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Comorbid Anxiety

by Sally Willbanks
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Comorbid Anxiety

It is estimated that approximately 40% of the autistic population suffers anxiety (although some studies say the true number is up to 84%).  Approximately 50% of people with ADHD also have comorbid anxiety.  These are such devastating statistics, because anxiety can be debilitating, and is one of the leading causes of suicide among autistic people.

Here are some of the symptoms of anxiety:

  • Disproportional stress
  • Racing thoughts
  • Unwanted thoughts
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Even greater insistence on routines
  • More meltdowns
  • The need for more stimming
  • Self-harm
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depression
  • Loose bowel movements
  • Headaches
  • Intensely pounding heart
  • Muscle tension
  • Perfectionism

Children with autism may show anxiety by acts of aggression, lashing out, avoiding new tasks, self-injury and a strong insistence on routine and control.  Anxiety can be paralyzing and can make the world an even scarier and more challenging place for autisics.  For people with ADHD, anxiety can make the typical ADHD symptoms, such as restlessness and having trouble concentrating, worse.  Anxiety can be a common side effect of stimulants, so if that is the case, an ADHDer can try other non-stimulant drugs like Strattera.  One symptom of ADHD is a struggle with emotional regulation, and if an ADHDer is overwhelmed with anxiety, it can be hard for them to break the cycle of anxious thinking.  ADHDers also struggle with oppositional defiance disorder, and many practitioners believe this is a symptom of chronic anxiety.

Comorbid anxiety can be crippling.  Here are a few strategies to cope with anxiety: 

  • Mindfulness
  • Yoga
  • Frequent exercise
  • Getting out into a natural environment
  • Deep breathing
  • Thought stopping
  • Count to 10
  • Jump on the trampoline
  • Bounce on an exercise ball
  • Look at and organize a favorite collection
  • Create a quiet zone and go there when anxious
  • Finding triggers and developing strategies for those particular triggers (such as take a squeezy ball to an event that causes stress)
  • Research any new activity or environment and prep the autistic person with photographs and information
  • Recognize anxious feelings and realize that the actual feeling of an emotion can pass within 90 seconds if you don’t feed your negative thoughts into the emotion
  • Use social stories for children
  • Rehearse stressful situations
  • Keep a diary
  • Use an app such as Rootd, Stop Panic & Anxiety Self Help, Dare, and Stop, Breathe and Think
  • Lastly, there are medications for treating anxiety, such as Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac and Luvox.

It can be difficult enough for neurodivergent people to navigate a world that is not attuned and accommodating to their needs.  When neurodivergent people also suffer anxiety, their standard of living is even more severely affected.  We need to advocate for neurodivergent people, and be understanding to their needs, particularly when they have comorbid anxiety.


by Sally Willbanks


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