Mental health

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Trigger warning

  • We are discussing sensitive topics like the incidence of mental health concerns for a population of people on a spectrum (the research is mostly from young adults).​
  • Not designed to make you feel bad or different, this is just to educate you as to what you or your peers may be experiencing.​
  • Knowledge and self-knowledge build a powerful step towards self-advocacy.​

Mental health – what is it?​

Having good mental health, or being mentally healthy, is more than just the absence of illness. It is a state of overall wellbeing.​

The concept of mental health is influenced by culture, but it generally relates to:​

  • Enjoyment of life​
  • Being able to set and fulfil goals​
  • Having the ability to cope and ‘bounce back’ from stress and sadness​
  • Having the capability to build and maintain relationships with others.​

Up to 70% of individuals on the Autism Spectrum experience mental ill health, compared with 25% of the neurotypical population.

What is anxiety?​

Everyone feels anxious now and then. It’s a normal emotion. For example, you may feel nervous when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test or before making an important decision.​

Anxiety disorders are different. They are a group of mental illnesses, and the distress they cause can keep you from carrying on with your life normally.​

For people who have an anxiety disorder, worry and fear are constant, overwhelming and at times disabling.​

Some of you may experience anxiety to a greater extent, and some may have sought professional help. Those strategies that have worked for you may help others. Share as you feel comfortable.​

Science of anxiety…the amygdala

The amygdala is part of the limbic system (deep in the brain). It is responsible for emotions, survival instincts and memory. It primes your whole system to go into high alert. It might be enlarged in a person on the autism spectrum.​

  • Your brain’s frontal lobes normally enable you to think clearly, make rational decisions and control your responses. When a situation causes your amygdala to ‘hijack’ this control, it disables the frontal lobes and activates the fight-or-flight response.​
  • If the amygdala is activated when you don’t need it, the result is anxiety. Stress chemicals pump up but have nothing useful to do. ​
  • The prefrontal cortex freezes. You can’t think. You then over or under-react.

Fight or Flight – 2 minute video:

What to do when you’re anxious​

  • Take 6-seconds to chill out – it takes the chemicals spewing out from the amygdala about 6 seconds to dissipate.
  • Engage your logic with writing – the logical brain wants to help sort through the situation.​
  • Identify the trigger – after the situation calms down, identify what caused the meltdown.

Alexithymia

Some people on the autism spectrum can experience alexithymia. It is a personality trait separate to autism, but there is a high comorbidity.  ​

People with alexithymia may have difficulty:​

  • identifying feelings​
  • distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal​
  • describing feelings to other people​
  • understanding the feelings of others​
  • identifying facial expressions​
  • Identifying or remembering faces.​

If you experience alexithymia, mindfulness and meditation may be less helpful in enhancing mental health.​

Find out more here:

  • Video: Ask an Autistic #27 – What is Alexithymia?

Interoception: our 8th sense

Interoception is also described as mindful body awareness. Someone who is skilled in this can for example tell when their heartbeat is signalling fear versus excitement. They can recognise or identify all the other internal bodily signals that they are experiencing. This helps them to process and respond to their overall emotional state.

Self-awareness & interoception

Self-awareness on an interoceptive level is a prerequisite for accurate self-awareness in terms of strengths, abilities and long-term support needs.​

Your warning signs

Spend a moment to think about your mental health …​

What are your ‘warning signs’ for mental health challenges?​

  • Agitation?​
  • Aggression?​
  • Rigidity?​
  • Obsessiveness?​
  • Withdrawal?​

Resources

End of Module questions

Why do you think it is important to look after your mental health and wellbeing?​

Who can you speak to if you are concerned about:​

  • Your mental health?​
  • Someone else’s mental health?​

In what ways do you think your mental health and wellbeing could impact you in the workplace?​

What are your warning signs?

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