How to manage stress or anxiety

Coping with stress or anxiety, especially at work, is important in order to maintain a healthy balance of wellbeing. Here is more information about managing stressful or anxiety-provoking situations.



What is meant by ‘stress’ or ‘anxiety’?

Stress and anxiety are closely linked. Anxiety can be a general feeling of unease, such as worrying, that can vary in its intensity. Everybody experiences stress or anxiety to differing degrees but autistic adults frequently report higher levels of anxiety than the rest of the general population. Autistic adults often say the impact of anxiety is far greater than the impact of autism.  

How do I know if I’m feeling stressed or anxious?

Some signs of stress or anxiety can include:

  • having very negative thoughts
  • losing sleep at night and then feeling overtired during the day
  • panic attacks or struggling to breathe
  • self-harm
  • sweating

How may this affect me?

There are several potential reasons why autistic adults could be more susceptible to feelings of stress or anxiety. Feeling less able to tolerate uncertainty is linked to very high levels of anxiety for autistic adults. Anxiety can often be triggered by change or disruptions to routine, sensory sensitivities (such as feeling over- or under-sensitive to lights, sounds or smells) or social difficulties.

Students and graduates we talked to said they found these things stressful:

  • Choosing the right career and job to apply for
  • Interviews and competency tests
  • Working in a team
  • Sudden changes to project outcomes or deadlines
  • Not getting the support or reasonable adjustments they needed
  • Noisy working environment
  • Not liking the commute to work
  • Getting ambiguouse feedback on their performance, or no feedback at all
  • Fitting in with their colleagues
  • Delivering presentation or being asked for comments in meetings
  • Dealing with clients

It is possible anxiety is an inherent part of autism, although not enough is understood about this yet. Trying to ‘fit in’ or to not appear autistic can also cause a lot of internal stress. 

We know that supported employment can provide a social identity, a higher quality of life and improvements in well-being for autistic adults. However, the workplace can still be a source of stress or anxiety for many adults on the autism spectrum. 

There may be other people you trust to talk to when you are finding things difficult, like friends or family members. However, it’s a good idea to have strategies, places where you can go and activities you feel comfortable doing yourself when you feel overloaded and stressed. Agreed reasonable adjustments usually help with making this possible.

What can I do next?

Try our 5 strategies for reducing feelings of stress or anxiety

Practical tips

1) Understand when you feel anxious

This is important for helping to identify when you feel anxious, what stress or anxiety feels like for you and any triggers which you know will initiate feelings of worry. One way to do this could be to keep a diary to help monitor your mood. 

2) Reduce uncertainty

Planning ahead can help to reduce any feelings of stress or worry. If possible, use a schedule to structure your day and try and plan for any changes in your routine. 

3) Spend time on relaxing and calming activities

It can be worth ‘booking in’ times to relax and recharge e.g. having some quiet time after social interactions or anything you might find draining. It can help to spend time doing things you enjoy and immersing yourself in your hobbies, interests or exercise.

4) Speak to a trusted colleague

You may want to speak to a trusted colleague if you’re feeling stressed or anxious at work. This might depend on how comfortable you are speaking about your feelings to a workplace friend. It can also be helpful to talk to family members or close friends.

5) Be open about what helps you reduce your stress and anxiety

Put together a list of preferences and suggestions which you know can reduce your stress and anxiety. An example is shown below, and there is also a Profile Builder tool to help you identify what reduces stress for you. It could be worth showing your line manager this list, if you feel this would be helpful:

What can help me feel less stressed at work
Detailed written information (rather than verbal only)
Visual aids, e.g. timetables, maps, directions
Using email instead of telephone  
Having as much advanced warning as possible for any plans/work tasks
Having a trusted, consistent person at work who I can speak to
Having the unwritten social rules of the workplace explained explicitly 
Flexible working conditions e.g. staggered start/finish times
Having clear deadlines
Add your own items…


Questions to think about

  1. What do you like to do at home that makes you feel relaxed?
  2. What food and drink makes you feel better? Is it possible to carry some with you?
  3. Who can you talk to?
  4. What do your manager and colleagues know about how your autism affects you?
  5. Where can you go if you feel stressed out? Make a list of places.
  6. What is your favourite form of exercise? Even non-sporty people can usually find something they enjoy.

Additional information and links

There are a couple of apps which aim to reduce anxiety for autistic adults and offer personalised support:

  1. Brain in Hand: This contains a diary, notes and reminders of daily tasks. Individual coping strategies are also developed with anxiety levels frequently monitored. There is also the possibility to access support from the National Autistic Society. More information is available here:
  2. Molehill Mountain: This tracks mood and aims to identify triggers for stress or anxiety. It also gives evidence-based tips and pointers on how to self-manage anxiety levels. More information is available here: 
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