s possible to be happy with very little and the sheer joy the simplicity of our desert environment provided. I will always remember the smiles of the children we taught, the bustling market, the helpful tuc tuc drivers, the generosity of the shop owners and local people and feeling so welcome and valued in an environment so far removed and alien from our own. This is how young people and adults with Dyspraxia should feel within society, the world is far from the one we have in our heads or being Dyspraxic friendly, how we think isn’t always in correlation with the ‘norm’- we should be made to feel included and accepted, just as the other volunteers and I were taken in and given opportunities to grow in the remote Jaisalmer desert. I fell in love with the country, its people and it’s atmosphere, I learnt to deal with my anxiety in ways that I didn’t think was ever possible.
Recently I have been accessing professional support to understand my anxiety further and to develop strategies to deal with it. I have now discovered that I also have a social anxiety disorder (or social phobia.) At first this baffled me because around my closest friends I have always been very calm and relaxed, although as the sessions progressed I understood how I am actually really scared of people. It definitely explained a lot of my recent and past behaviours. Social anxiety is far more than being shy and nervous. I have always lacked confidence but this is so much more. Social Anxiety is about constant uncontrollable feelings of nervousness, avoiding parties or social gatherings and becoming extremely overwhelmed when out in crowded places. This is far removed than my original diagnosis of migraines, it affects how you live and can determine your way of life. However I am not going to let it control or define me.
I have always been shy and quiet in social situations, often taking on a listening role because I simply do not know what to say. I have also used more avoidance techniques so that I don’t have to feel uncomfortable and out of my depth, this includes employing ‘safety behaviours’ from staying in and cancelling social plans altogether (so I definitely do not get anxious) to excessive planning to account for every eventuality- and everything in between. I tend to ruminate over past social events, worrying about how I might have come across. This hypersensitivity to criticism, insecurity about relationships with others and fear of rejection, can lead to intense feelings of isolation and loneliness. I think of my social anxiety as another part of my Dyspraxia, it’s another layer of who I am and how I think differently, I am unable to leave the house without a bottle of water and obsessive checking to make sure that I have everything I need, but this is a routine that has been part of my daily life for years. My anxiety is directly related to things that at times Dyspraxics can find challenging- travelling to new places, getting lost, social situations and physical activity- I think I am more scared of a treadmill than the stray cows in India- and that’s saying something!
Over the years I have considered how I can support myself better and how others can assist me in getting to where I want to be. I have read countless books about anxiety and how people have overcome these feelings. As nice as it would be to say that I have overcome my social phobia, I don’t think I ever will because for me anxiety is part of my make up, my personality and so deep rooted in who I am. However there is definitely ways to compensate for the feelings caused by anxiety, so that it doesn’t prevent you from doing things. The most important thing you can do for someone going through the challenges of an anxiety disorder, is to be there, understand their panic attacks and allow them the space and time to explain how they feel. Understanding that sometimes they might need time to escape and be alone in social situations is invaluable, and can often mean the difference between feeling included and part of social gatherings to avoiding situations altogether. Personally I don’t do spontaneity very well, so people understanding that I might need more instructions and clear plans than other people, and more time to process these plans, makes me feel calmer and relaxed, also meaning that I am more likely to get there. Anxiety can be difficult to understand and accept at times, but there are ways to make dealing with our fears and worries better for you and everyone around you. Just as India taught me to appreciate the small things in life, my social anxiety has taught me the true value of friends.