This weekend Withteeth and I went to a writing conference. I haven’t talked about my writing in a while, but it is still something I’m pursuing. However, conferences are incredibly difficult for me. As such, I wanted to write a bit about the struggles with anxiety and how to deal with it both for people who have anxiety and for people who may have to deal with someone elses anxiety.
Before I get too deeply into this, everybody struggles with and deals with anxiety differently. There are different types of anxiety disorders, though I have the most common type. But my anxiety is caused by autism and ADHD, so I will not necessarily express my anxiety in the “typical” way.
People are a pretty common trigger for anxiety. Some people suffer from social anxiety, which means that any social situation becomes that much more difficult to handle. I do not have social anxiety, but people are still a pretty big trigger for me. A lot of this is simply due to my sensory issues and issues with reading people. Noise is awful for me. Most people can cancel out a lot of the noise that happens around them, but my ADHD makes it impossible for me to do that. That means that I hear everybody talking, that pen hitting the floor, the setting of seats and movement of paper, someone pouring themselves water, and the laughter in the other room at the same time. My ADHD makes it so I hear all that, but my autism makes that noise seem much worse. I explained it to my psychologist as being like a wave hitting you when you’re not expecting it. You know the water is moving, but you aren’t expecting the powerful force that suddenly slams into your back, knocking the air out of you while simultaneously threatening to send you under water. It’s difficult not to panic in situations like that, but there are ways to deal with it.
Generally, conferences are made up of various tracks of speaking events, sales tables, and social events. The noise issue works differently in each of those situations. In the speaking events, I like to find seating near the edges. It can be tricky to find a good spot as far as front or back goes, because my ADHD makes it better if I sit up front, but my autism makes it better if I sit at the back. When I’m at the front of the room, it is easier to pay attention to what the speaker is saying and I’m less likely to turn to look at distractions. But the front of the room also means that all of the noise is behind me. If I sit at the back, then I don’t feel quite so attacked by the noise. But sitting to the side gives me some breathing room. It means that I can get out of the room quickly if I need to, and it means one side of me is not exposed to the noise. From there, I can decide where I feel the most comfortable sitting.
Sales tables and social events are much trickier. At this last conference, my anxiety was bad enough that I didn’t even bother with the social events. Sometimes I can handle them, but other times it’s not even worth it to try. It’s really upsetting to me when I can’t make the social events, because those are the best opportunities to network, but anxiety is a balancing act. Sales tables and social events are difficult to gauge, the people aren’t sitting in one spot and the noise level changes. This is where other people-related anxiety issues come in. People aren’t great at paying attention to their surroundings, especially when they are in groups. When space is limited, people bump into me. Obviously they bump into others too, but I’m short and have a strong dislike of being touched. It gets my anxiety going. When I’m in a room full of people making noise, it’s a lot to handle, but when I’m in a room full of people who are moving around and making noise it can be enough to send me out of the room screaming, or, worse, cause me to freeze all together and be able to function.
While this weekend was particularly hard, I do have a number of coping mechanisms. The most basic of which is simply doing breathing exercises. When I first feel the anxiety coming, that is my go-to. But, as the anxiety grows, which is inevitable when I can’t gt away from the anxiety-inducing situation, I need another out. That’s where safe spaces come in. I need some place quiet to go where I can be alone or, at the very least, where I can be with few people. I think my anxiety got as bad as it did because I didn’t really have that option. If I needed to get away from people, I had to leave the conference all together. I had to make use of that a few times this weekend, which meant missing multiple speakers. But I know that sticking around would have been worse.
Which leads me to some advise for anyone planning a conference: keep mental health and developmental issues in mind. The conference that I went to had panels on diversity and various issues, including mental health and developmental issues, which was nice. But the panel on mental health and other related issues was on the last day at the last hour. That’s not really when you want to bring together a bunch of people who are struggling just to be at that conference. It was a nice panel to have, but it wasn’t organized with it’s target audience in mind. Were I to organize such an event, I would have put that panel at the beginning of the conference when people are feeling energized and relatively calm. The rooms were also quite cramped. The organizers obviously can’t really control the size of the rooms, but they could have utilized the space more effectively. I believe the organizers were too ambitious. The conference went on for three days and they had five tracks of events going on every hour. The lengths of the events were great, but it’s impossible to see everything you want to see when there is so much going on. I think they would have been better off to double up on certain events so that people could get to everything thy wanted to see, or maybe increased the room sizes (most of the rooms had removable walls) to accommodate more people. As it was, there were more people in a number of the events we attended than there were seats. They made the same mistake in the sales room by having way too many booths. It was difficult to walk through the sales area, especially as people would stop and talk. I thing they would have been better off to have half as many booths, even though that would cut down on sales. There also wasn’t actually any place quiet to go. I’ve never actually been to a conference that has a safe space, and I know that many people buy into the “there are no safe spaces in the real world” argument, but I think that a safe space would be great for conferences to implement. For one thing, a conference isn’t the “real world” in the same way a college isn’t (though, to be honest, the entire idea of what is and isn’t part of the real world makes little sense to me. My not living life the way my parents did is more a result of changing times than anything else). For another, all conferences will attract people with mental illnesses. They aren’t as uncommon as many people think. Keeping your audiences needs in mind is good both for the conference and for the attendees.
Overall, the conference was good, and I’m glad that I attended, but anxiety makes doing what I need to do to lead the life I want far more difficult than it needs to be.
August 17th, 2016 at 7:08 pm
That’s a stark contrast to the conferences that I have been to. I can always find a quiet retreat. It’s too bad that you had to leave to have some peace.
August 17th, 2016 at 5:03 pm
Being 47 and diagnosed as autistic in my 30s, I lived with the label: quirky. I worked so hard at acting normal in large crowds, it would give me epic headaches. I don’t process spoken language very quickly and I try to hide that with little tricks. Add to all of this that I was struck indirectly by lightning 2 years ago and now low sounds are hard to make out. This has added to my anxiety. I like your idea of the mental health events being presented at the beginning of conferences. That would help! I’ve tried breathing techniques in the past but I always just end up holding my breath instead.
August 16th, 2016 at 9:16 pm
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August 16th, 2016 at 9:03 pm
Thank you for sharing such personal insights. These detailed descriptions of your experiences will promote understanding. My son is autistic. It’s very hard to get people to understand about his sensory processing issues when from the outside he looks “ordinary” or “normal.”