Anxiety: How to be an ally for the Neurodivergent folks in your life

Anxiety written on a piece of clipped out newspaper.May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it’s time to talk about one of the most prevalent mental health concerns: anxiety. It affects millions of people worldwide, and for those of us with neurodivergence (ND), it can be a pernicious gremlin that just won’t quit.
 
Anxiety is that ever-present feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something, and for ND folks, it can be even harder to manage. Our unique way of processing information and navigating the world puts us at a higher risk of feeling anxious.
 
Conditions like bipolar, depression, trauma, autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and others all contribute to feelings of anxiety and stress. And, unfortunately, many of us learn how to mask/hide our anxiety when around others – ignoring our own needs to avoid standing out or causing a problem for those around us.
 
The way anxiety is experienced by neurodivergent individuals can differ significantly from the way the average person experiences it.
 
  • A person with autism may have difficulty naming their emotion, which can lead to an overwhelming feeling of anxiety that they are unable to verbalize.
  • Someone with dyslexia may experience anxiety related to reading and writing, which are essential skills for school and work.
  • And during manic or hypomanic episodes, folks with bipolar may experience racing thoughts, impulsivity, and increased energy, leading to feelings of agitation, restlessness, and even panic.
 
It’s essential to understand that anxiety can show up in different ways for each person, and the best way to support someone living with anxiety depends on their unique needs and circumstances. But, generally speaking, there are some tips that can be helpful:
 
1. Listen without judgment: When someone is feeling anxious, it’s essential to listen to them without judgment or trying to solve their problems. Simply being present and offering support can make a big difference. This alone can transform all your relationships. It’s often when others feel most seen by you.
 
2. Validate their feelings: Let the person know that their feelings are valid and understandable and that you are there to support them. Acknowledge the personal experience they’re having – not the one you think they “should” be having. This can help them feel heard and understood.
 
3. Create a safe environment: For ND folks, creating a safe and predictable environment can help reduce anxiety. Even more valuable is a safe and consistent person. This may involve creating a consistent routine, reducing sensory input or regular check-ins to see how the person is doing.
 
4. Provide accommodations: Accommodations such as time (we love Brunch and Lupper when going to restaurants. They’re much quieter then), a space to take breaks, or embracing text-messaging when anxiety makes it difficult to find the words.
 
5. Encourage self-care: “Self-care first” is a value I champion with my clients. Full batteries are what allow us to show up as our best selves – when our needs are met, we execute more consistently and effectively. In short, we can make things happen and show the world what we’ve got.
 
Once we establish a self-care plan that keeps us as resourceful and resilient as possible, we can engage in activities such as exercise, meditation, or spending time in nature, which can be great for reducing anxiety.
 
Anxiety is a common challenge for us ND folks. Understanding how we experience anxiety and providing support in a way that meets our unique needs can be game-changing in helping us meet our needs for human connection, inclusion, and especially self-care.
 
By creating a safe and supportive environment, being a safe and supportive person, offering accommodations and self-care opportunities, we can help those living with neurodivergence manage their anxiety and thrive. Let’s work together to create a more understanding and inclusive world for all ND individuals.
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