Many a calm river begins as a turbulent waterfall, yet none hurtles and foams all the way to the sea.” —Mikhail Lermontov
The dictionary defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”, and for autistic individuals, stress is one of the greatest challenges to living life well.
Research shows autistic people have a higher stress-response and are more susceptible to stress disorders than their neurotypical counterparts. A combination of childhood adversity and heightened sensitivity to emotions, hyperawareness of the environment, and interpersonal challenges with others create the space for stress to grow.
Autistics find it hard to “let go” of a stress-response; their bodies hold the stress-response longer, meaning that they need to be more mindful of stress-reduction activities, and become aware of how stress affects them.
Stress Response – What it can look like
Stress can lead to a range of sometimes vague symptoms– some that overlap with “just being autistic” and some that overlap with mental health conditions, like depression.
WebMD gives this handy list-
Emotional symptoms of stress:
- Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
- Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
- Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
- Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed
- Avoiding others
Physical symptoms of stress:
- Low energy
- Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
- Frequent colds and infections
- Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
- Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
- Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
- Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
Cognitive symptoms of stress:
- Constant worrying
- Racing thoughts
- Forgetfulness and disorganization
- Inability to focus
- Poor judgment
- Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side
Okay, so how do you know if you’re experiencing stress-symptoms rather than just existing in this world with autism, or having the flu or something?
There are some key stressful life events that can shake you– like moving house, getting a new job, death of a loved one, falling in love, or the birth of a baby… but other things can also rock your boat. Good things can be stressful, as well as bad things. EEK!
I think the key is to look BACK. I mean, defining whether we are in a current state of stress is not exactly easy. So, look back at your week or month or few months you’ve just had. Defining whether you’re stressed is necessary, because you can’t start looking after yourself unless you know what’s wrong.
Write a list of what’s happened in the past week/ month/ year. Take the past week, per day describing key events, or a per week, or per month. Look at what happened. What events took place? This will help you see the truth of what is happening. I find analyzing your experiences really helpful to figuring out what you need to change them.
Notice your productivity levels. What are you not getting done, that previously you could easily get done? Are you way behind on your work? Another factor is change. Have you recently changed something big in your life, like made a new friend or let go of someone toxic? Also, consider your moodiness. Are you having more bouts of ups/ downs? Do you find yourself in more fights with loved ones over small and pointless things?
Just note these elements… and if you decide YES, I AM STRESSED, then go about changing that. Find your equilibrium again; get out into nature; take space; immerse yourself in your special interest; take a self-care day (or week!); ask for help; see your therapist or doctor; exercise; meditate.
I think I am stressed.
At the time, I didn’t think I was stressed. But now I am looking back on this year so far, I can see I was stressed in each month, and hell- I still am stressed now!
In the beginning of the year, my narcissistic mother told me that by Christmas I’d homeless because she has decided to WITHDRAW FINANCIAL SUPPORT and move overseas. She said I am stealing from her, that I need to be taught a lesson, and that I am undeserving of help (she also thinks my autism is a made-up disorder and completely untrue). See, from 2004, she decided that I needed to receive a small living allowance which she said would enable my independent living. So, I moved out of home, and she paid me a small weekly amount so that I could live a modest existence outside the family home. Her initial idea was that I’d find work and she could cut down my allowance till such a time I was completely independent.. however, whenever I started to earn money, she would refuse to cut my allowance, and then later used her gifting of the allowance as a way to blackmail me… ahhh the trials and tribulations of a narcissist! At the start of this year she made it clear that she was not going to continue giving me financial support and that when she left Australia, I would just have to fend for myself.
In February, I found out I GOT INTO UNIVERSITY to do my PhD topic and was really excited about that, but soon found out that I needed to PAY FEES and I couldn’t really afford it. Mum refused to pay anything, although she encouraged me to do this degree and said she’d pay for it. So, that sucked. Then, when I started my course, I also discovered that my SUPERVISOR IS ABSENT, and that he was rarely available or, it seemed, interested to give any support in the writing of my thesis. Such a disappointment. I’ve actually been seriously considering dropping out of university because of this situation…
In March, I started dating a friend, but as it turned out, he was depressed and had some strange sex trauma from his past, so our ‘relationship’ if you can even call it that, did not really progress beyond a few cuddles– even though he talked about being together, he was completely disinterested in intimacy and well, we broke up after a number of weeks… which really was blessing, because I was QUITE DEPRESSED by then.
In June, my mum forced a visit upon me where she spent a great deal of the time criticizing my life, picking on me, and joking about me being homeless. I realized that HAVING A NARCISSIST IN MY LIFE is not a good thing.
In July of this year I got a PAID JOB, one that I got totally by myself; my first ‘real’ job in 10 years- I was now being employed by someone else, paid a wage that more readily suits my qualifications and experience. I also got a NEW BOYFRIEND, someone who is really into establishing roots together.
In August, I had an unexpected condition which really required that I GO TO HOSPITAL, and I was very emotional about it because my recovery would take a long time. Later in that month, I also learned my MUM HAS CANCER. And I had a minor CAR ACCIDENT, but it totally shocked and shook me. When I heard about my mum, I just did not care. Her physical illness made her even more selfish, even more demanding, even more critical of me and my life… and she did not give me any emotional support in my situation. She told me I was a bad child for not wanting to quit my job and ditch my university to be with her. She cut off individual payments of my living allowance because I was apparently not being loving enough to her, and that really hurt me financially. August was the month that made me question whether my mum even understands the concept of love.
In September, I was still recovering from my operation, and I TOOK LEAVE FROM UNI, quitting one of my subjects.
In October, I decided to cut off all contact with my mother, and that was really freeing and beautiful for me because I could now finally be who I am without hearing constantly how wrong and bad that is. Yet, in all the amazing good, not having her occasional financial support has made it pretty hard as I now have these insurmountable FINANCIAL STRUGGLES, especially with health insurance, rent and bills — these things cost so much! At the end of October, I also experienced a strange tightness in my chest and inability to breathe… I had a severe ASTHMA ATTACK, and now I’m taking asthma medications, despite never having had asthma before; I’ve acquired it as an adult, and it sucks. In late October-early November, I experienced choking in the middle of the night; had it not been for my partner waking me up, I’d probably be dead. Frightening stuff!
Now it’s November and I am behind at work. I am behind with my thesis. I have been fighting more with my partner. I have neglected seeing my friends. I am aware that I have been more forgetful than usual, struggled more with focus, had more aches and pains, felt more overwhelmed, felt more lost, found it harder to self-soothe, and had greater anxiety. I am stressed.
My stress comes from the fact that I didn’t accept I was experiencing stress
I let myself get stressed and did not address it when it was happening.
Not all is bad. I am getting support NOW. And that’s the take-away, here. No matter when you notice it, seeing and accepting your stress is the way to reduce it.
Being autistic means we might totally miss the signs of stress brewing, and sure– we’re like stress-magnets, but we can find balance again once we’ve identified the problem as, well: STRESS.
If you have an autistic friend or partner and you see their lives getting hectic and full of stressful life events, remind them to breathe, take time out and de-stress. We’ll appreciate your kindness… and, as you may know, a calm person is a productive and lovely-to-be-around person. 🙂