A blog advocating autism through my own personal experiences and insights.

Posts tagged ‘Anxiety’

My Elora Quarry Social Experiment

In my last post, I talked about how being in a social anxiety therapy group helped combat social anxiety, especially through in-group behavioural experiments that really motivated me to continue doing behavioural experiments on my own. Last week, however, it really motivated me to do something that I never considered before.

A little over 30 km to the north-east of Kitchener-Waterloo, there is this beautiful town called Elora. A few years ago, a friend had informed me about it along with its beautiful gorge The Elora Gorge. The gorge runs up to the town with gorgeous cliff walls with the Grand River flowing through it. There are also a few hiking trails along the gorge, as well as tubing. I’ve never done the tubing, but I’ve walked along the trails several times. Besides the gorge, however, the town is also home to the Elora Quarry, which is a beautiful quarry with limestone cliff walls with a lake inside it. Next to the lake is a small sandy beach and, like the Elora Gorge, the Elora Quarry is a very popular location. Like the gorge, I’ve also been to the quarry a few times before and I’m always happy to spend a bit of time there with friends.

Before last week, I hadn’t been to the Elora Quarry yet this summer. It seemed everyone was always too busy to go, which is understandable, life does get overly busy sometimes, otherwise I would’ve made my last post a lot sooner. As well, not being able to drive always presented a bit of an obstacle in getting to Elora; it was always just a little out of reach by bicycle. One solution I did find to the distance obstacle, however, was by taking GRT (Grand River Transit) buses to a small town called Elmira, which is a little north of Waterloo and from there it would be a 20 km bicycle ride to Elora. The GRT bus service is fortunately free for Waterloo and Laurier students (or at least the bus pass is automatically included in our university fees).

While I have used such a method to visit to the Elora Gorge alone before, I never visited the Elora Quarry alone before last week. But summertime was running out, and I really wanted to go. Well, how about if I go there alone by bussing to Elmira, then bicycling to Elora and once there just locking my bicycle to a sturdy-enough tree? And once I was at the beach I would just try to socialise with strangers and go swimming with them? I have to say I’ve never really considered this solution before mainly because it totally overwhelmed me with anxiety. It seemed like such a high price to pay, spending two and a half hours journeying to the quarry with no guarantee that I would find people to be with there. But that’s exactly what I did last week.

I prepared to go early in the morning. I saw an article that the Elora Quarry was such an incredibly popular place that there had been a cap put in place of 1300 people and that no one would gain entry after this cap was reached! (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/kitchener-waterloo/elora-quarry-number-of-visitors-limit-grand-river-conservation-authority-1.4231946) I have to admit I wasn’t overly surprised to read this news. Like I said the quarry is very scenic, and the times that I visited there before it took us several minutes (maybe even half an hour) to gain entry and the beach was always crowded. Because of this news, I decided I would go during a weekday when hopefully this would be less of a problem. Not only that, but I would arrange to get there at the start of the day. I didn’t want to venture out all that way only to have to turn around again because the cap of 1300 people had been reached.

So I got up early Monday morning. I put on my bathing suit at my apartment and wore shorts over it. I packed a towel, sunscreen, and lunch into my bag and left at 8 o’clock. I reached the quarry at about 10:30, even though the quarry didn’t open until 11 on weekdays. I was actually the first one at the gate, but soon after that cars began parading behind me on the shoulder of the road and at 11 we were all let in. There was a strong fence running around the quarry, which I locked my bicycle to and then I walked down to the beach.

At first I lay on my towel for a bit enjoying the feel of the sand and sun. As more people flooded onto the beach, there were quite a few young people around, but my anxiety always seemed to overwhelm me about approaching them. Then I started casually strolling around the beach and saw three guys tossing a volleyball around. I thought introducing myself into an activity would be less scary than simply walking over to other people were just socialising because we had an activity to occupy ourselves with. So I asked if I could join in and they consented and we spent a bit of time tossing the volleyball amongst each other. Afterwards, they went back to their beach towels, and I thought it would be a good time to ask if I could join them on the beach. I introduced myself and asked if I could join them, and one of them replied, “You might as well.” We even went into the lake together after that and swam around for a bit. I couldn’t believe it. Not only had I gotten to the Elora Quarry, but I was now having fun playing volleyball, lying around, and swimming with a group of great guys.

In the middle of the afternoon, however, they announced that they were leaving so we said our goodbyes and they left. I could’ve left then too, but I decided to stay a little longer. That was one advantage of going alone to the quarry. I could stay for as long as I wanted, as I wasn’t depending on anyone to drive me back. I could easily get back to Kitchener by bicycle and bus.

Anyway, after they left I began searching for another group of people to talk to. This was when unfortunately I encountered a couple of minor fails. For example, I saw a group of guys playing with some kind of ball and a net. Again I asked to join, but they announced you needed an even number of people to play because they had divided up into teams. After such failed attempts, however, I did manage to find a group of people kicking a soccer ball around. Again I asked if I could join in and this time I got a positive response. I joined them afterwards sitting on the beach after introducing myself to them.

After this second group announced they were leaving, it was getting to be pretty late in the day. It was coming up to 5 o’clock so I had spent almost six hours at the quarry! It was a long trip home. So I packed up and rode my bicycle to St. Jacob’s, which a little town between Waterloo and Elmira where I ate out to reward myself for what I had just accomplished. I then continued to ride my bicycle to Waterloo, but by then I was pretty tired and at which point I took the bus back to Kitchener.

I was pretty pleased with how the day had gone. I will admit there were a few things that I thought could have gone better, for example, not hesitating so much in talking to people, but given that this is the first I’ve done a trip like this, I suspect this hesitation will decrease the more I do it. Not only did I get to visit the quarry after all this summer, but I managed to do it in a way that provided very good therapy for my social anxiety. And it gives me hope of what I can continue to accomplish into the future.

 

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The Benefits of a Social Anxiety Support Group

It’s been a while since the last time I wrote. Lots has happened. I have written before how I was seeing a therapist for social anxiety in the Centre for Mental Health Research at the University of Waterloo. This spring and summer, she provided me with the opportunity to be part of a social anxiety therapy group that the Centre had put on. I have since completed this group and it has certainly helped me shed another layer of my social anxiety off.

The group consisted of weekly sessions held for a couple of hours each over a period of about two and a half months. Each session was dedicated to learning a certain technique to reducing social anxiety through discussion and exercises. For example, at one session, each of us had to improvise on a topic of our choice in front of the rest of the group, while being recorded. At the end, we watched each of the recordings and talked about them. The idea here was to see how other people viewed us when we talked to see if we would be as negatively perceived as our anxiety was telling us. While I did find this exercise helpful, a few other sessions do stick out in my mind as being the most beneficial to me.

These couple of sessions involved us doing behavioural experiments as a group. I’ve already talked about on my blog how my therapist gave the suggestion of doing behavioural experiments and how I had been practising them to reduce anxiety. Now, however, we were going to be doing them as a group. In one of the sessions, we would be going outside and walking through campus. Only we wouldn’t just be casually walking, we would be walking in single file. We would observe how the people we encountered would react to this behaviour. Would they stop in their tracks and stare at us? Would vehicles slow down? Would people make fun of us? We jotted down such possible outcomes before we did the experiment. One important point about the experiment was that whatever we reported on when we returned had to be evidence that would stand up in court. It wouldn’t be enough to say something like “People didn’t like what we did”, but we had to report on the actions of other people, such as consistent staring for several seconds.

We did the experiment and, overall, it went all right. Most people that I saw never really looked at us. Only a handful looked at us and few of them actually stared. Vehicles that passed us didn’t slow down. I thought it went better than I initially thought it would. I was anxious throughout it all, but it did help that I was with others so that if I did appear foolish or whatever to others, at least I wouldn’t be alone.

At another session we did another behavioural experiment while walking through campus. Instead of walking in single file, however, this time we would be waving and saying “Hey!” or “Hi!” enthusiastically to strangers that we saw. Again, there were few negative responses, and a lot of people we encountered actually said “Hi” back. During this same walk, we also stood around in a circle and sang Happy Birthday to three people in the circle, even though it was no one’s birthday. My anxiety spiked during this activity, and there was no way that I would’ve done this on my own. But I had to go along with the group. I prepared myself for bizarre looks, people laughing, etc. Yet no one did. A few people looked and smiled, but that was all that happened.

Doing such behavioural experiments in a group really encouraged me to try more behavioural experiments on my own. I felt the group helped normalize such behaviour and made me feel less weird and less scared to do more on my own. I carried out more conversations with others and introduced myself to more new people.

Yet at another session, we continued carried out behavioural experiments while walking around campus. This time, however, we would not be doing them in sync. Rather, we would be separating with each of us doing a couple of experiments and then gathering together again after twenty or so minutes. Before we ventured out, we were given a list of possible things to try. Some of them were tying a string around a piece of fruit and walking it, skipping around, and asking to go to the front of a lineup. I decided on the activities that were to stand around and point up at the sky for five minutes and to complement a stranger. I managed to accomplish the first without any major problem. People passed me, some looked at me, but not in a funny way, and no one said anything or laughed as I held my arm up in the air pointing at the sky with my index finger. Complementing a stranger, however, took greater guts. This was mostly because it was something that had to involve another person and since people weren’t exactly standing still, no opportunity allowed for much hesitation. I finally did manage to do it. I said to a passing girl, “You have beautiful hair”, to which she replied, “Thank you”. I was the last one back to join the group, but I was glad to have accomplished both experiments successfully.

I even did a couple of these activities outside of the therapy sessions. Right before the next session, I decided to try skipping around and then complementing more girls I didn’t know. I first attempted skipping where there weren’t a lot of people around as a kind of warm up and then I did it in the middle of campus where there were a lot more students walking by. No one reacted at all to my skipping; it was like I didn’t exist. As for complementing more girls, again I found myself hesitating a lot, but at the end I managed to complement three girls in a row on their hair and clothes. Each time I received a smile or a thank you.

The therapy group session has definitely challenged me in surprising ways, and I look forward to using the new techniques to combat anxiety I learned there. Indeed, it inspired me to do something I’ve never done before this past week, which I’ll tell about in my next post.

 

New Therapy for Social Anxiety

Well over a year ago, I had unfortunately slipped into one of my loneliness phases. I was rather dissatisfied with my social life at the time and sought out further help in this aspect of my life. I heard that the Centre of Mental Health Research at the University of Waterloo was putting on a program for people dealing with social anxiety. Knowing that this applied to me, I was instantly curious and contacted them. Their program was being primarily run by PhD students in psychology under the supervision of faculty members who were professional psychologists. These students would run therapy sessions in both group and individual settings, depending on the needs of the clients.

After contacting them, they gave me a couple of phone interviews with me, wanting to know my background and what specifically my needs were. I told them everything, such as being diagnosed with high-functioning autism and my social difficulties, pretty much all of which I have written about in this blog. They said they would get back to me soon to let me know if I was suitable for the program. A week or two later, they did come back and decided to take me on. They said I would benefit most from individual therapy sessions, instead of a group setting, which was completely fine with me. It would be good to have their undivided attention. Unfortunately, however, they also said they had no time for me at that moment, but that they could put me on a waiting list where they would get back in about a year. That was just fine by me. I would still be here at Waterloo and understood the high demand for their services.

Back in September of this year, they did indeed contact me again to let me know that a spot had opened up for me if I still desired to be part of their program. I was pleased they had gotten back to me and of course I said yes. I would meet with someone once a week. I certainly appreciated this frequency, especially since in my past meetings with psychologists and counsellors at Waterloo, I would be lucky to meet with someone every other week, given the size of the university.

I was paired up with a PhD student in psychologist who would be my therapist. Our first few sessions were spent on her to getting to know me and my areas of concern through interviews and filling out questionnaires. Once that was over with, we started on the social anxiety therapy itself.

I have gotten help for anxiety before when I went over to the Students Success office at Waterloo in preparing for my PhD comprehensive exams in How Anxiety Works For Me. There are similar techniques in overcoming anxiety in social situations. For example, you can run a social experiment where you plan to put yourself in a social situation that is a little out of your comfort zone. You first write down how you feel and what you expect to happen and give a percentage on the chances of a certain outcome happening. Then you list your safety behaviours that you must abandon in the experiment, which are detrimental behaviours that one uses in coping in anxious situations without avoiding the specific situations altogether. For example, one of my safety behaviours is thinking a lot before replying in a conversation. By doing so, I am not avoiding the situation that is causing me anxiety entirely, i.e. having a conversation, but I am still using a behaviour that hinders my enjoyment out of having the conversation. Then you go and do the social experiment and come back and jot down what you learned in challenging your anxious thinking, to what extent the initial prediction was true, and put down a new percentage of the chances of the initial prediction happening in further situations.

It is strategies like these that are helping and will hopefully continue to help me as I continue to push the boundaries of my comfort zone to combat social anxiety. I will also add that it is indeed very nice to see someone on a weekly basis to help guide me through this. She gives me strategies to try every week like the one above, which helps keep me motivated and accountable. It’s absolutely wonderful that Waterloo set up such a program and recognised the demand for it. Hopefully as time goes on, more places will recognise this demand as well.

 

Being an Atypical Extrovert

I sometimes surprise myself when doing some self-reflecting into who I really am and how I would characterise myself. One thing that I discovered really only now about myself is that I am an extrovert. In the past, I never really associated myself with that term despite knowing about the terms introvert and extrovert for over six years. In fact, when I first heard of the terms, I immediately went for the term introvert. And until about a month ago, I never really about it further until I made comment to my family about it to which my mother said, “No, I think you’re an extrovert.” I believe this is because I’m a rather atypical extrovert.

I first heard the terms when I was in the middle of my undergrad at Acadia. I was discussing with a counselor I was seeing then about my difficulties in social interaction, which brought about. I forget the original definitions we used for introvert and extrovert, but whatever they were they led me to believe that I was an introvert. This was probably because I have a few qualities that introverts typically possess. For example, I tend to think before I speak and I like to work on my academic work alone with few interruptions. I think I made the error that introversion and extroversion rely heavily on how one behaves when alone or with other people. In my mind, I was thinking “this person talks a lot so they’re an extrovert” or “this person talks very little so they’re an introvert”. It really only dawned on me now that, while that reasoning may be true in many if not most cases, neither implication is true. It’s very possible to be a quiet extrovert or a loud introvert. They aren’t oxymorons.

For example, (as in my case) a person who is quieter than average isn’t necessarily quieter by choice. Due to other characteristics they possess, they find being quiet easier, more comfortable, more convenient, etc. I’ve discovered this is the case for me. I’m not as loud spoken as a lot of extroverts are, but this is due to circumstances that are quite challenging for me to control if not out of my control altogether. I didn’t choose to have a different perspective when it comes to socializing due to my autism (not saying that’s a bad thing!), or to be shyer than other extroverts, or to have social anxiety. I will admit I often get envious and even jealous of extroverts who don’t have these roadblocks in the way and who follow their natural desires without showing much sweat. However, I am taking steps to address such things, which I will tell about in a future blog post.

Trust me, if it weren’t for these things, and I believe I would be striking up conversations with people (new and old) every which way I turn at social gatherings, striving more forcefully for attention and to be in the spotlight and trying to be the life of every party. Since coming to this realization, I’ve done some research on the internet to see if anyone felt the same way. It turns out quite a few people do. Physical behaviours actually have very little to do with where you are on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. What really defines introversion and extroversion is your natural preference.

In growing up, I was always known in school for being the quiet one and even I was convinced then that my desire was to be in solitude. It’s difficult to distinguish what you want to do and what you find easy to do when you’re still growing up. I was always an extrovert. It just was (and still is) easier to act more introverted than I actually am.

Becoming Closer with my Sister

Last winter, I was dealing with a problem. It’s too private to even post on this blog, but in any case what it was is irrelevant and it was quickly resolved anyway. Like I usually do when a problem arises in my life, however, I normally talk to people about it to help find solutions and also since my perfectionistic mind can often distort a healthy perspective hearing someone else’s perspective on it can help combat it.

One of the people I ended up talking to about it was my sister Carolyn. She was sympathetic and told me to keep her updated about it and, in fact, she said she wanted to communicate with me more anyway. My relationship with Carolyn throughout our lives has probably not been the closes in the world. There might have been a little bit of sibling rivalry, but we certainly loved each other even if we didn’t express it in the closest of bonds.

We’re also different in a few ways, which most likely caused us to grow a little apart. For example, I’m much more of an academic than she is. I’m in my third year of a PhD while she after high school took a year off and didn’t really know what she wanted to do at the time. Since then, however, she’s found her dream passion in cooking and got both a culinary arts degree and a hospitality management degree and she’s now working in hotel management and eventually wants to become a chef. While her path in life might have been a little more disconnected than mine, I never believed that this was because I was more intelligent than her or anything like that. In fact, I sometimes feared she was intimidated. I just see her path as demanding a different (but certainly not less) kind of intelligence. I’m sure that the meals I make in my home can’t hold a candle to what my sister is capable of in the kitchen. I also sometimes wonder what it must really feel like to lead a slightly disconnected path in life (this is actually something in general that graduate students sometimes do, positing ‘what if’ scenarios since graduate school is quite demanding and “delays” your entry into the “real world”).

At any rate, in response to my sister’s request to remain in contact, I sent her another email and we’ve since had a couple of email correspondences since then. I feel I was more open with her about what is going on in my life. Doing so in writing like in an e-mail was a great method for me to achieve this since I could make sure it was exactly what I wanted to say and I could take my time with it, which helped combat perfectionistic thoughts in the process. Making yourself vulnerable in describing your short comings, your struggles, and your weaknesses I believe is a key component for any relationship to become closer. I’ve talked to Carolyn about how we’re corresponding and we both agree it’s making us feel closer to each other.

Carolyn also has a great philosophy on life, which I completely agreed with it when she told me. She said that everyone’s life sucks in some way or another and that if people though all their problems into a pile and actually saw how big the pile got, they would see that their life isn’t as bad compared to everyone else’s that they’re making it out to be. She also said it was okay to be unhappy and to let out your misery (so long as it was in private).

In a world like today where often family members may not be particularly close, I count myself lucky to not be in such a situation and to be close to a lot of my family including my only sibling.

A New Strategy of Coping with Uncertainty

Life is full of surprises. It’s an old saying, but rings true regardless. Sometimes these surprises are pleasant, sometimes not so. When unpleasant events occur, especially when they were unexpected, it can lead to worry and havoc. This is again another example of how my black-and-white autistic mind naturally works. It has a difficult time coping with uncertainty because of this. If say a term at university doesn’t go well for me or at least not as well as I had expected, then I begin to worry and think about all the possible negative consequences that could arise from this.

But the future can hold anything. There is no way to absolutely guarantee that a desired outcome will occur. A lot of these factors are just outside your control. Examples would be which university accepts you into a given program and what kinds of relationships you form and how well you integrate with the people in your community. As someone who has a tendency to want things to be certain, I can certainly have a hard time accepting such things and often waste time worrying about what the future holds for me and how many of my current problems will end up being solved and if so in what time frame (days, weeks, months, even years).

I have heard of other strategies of coping with this. Some people trust in a higher power. They also comfort themselves that whatever happens, happens for a reason and you have to make the best of it. While this does help for me, I find that I need something extra. I also think I know what that extra piece of strategy is. It comes down to my love of writing fiction and my love of stories. Because that’s basically what my life is: a story with me as the protagonist (as well as a whole cast of colourful supporting secondary characters haha). But if this is the case, then why would I need to know what’s going to happen in my life tomorrow, next week, or a few years down the road? Why would I want to know? Knowing ahead of time will only kill the suspense! This is how I combat my feelings of need to hold on to some kind of certainty. I combat this by pointing out to myself how boring my story would be if I knew for certain what was going to happen!

Viewing my life in such a way, helps me calm down and relax and not worry about what’s going to happen. It also releases stress from areas that aren’t going nearly as well. Again, to be a good story my life has to have a lot of conflict in it and conflict of all varieties. At the end of the day, you can only do what you can do to help increase your odds to strive for your goals and solve your problems and let the world do the rest and create your story.