A sub-type of Autism (separate from but related to/’under the spectrum’), Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) is ‘an anxiety driven need to be in control and avoid other people’s demands and expectations’.
Being in control helps people with PDA to manage their anxiety so that they know what to expect and don’t have to comply with demands* which they find too difficult or overwhelming.
*’Demands’ meaning literally any demand, by the way. Whether direct (instructions, rules, requests, timetables, expectations, etc.), indirect (desires, implied demands, perceived expectations, etc.), or even, internal (‘I ought to’)…
It (my avoidance) extends to the most basic demands of everyday living, not just the avoidance of unpleasant, difficult, specific anxiety-provoking or unappealing tasks. I even experience great difficulty doing things that, in theory, I really want to do.
Hobbies become too much of a demand, even going on holidays weighs heavy on my mind, the prospect turning into a huge demand itself, yet another source of completely irrational anxiety. And, plans to meet people, too. Date edging closer, I feel my mood worsening, my anxiety intensifying. I either go through with the plan and, when my PDA is really bad, feel not just mentally ill but physically ill with the anxiety of it all, or, I cancel. If I decide on the latter and cancel though, then I’m left hating myself, experiencing major FOMO (fear of missing out), whilst simultaneously living in fear of the very thing that I fear missing out on… The reason? Anxiety, triggered by the situations I find myself in whereby I feel ‘trapped’, almost, causing me to experience sensory and emotional overload-
Often misdiagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), in terms of how PDA manifests itself in my own life, it does so in the following ways…
- Impulsivity- I feel a need to get things done straight away- now– unable to cope with waiting for things.
When I have something that I know needs doing, however small and seemingly ‘insignificant’, if I don’t do it immediately, then it’s all I can think about, mind bogged down/overloaded by the prospect of whatever it is I know I need to do, unable to rest until it’s done. Total inner-turmoil.
- High levels of anxiety
Because demands are unavoidable, every day provokes anxiety in me. My mind is overloaded easily by the enormous amount of pressure I feel from what, to other people, are ‘ordinary’ expectations. And so, because of this, I need lots of ‘down time’ as a result.
I find myself making excuses, delaying, suggesting alternatives when the pressure feels ‘too much’, more time being spent doing this (delaying/avoiding a task) than it would take to actually do it…
The underlying reason behind my anxiety-based need to avoid demands? An ‘intolerance/a fear of uncertainty’, and a need for control, both of which I feel intensely.
To sum my PDA up in one sentence, it is
‘an anxiety which is about control and losing it, and fear of the unknown.’
The idea of not being in total control of my life, and, the responsibility/pressure/commitment that comes with not being in control- it terrifies me. It explains another ‘symptom’ of my PDA-
- Compulsive adherence to routines
For me, having a routine (and sticking to it religiously) gives me a sense of control over my, what can sometimes feel very uncontrollable, life.
- Highly sensitive to criticism
- Excessive mood swings
My mood can, and often, does, change suddenly, rapidly switching from happy and engaging, to angry or sad in seconds, often with no visible build up or warning to others. This may be in response to the pressure of demands and perceived expectations which are constant.
- Becoming ‘obsessed’ easily/’obsessive’ behaviour, more so with people than with things
As is the case with Autism, there is no one to ‘blame’ for PDA- it is not a response to trauma/it is not environmental, it is neurological- something which is, ironically considering PDA is all about wanting to be in control, uncontrollable…
Despite its uncontrollability though/despite the fact that there is no ‘cure’ for PDA (it’s simply the result of ones neurodivergent brain working, not ‘wrong’, but ‘differently’), it is helpful to make yourself aware of your triggers- e.g., social situations, changes in routine etc. Being aware of the things which worsen your symptoms means that you can be gentler with yourself when you know an unavoidable ‘trigger’ is coming up, and so that you can factor in ‘rest days’ so as to avoid burnout/so as to try to preserve your mental health…
It’s hard, there’s no doubt about that- living with PDA is unquestionably difficult- but, despite the difficulties, it is, at least in my mind, actually a sort of ‘blessing…’
It’s all in how you learn to shift your perspective from one of pessimism, to one of optimism. Whilst yes, I do so often think to myself; ‘why can’t I just be normal?’, I also get moments of, call it naivety, but I like to think of it as clarity, that; in not being ‘normal’ I have a different way of looking at the world that, without existing ‘on the spectrum’, I might not have. And so, I am grateful, not always, but for now at least, for my differences. They make me me, and, without being a bit (/a lot) weird, I’d probably be very boring-
silver linings :))