Updated: May 1, 2020
This post will help you understand how excitement resembles anxiety and will equip you with simple strategies to help the autistic feel calm.
The Physical Link Between Excitement and Anxiety:
Remember the tingling excitement of Christmas Eve as a child? It was the adrenaline rush that captured your sleep and left you jumping and clapping in anticipation of surprises under the tree. Adrenaline coursed through you and led to giggles, shouts, and fidgets.
That same adrenaline that gets released when we feel excited anticipation also gets released when we feel fear. As Alex Korb, Ph.D. notes, "Turns out it has to do with the limbic system ... which controls the body's stress response ... There is very little physiological difference between fear and excitement."
Dr. Korb explains that our minds can shift fear into excitement when we realize there's nothing to fear after all. He suggests it is in this context that unexpected scares (a close call while driving) can ultimately feel more upsetting than expected scares (like a scary movie). That is, when our minds expect to be scared, the meaning of the experience changes our emotion.
The Autistic May Commonly Experience Adrenaline as Fear
You may get to work and see an email pop up that a colleague has added a meeting to your schedule to review an obstacle in a project. You experience adrenaline which is alerting. This mild rush helps you shift gears and prioritize what is now most important. Your brain uses the release of adrenaline and the meaning of your situation to help your interpret your experience. The surge of energy helps you accomplish needed tasks and does not feel dangerous.
For the autistic individual, the experience of adrenaline seems to be interpreted as fear even when there is no danger. A child with autism may become very stressed about the uncertainty of Christmas (with its surprise gifts and schedule changes). The autistic adult may feel a surge of anxiety when he returns from work and sees an unexpected visitor talking with his wife. Even though the meaning of the situation is not threatening, the alerting response feels overwhelming.
How To Help the Autistic Individual Calm When Excitement is Overwhelming
1. Remove the Surprise Element of Celebrations
Surprise can be an essential part of how families celebrate significant milestones and holidays. We love to give unexpected presents or throw surprise parties. Think of all the videos on social media about surprise reunions and gifts!
These exciting and generous gestures may trigger significant upset for the autistic individual who has to quickly adjust to what was not planned. Although the surprises feel good to the giver, the ASD individual may prefer to bypass the surprise element.
In our family, my son chooses to know ahead of time what Christmas gifts he will receive. This knowledge increases his enjoyment of the event.
2. Scale Down the Excitement
The strategy of pacing can also help the autistic enjoy an event without feeling overwhelmed. The ASD individual who wants to attend a theme park may have the best experience if he attends for only two hours and then takes a break. Another way to scale down could be separating visits and gifts. For example, upon graduation, the individual may enjoy one visitor and gift at a time. A large party with multiple people and congratulatory tokens may feel ovrwhelming.
3. Remove the Personal Focus
Many of us love nothing more than to watch those we love open gifts or react to a surprise. We may cheer and ask for a speech. One of my clients described, "I can't even enjoy the present because I'm constantly trying to make sure my face looks the right way, and I'm smiling just the right amount." The excited watching is primarily for the giver's joy. For the autistic, opening a gift in private may provide the most pleasure.
Alex Korb, PhD (Oct, 2014). Predictable Fear: Why the brain likes haunted houses; Psychology Today