This week’s photos are from a wander in a Welsh forest.
How to tell the difference between anxiety and fear
Ok let’s get this out the way at the start. I have no idea how to tell the difference between anxiety and fear. Sorry. I have been wondering if there is a difference. How can you tell? How do you know whether the anxiety you are feeling is the type you overcome to grow as a person or the type that is desperately trying to save you from getting killed? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because of wild swimming. There’s a level of anxiety I feel when I go for a dip but I overcome it and feel great. It doesn’t really get easier though. It’s sort of become accepted rather than resolved. Would I wade into stormy seas armed with the knowledge that the tide will bring me back to shore and that it’s technically safe? (is it? 🤔) I think that is when fear would over power me.
I tested this recently. Completely by accident. My wife suggested a trip to a waterfall with a friend. We could have a little dip there. So off we went.
The woodland was very quiet. I wanted to walk to the waterfall in my punk skirt but I’m very nervous about anyone seeing me in a skirt so I decided to play it safe and wear shorts. As we walked I felt sad because there really wasn’t anyone here. I could have happily worn the skirt. It would have been my first time out in public in it. I could have had 10 wonderful minutes of outdoor punk skirt action and confidence boosting. By the time I started to feel annoyed with myself we reached the waterfall and found a family playing in the river. Maybe it was best I wasn’t in a skirt. Who knows?
While I was trying not to be too depressed about the skirt my wife and friend were getting ready to go into the water. They both got in, I took a photo and they got out. The water was fine to dip and there wasn’t really the space to swim. A refreshing dip before continuing our walk. Once they were out it was my go. The space felt intimidating. Trees blocked the sky so it was a little dark. There was a sort of rim to the pool area by the waterfall so you could walk up to the pool and then set off for a little float. If you wanted to you could happily stand on the rim, crouch down and enjoy the water without getting close to the waterfall. Turns out that is all I could do.
Upon approaching the waterfall I felt dread more than anxiety. The water was cold but I was used to that feeling. I know that while my body would be saying “Yikes!” I would acclimatise. The closer I got to the waterfall the more panicked I felt. The pool was dark. I had no idea how deep. The waterfall, while not big, was loud enough that I couldn’t hear my wife talking to me. It was miles away from the calm river I recently swam in on a beautiful sunny day with a big wide open blue sky above me. It almost felt like I was psychologically drowning. Every time I tried to set off from the rim I panicked and turned back.
I, unfortunately, started comparing myself to my wife. “Why was I so different? Why can’t I get closer? They did? What’s wrong with me?” Classic anxiety thoughts. I fought it by reminding myself that I’m not them. There’s a multitude of differences between us. The main one being that I’m autistic. It is entirely possible that the fear I was having was not everyday “Oh that’s scary” but instead was sensory overload. The loud sound of the water. The darkness. Maybe it wasn’t average anxiety at all? Maybe just autistic sensory overload like last year at the shops? I guess the closet thing I can relate to is the sound of a hand dryer in a bathroom. I’m not great with loud noises.
As I was admitting defeat and getting out I knew what would happen next. We would walk back to the car and my mind would slowly sink into depression. “I failed. The others were amazing but I failed because I’m a failure who fails.” I knew that was waiting for me. I could not accept that future so I got naked. 😳
I waited until the family had left of course and not to embarrass my friend I only took my swimming shorts off while in the water. It wasn’t like I got out, ripped my trunks off in one manly manner and punched my way back into the tiny pool of water like the bear wrestling man of beer and bacon that I am. I patiently waited in cold water that I was totally fine chilling out in and then slipped them off. Once I had done this I felt free. I mean I was free in er… some ways. Mentally I felt like I had taken the anxiety and fear off my soul and placed it on a rock while I enjoyed having a skinny dip.
Getting out was fun and for a few seconds there was a naked non-binary human standing in a forest. An empowered unafraid naked non-binary human. That was unexpected. I felt far more afraid of the waterfall than I did about being naked in a forest. While I couldn’t do one thing I could do another. I faced a different fear that for some absurd reason wasn’t as scary and I came away feeling empowered. Yay me. But getting naked in a forest? Maybe in an attempt to reduce my social anxiety I overshot a little?
Empowered rather than depressed I dried off and put my skirt on. If I can skinny dip I can walk around a quiet forest in a skirt right? Right! So I did. For over an hour. A few people saw me and I kept on going. No-one said anything. It was amazing. I felt like me.
Fear, anxiety and autistic overload are incredibly hard things to understand. Am I facing something I will overcome and be empowered by or am I facing something I can’t overcome because its actually sensory based or am I facing something that will properly kill me and I should be listening to my senses? It feels like that only way to know for sure is to test the water. So to speak. The problem is that if its autistic overload it can lead to shutdown. I cease to function. No ability to speak or process information.
It’s hard to listen to your mind when all it’s saying is “AHHHHHHH!” Good ahh? Bad ahh? It takes time. I feel like I’m starting to understand a little.
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- Anxiety – a guide for autistic adults
- Sensory Overload Caused by Anxiety, ADHD and Bipolar Disorder | The Mighty
- Making Sense of Sensory Overload in Autism and ADHD | Psychology Today
- Autism and sensory overload – Rosie Weldon
- Sensory reactivity and anxiety – Autism | Autistica | Autistica
- Sensory differences – a guide for all audiences
- Latest coronavirus advice from the National Autistic Society (UK)