Describing what it’s like to live with autism is a challenging exercise. I’m sure the experience is different for everyone. For me, it’s as though I’m incapable of filtering out anything that’s happening in my environment. Everything is always happening all the time.
I don’t see forests, I see all the individual trees at once. And, when the wind blows, it’s disorienting to see them all move at the same time. If I’m in a crowd, the movement of so many people can cause me to have sensory overload. More than one person singing at a time makes my ears feel weird.
But I’m usually able to cope with the disorientation and, generally, I push past it and tend to thrive as a functional adult.
It took a lot of trial and error to develop pragmatic coping mechanisms that I could recall and implement when I was feeling completely overloaded. And I still struggle with it, even in my mid-40s.
Every allistic and autistic person is different. Some folks can self-regulate their emotional state like finely-tuned machines.
However, not everyone has the ability to take deep breaths, count to 10, find themselves in a calm and meditative state, or practice mindfulness on command.
To quote Jerry Smith from “Rick & Morty”: Have you ever TRIED to relax? It’s a paradox!
But it doesn’t have to be. Rather than rely on abstract concepts such as trying to find your “happy place,” or weird stuff like lighting a “gratitude candle” every time you’re anxious and depressed, I’ve found that tiny little corrections in the moment can make a big difference.
Number one: Fix your mouth
Unclench your jaw. Unstick your tongue from the roof of your mouth. Relax your face until your teeth are no longer touching.
That’s it. You don’t have to overthink it. Just try to remember to do it every time you catch yourself being anxious or stressed out until going slack-jawed at the slightest hint of a trigger becomes Pavlovian.
Number two: Fix your posture
Some people are able to release their stress by stretching and breathing regularly throughout the day. But, sometimes you’re too physically tense to even benefit from such exercises. The act of “trying” to relieve stress can sometimes cause anxiety.
In these cases, I focus on lowering my shoulders and unclenching my fists. If I can lean back, lift my chin, and straighten myself out from nose to diaphragm, I can usually get myself “unspun” and into a more thoughtful place. Then it’s time to take deep breaths and stretch.
Number three: Fix your predictions
It’s been my personal experience that whether I think I’m about to have a panic attack or I don’t, I’m usually right.
I’m not suggesting that we can just flip a switch and be in control. But, often, the only way we can gain any sense of power over our negative emotions is to empower them with belief. And that’s a bad thing.
This is the “here we go again with THIS SHIT” emotional overload that often appears to be triggered by something small when, in reality, it’s almost always a straw that broke the camel’s back situation.
What’s interesting here is that, often, lashing out against cruel fate or even your own brain/body’s betrayal can turn feelings of helplessness into what I like to call comfortable little traumas.
For example, the power goes out fairly often where I live in Mexico. Nine times out of ten, this is no big deal. It’s back on in a couple of hours and everyone in my family is perfectly equipped to deal with being off the grid for a little while.
But, every once in a while, the power goes out when I’ve got something big going on. Maybe I’ve got a big deadline at work or I’m in the middle of an interview with some big tech executive or researcher.
And it seems like it never fails: the power goes out, I stress out over work, my kid has a meltdown, and then the universe tosses a curveball at me… maybe the landlord comes banging on the door or a bunch of dogs and sirens start going off outside causing a cacophony.
For a lot of people, this might not be a big deal, but it can shut down my ability to think and react like I’ve been stunned by a flashbang grenade.
My instinct, when this happens, is usually to fucking rage.
Because getting angry allows me to act. I can unfreeze, express my anger, and get shit done in a state of tense, anxious, nervous, rage. It’s not only not ideal, but almost always ends up causing me to get stuck in a state of overstimulated anxiety for hours or even days.
I’m exchanging freezing up for self-created comfortable little traumas because the latter still allows me to accomplish things. But, what I really need to be doing is addressing the freezing and learning to cope in healthy ways.
When my brain screams: “Here we go again!” or “Of course! How could it NOT go wrong?!?” I try to stop myself with the simple, rational, indisputable truth that I’m only getting spun up and stressed out in order to avoid sensory overload.
In other words: I try to appeal to my rational side by using a sort of “pre-scripted” statement. It’s like in the movies when someone’s been taken over by an evil force and their loved ones are saying “I know you’re in there! Please fight back!” Only, in this case, I’m my own loved one.
In order to pragmatically use this technique to combat emotional over-corrections, I recommend coming up with a simple sentence you can repeat inside your head or under your breath. It should be something that reminds you that the false empowerment that comes with negative reactions to stimulus never provides the outcome you want.
My sentence is: “This is fine. You’re okay. There’s nothing happening right now that can’t wait a few seconds while you adjust.”
After that, I start back at step one until I’m able to calmly cope with my anxiety and do what needs to be done. It’s not a perfect system and it doesn’t always work. But it’s getting easier with time.
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Tristan is a science and technology journalist who values life, humanity, and taco soup. He/him