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Don't panic! Good control, bad control and a little bit of OCD.

This post is about panic. Pure and simple, really. Except it isn't, is it?

You see, I thought I was going to write about my misadventures on a day trip to the other side of the country. I also thought I was going to explain my illogical fears. I am, I'll get there, but as I sat down to begin, I could feel an echo of yesterday's panic, rising up in my chest at the thought of re-living it all.

Now, I've probably made it sound like there was high drama. There was, for me, but not in the way other people think of it. No one was hurt, it all turned out ok, there are no dents in us or the car: all in all, nothing to worry about.

So, let me explain. When it comes to driving in strange places, especially cities, my mind goes into some weird survival mode, more flight than fight, where instead of taking time to assess the situation, I am constantly on the move and looking for escape routes. The feeling behind this response is definitely panic.

I was driving to the Metro Centre, in Newcastle. I know the way, I've been many times and almost always as the driver. Getting there is no problem, except that the road isn't great and the city roads can be busy. It's getting out again that's the problem.

It's become a running joke that I cannot take the right way out of the Metro Centre car parks. I can take the wrong ways, those are fine. I've only ever once taken the right way by accident. I have part of the journey memorised, but to get to the memorised part, I need to cross a little bit of the car park outer areas and that's where I go wrong.

It's a simple mistake I'm making every time. I don't have to traverse great, untrodden areas. I just have to be in the right lane at the right time.

I did think I'd explored every wrong turn by now, but I was wrong. I found a new wrong way last night and, in the dark, was driving down a very quiet road, wondering where all the rush hour traffic had gone.

My son was sitting with me, using his iphone to direct me. I was trying to listen to him but half the time I was still taking wrong turns because even though he was telling me which way to go, the panic was making me veer off down roads that looked better or more friendly. There is no sense to it, really.

Eventually, we found a route back onto the proper road and I knew where I was again. The relief of seeing familiar things was wonderful and the rest of the journey home was fine.

I should point out here, that I have a recurring nightmare of driving along busy roads, either in a city or on big motorways. I can never find my way and am always taking the wrong turnings. I know this dream is really about life in general, and how lost I often feel in a big, cold, modern world. But when I find myself on actual roads, ones that can look very much like the dream, it certainly doesn't help with the panic.

I can see a familiar word coming towards me at this point: Control. How lovely it is to have control. Control is the medicine that takes the sting out of panic. It doesn't cure it; that requires a whole different treatment. Control is like a quick-fix approach, for when you really need it. Or a preventative, because if you feel you have more control generally, then scenarios like getting lost in strange cities become easier to cope with as you feel stronger in yourself.

Control can also be abused, as it's easy to mimic it by becoming obsessive over things. If you have little control in your normal life, you may feel the need to create control in another way, such as in what you eat, the order you do things, which things in life are 'right' or 'wrong'. Yes, I am venturing into the realm of obsessive compulsive behaviour, which is all about control too.

If you're not careful, you can move into exerting control over things that don't really matter, like the colour order of the pegs on the washing line, as a way of feeling you have control in general. This is unhealthy because it encourages you to control more things in the same way, nearly all little things which don't affect your general well-being. Then, if you don't do them, you feel bad and the lack of control leads to the feeling of panic.

This is a really simplistic summary of OCD tendencies. I'll come back to them in another post. I just wanted to include them because I know many aspies are prone to trying to control life in this way, simply because it's something we are all capable of, however powerless we feel.

The other type of control is much more healthy. It involves planning ahead - and no, not in an OCD plan-plan-plan way. Using my own journey as an example, I should have planned my route out of the Metro Centre. This would probably have lead me to the right road - though I'm not saying it would have meant me travelling without any problems.

In other areas of life, if you know you're going to have stress in any way, stress that can lead to panic, then planning ahead is a key to coping with it and controlling it. You can't always plan your way out of trouble but you can be prepared for it.

For instance, a difficult family get together could have you quaking in your boots, but if you think of what may happen, it gives you a chance to be prepared if it, or something similar, does happen.

My grandfather was notorious for saying things to people that upset them or angered them, but doing it in such a way that you couldn't really answer back. Much as I loved him, he liked to goad people - that was his way of feeling in control.

Knowing he would do this and mentally preparing myself, often made it possible for me to withstand any comments without being flustered. It also meant that he sometimes said more than he might have done, simply because I didn't react as he expected. Then I would often laugh nervously, annoying him even more and being accused of laughing at him, to his face.

Oddly, I still felt better with this outcome than just going in and taking what came, because his more aggressive reaction would make it obvious to me that he was at fault, and not me. Being caught unprepared always made me feel to blame - which was his intention, you see.

As an aspie, you often need other people to explain that someone is behaving unreasonably. I used to feel guilty when he had digs at me, but as I got older and prepared myself for those little cuts, I could see he was the one who needed to curb his reactions and not me.

Also, if he did become more aggressive due to my lack of reaction, this made it more likely that my Grandma would speak up and tell him off, meaning she'd be snapped at herself, but detracting attention from the intended victim. I don't think any of us realised at the time what a consummate diplomat she was.

Coming back to the feelings of control and panic, as I said before, control is only a temporary fix. The bigger resolution for coping with panic is to feel it's okay to be stressed and to understand yourself and your reaction to things. It doesn't always stop the stress or the panic, but it can make you feel better overall, in the long term. Gradually, this kind of self-acceptance makes life easier, little by little.

So, while control helps you in the present, accepting that you will react badly, or differently, to things, is the key to seeing life for what it really is - a place of light and dark, for everyone, not just yourself.

I say this because I think it's really important to recognise that other people also panic and feel bad about things. You don't have to be an aspie to feel this way. Aspergers can make you feel that others always have the upper hand or the secret of success, while you bolt along, hoping nothing will pop out and try to kill you, eat you or just poke at you til you squeal.

Other people, non-aspies, feel this way too. We all panic. Life can be hard and confusing. The difference is, other people might say, 'I found that really difficult because I hate busy roads', whereas I would say, 'I found that difficult because I'm stupid with traffic'. Do you see the difference?

So, as usual, I would say, cut yourself some slack. Don't assume you're the only one who can't cope with the difficult thing. Do look ahead and understand that you may not cope, then plan ways to help yourself.

If sudden, immediate events cause panic, breathe, step back, ask for help. This last one is important. You'd be surprised how understanding other people can be, if you need them. You don't have to cope alone, you don't even need to expect this of yourself.

In any event, don't panic! You can worry, fret, stress and generally have a wail, but do not panic. Panicking is for chickens being chased by the fox. There is no fox, only panic itself and you, wondering whether you can cope with so little control.

You can, I promise. If I can, then you can. And if you find you can't, reach out to someone.


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