a blog by an autistic adult

Category: Stress Management (page 1 of 2)


aspergers and anxiety

As a kid, I was afraid of the sun. The sun was blinding. It hurt my eyes so badly that my mom joked to her friends that I was a vampire. If we had to go somewhere on a sunny day, I had to wear sunglasses.

One of my first memories is of being in a stroller and having lost my sunglasses. That was not a good day. There was nothing my mom could do; we still had several blocks to walk to get back home. I cried until I threw up all over myself. My mom and I both learned important lessons that day. My mom learned to never leave home without a spare pair of sunglasses. I learned that there was nothing my mom could do to protect me from all the things in the world that seemed destined to one day gang up and kill me.

I was terrified of the sun for most of my childhood. Even if I didn’t have to leave the house that day, if I looked out the window and saw the sun, I felt a sense of impending doom. For many years, just the thought of having to go outside in the sun gave me chest pains and headaches.

I was equally anxious about water. Water felt like fire. Getting water poured over my head to rinse my hair was basically torture, but just sitting in a bathtub full of water was pretty bad. As a kid, my mom made me take a bath every night. I spent most of every day in a state of anxiety, worrying about the bath I would have to take before bed time.

I was also afraid of losing my pink pup. I sucked my thumb until I was 8, and whenever I was home I carried around a stuffed pink pup that I would hold up to my face while I sucked my thumb. Somehow I managed to misplace the pink pup several times a day. Although it was the most important thing in my world, I couldn’t seem to keep track of this worn out dusty pup. It got to the point where even when it wasn’t lost yet, I feared losing it. I was in an almost constant state of anxiety about losing the pup. Once I started to school, I was sure that my mom was going to throw it away. I couldn’t bring the pup to school. I spent most of first and second grade worrying about what would happen to my pup while I was in school. When I got home, I couldn’t enjoy the pup because I was too busy worrying about what would happen to it the next day.

I wasn’t diagnosed with aspergers until adulthood. No one in my life, including me, understood what exactly was going on with me. My mother insisted I was “mentally ill” or “emotionally disturbed” and offered these terms as an apologetic excuse whenever we were out in public and I melted down. At some point, during my late teenager years, my mom said maybe I had an anxiety disorder.

For me, aspergers and anxiety go hand in hand. They always have. I know this now, as an adult.

I’m no longer afraid of the sun, or water, or losing my pink pup. I have new, grownup fears now. Such as worrying about having to deal with people, trying to keep a job, struggling to make enough money to pay my bills, health problems, and many other things I have little control over.

Over the years, before I was diagnosed with aspergers, medical professionals focused on my anxiety. There are pills for this and therapies for this. I saw psychiatrists, behavioral therapists, and so on by the dozens. I took pills, none of which helped me and all of which came with side effects and/or withdrawal effects that were worse than the original anxiety. I eventually quit all of this and decided that only I could save my own life.

After barely surviving a suicide attempt in 2004, which was largely prompted from very bad withdrawal effects from going off an anxiety med, I vowed to never take another psychotropic drug. (I know medications help a lot of people, but it became clear that I’m not one of those people.) Instead, I began trying find ways to change my mindset.

For the past several years, I have been working to change my state of mind about certain things. It’s a slow process, and I still have fears and feel anxiety. I don’t think it will ever completely go away. But it’s better than it was. I think it’s only natural to feel anxiety about certain things, because it would be unrealistic not to worry about money if you don’t have any, etc.

I work mostly on trying not to feel so much anxiety about unrealistic fears. I don’t need to waste my energy worrying about something that might happen ten years from now, for example. I also probably don’t need to worry all the time about whether or not my apartment will burn down, which is a semi-realistic fear I had for years while living in an apartment where the neighbors set the yard on fire multiple times with their fire pit. If a fear doesn’t serve me, or no longer serves me, I try to let it go. This is easier said than done.

I try to manage my mindset by replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. When I find myself thinking “If I screw this up, I’ll probably lose my job,” I try to reframe that thought to, “I won’t lose my job over this,” or “Even if I lose my job someday, I can find another one. I’ve done it before.”

I try to manage my moods by catching my thoughts before they spiral out of control. One tiny bad thing can turn into a catastrophe in my mind, if I let it. For example, this morning I ran out of oatmeal. I love to eat oatmeal for breakfast and don’t like a change to my routine. I get my groceries delivered every Friday, since I don’t drive, and don’t have anyone I can call to run out and fetch me some oatmeal. I will not have any oatmeal until Friday. This might sound like a minor thing, but it’s one of those things that has the potential to cause me anxiety for the rest of the week. If I’m not careful, things like this can lead me to a meltdown. Since I often self-harm during meltdowns, I try to do everything in my power to avoid having one. This morning, I caught my thoughts starting to spiral over the oatmeal. THE REST OF MY WEEK IS RUINED, I thought. Then I thought, No. The rest of my week is going to be awesome, because I HAVE SAUSAGE BISCUITS. For the rest of the week, I can eat sausage biscuits for breakfast! This will be a real treat, since I usually only eat them once on the weekend. This week is going to be awesome! (There. Problem solved.)

I try to manage my stress levels to reduce anxiety. I have found that being overstimulated or on sensory overload will push me into a heightened state of anxiety. I therefore try to prevent this from happening by engaging in relaxing activities every day and creating/maintaining better habits to reduce overstimulation and sensory overload. Although I doubt I will ever completely eliminate my anxiety, I am much calmer now than I was in the past.

Is anxiety a problem for you? What helps you to manage your anxiety?

Coping Mechanisms

coping mechanisms for adults with asperger's

We all have coping mechanisms can help us deal with overwhelming or stressful situations. After being diagnosed with aspergers I was told that learning coping skills can help me to avoid meltdowns. But where do we get these coping skills? What works for one person won’t work for everyone. Trying to figure out what would work for me was and continues to be an ongoing challenge. Sometimes I just don’t have the energy to employ any skills. Each autistic person is unique and has his or her own difficulties. Since each of us will be affected differently by various situations, circumstances, or triggers, no single person can write one comprehensive list that will help everyone. But it’s something I get asked about a lot, especially by parents of autistic children. The following coping skills have helped me.

1) I try to reduce over-stimulation and sensory overload by wearing headphones, avoiding places with bright florescent lights whenever possible, cutting down on overstimulating foods and beverages, being honest with myself and others about how much socializing I can handle, turning off the television/computer/smartphone when I need to, planning in advance whenever possible, cutting down on phone calls, and limiting time spent with people who trigger me.

2) I have figured out relaxing activities that help me feel less stressed. I try to do them regularly to prevent stress as well. This way I will be in a better frame of mind to cope with stressful situations that will inevitably present themselves. It may help to engage in these relaxing activities whenever you can, not just after you feel stressed and need to decompress. I have become a much more relaxed person by allowing myself to engage in relaxing things daily such as coloring, doing puzzles, and playing with sand.

3) As much as is humanly possible I try to reserve my energy for things that matter. I try to maintain the habit of taking an inventory of the things I do (and people I spend time with) and how they affect me, cutting out the unnecessary things/people that cause me the most stress and frustration, and doing more of the things that make me feel good. I understand that some autistic people are not able to do this or don’t find it helpful, but it helps me a great deal. I can tell because when I don’t do this for a while, I either shut down or melt down or experience a burnout that results in my eventually going back to this habit.

4) I highly recommend carrying stimming toys or security objects with you if they help you relax. My life has become much easier after accepting that stimming is part of my life and deciding that I don’t care what other people in public might think about me. I carry a small stuffed animal with me to my doctor appointments, because doctor appointments often stress me out to the point of a meltdown. If someone looks at me funny in the waiting room because I’m a 35-year-old woman and am petting my stuffed hedgehog, I just laugh to myself and think that they would probably rather watch me pet a stuffed animal than see me have an anxiety attack or a meltdown while I’m waiting.

5) Figure out if you do better going places alone or with a friend/family member. I’ve learned that having a friend or family member go with me to stressful doctor appointments actually makes things worse. When I have my mom sitting next to me asking me questions or trying to make small talk, I’m consumed not only with my stress of being at the doctor but also with the additional stress of trying not to snap at her while trying to make small talk. Other people enjoy having someone to talk to because they find the conversation distracting and relaxing. Be honest with yourself and your loved ones about whether having them go with you is helpful or not.

6) I like to try different distraction techniques. You can do different things like counting breaths, reciting something in your head, or playing mental games with letters or words, etc. If I find myself growing impatient or overwhelmed while waiting in the pharmacy line, for example, I will sometimes have good luck with distracting myself by singing a song in my head or making up a game. One game I like is to try to think of a word that begins with each letter of the alphabet, like A apple, B banana, C cat, D dog, E elephant, etc. Other times I will count floor tiles. One of my friends memorized a long poem that he recites in his head while he is waiting in line. If you can find a way to distract yourself mentally then the situation sometimes becomes more tolerable.

7) I will try to re-frame a situation or emotion in my mind. In other words, try to put a positive spin on a negative situation. This isn’t always possible but sometimes helps me. For example, this morning I woke up late and felt like I wouldn’t get anything done. The thought that was consuming my mind was “Today is going to be so stressful because I overslept. I’m never going to get everything done.” After about half an hour of this, I decided that I was wasting even more time with this negative thinking, and I was working myself up toward shutting down completely. I was able to re-frame my thinking by telling myself “I will get as much done as I can.” I stopped beating myself up for sleeping too late by telling myself “I probably needed the extra sleep.” I often remind myself that not everything is an emergency. Sometimes I have to admit that I am being a drama queen and allowing negative thinking to ruin my whole day. I am not always able to re-frame the situation or change how I am feeling, but I’m getting better about trying to do this before the negativity escalates into a meltdown or shutdown. This is a technique that takes LOTS of practice, and I know it doesn’t work for everyone.

8) Try to step away from what I refer to as a “communication crisis” until you can formulate a proper response. If you have problems with communication and impulse control problems like I do, this is a hard one but it has helped me. I have difficulty coping when someone is criticizing with me, trying to argue with me, giving me too many things to think about at once, or making me feel bad. It’s easy to get into an argument with a loved one, become insulted by a coworker, or react to what a boss says in a negative way. When I become stressed in a conversation, I tend to react harshly even if the reaction isn’t warranted. It is helpful for me to take the time to regain my composure, figure out what is really being said and how I should properly respond, and then step back in to the conversation. This is not always possible, but sometimes it is. For example, if my boss calls me or has me come to his office to discuss several things I am doing wrong, I am likely to feel on the defensive and might react in a way that will make me be without a job. Instead of reacting right away, I will try to say something like “It would be helpful if you give me some time to digest what you’ve said. Can we meet again tomorrow (or later) to finish this conversation?” This way I can think through the criticisms, maybe ask a trusted friend if I am overreacting, or try to come up with the best calm way to address what my boss has said. Likewise, I will try to step out of a heated conversation with family members in order to calm down, compose myself, and discuss the issue when I am not feeling overwhelmed with so many emotions. One thing I love about email and the internet is that I can choose to reply later; replying immediately to an email or message on social media is usually a bad idea for me if I’m feeling overwhelmed.

9) One of the best things I have learned is to say no. We all have our limits on how much we can cope with. Some days I will be able to cope with a lot and handle many tasks, while other days I can barely cope with the basic things I have to do to survive. I tend to be too nice and will say yes to many requests. Then I feel overwhelmed later and get resentful at the people I said yes to, but it’s really my own fault for taking on more than I could handle. I often have to remind myself: There is no shame in saying no to the neighbor who asks you to babysit their kid, or saying no to the boss who asks if you can come in on your day off, or saying no to an invitation to a social function. My life is much easier if I say no sometimes. The fewer things I have to cope with, the better I’m able to cope with the things that must be done.

10) Get comfortable with the idea that there is no shame in asking for help. This is the hardest one for me. I like to think I’m a fairly smart person, but there are some things that I can’t figure out on my own no matter how many hours I spend trying to learn. A few years ago I had to ask for help with preparing my taxes; after someone taught me to use the tax software, I was able to do it myself. Some things I never seem to get any better at and will probably always need to ask for help with. For example, I can’t drive. If I have to go somewhere, I either have to ask a family member or call a taxi. In the past couple of years I’ve grown more comfortable with accepting that I will need help sometimes. Everyone needs help sometimes, and it’s better to ask for help than to suffer silently.

Do you have any other coping skills that have helped you? Feel free to share what works for you and what doesn’t.

Dealing With People Who Piss You Off

aspergers dealing with people who make you angry

In this world we are faced with all kinds of people. Some of them are pleasant, while others are not.

Many different types of people get on my nerves. No matter how good of a day I’m having, it’s almost inevitable that if I leave the house I will run into one or more people who annoy me. Some days I’m annoyed by an overly critical parent. Other days it’s a stranger in the grocery store who allows her kid to run wild and throw fruit without bothering to apologize for her child’s behavior. Sometimes it’s a guy on the bus who sits next to me and wants to chat for an hour about baseball and the weather.

We all have different ways to cope with people who piss us off. Coping mechanisms are as different as each individual. But since I recently had someone email me who asked how I deal with people who piss me off, I decided to share some of what works for me.

First, I assess the situation. Is this a person I can get away from? If so, I get away from them.

For example, can I leave the restaurant where the screaming toddler is making my head hurt? Or am I trapped on a plane with no where to go? If the person lives with me, can I go take a walk or go into another room for a while?

Second, I assess my other options.

If I can’t get away from the person who is pissing me off, I will attempt to remain calm while figuring out the best course of action. Can I wear noise-cancelling headphones to drown out the crying baby on the plane? Can I tell the chatting man on the bus that I would like to close my eyes and rest for a while? Can I tell my mother that I need some space and want to read a book alone in my bedroom?

If I’m absolutely stuck and there is nothing I can do, I try to change my thoughts and frame of mind. If my current thoughts are “This person is making me crazy. This person is never going to shut up. I want to hit someone,” I will try to change my thoughts to something like “I will be away from this person soon. If I think about something else, the time will pass faster.” Or if I’m at work, my thoughts may be, “My boss is a jerk and doesn’t appreciate me. I hate my job and would rather quit than deal with this anymore.” I then try to change those thoughts to “I am grateful to have a job so I can pay my rent. I will talk to my boss about my concerns when I calm down. I need to find a new job before I quit.”

Third, I figure out ways to be better prepared next time.

Once I am out of the situation and have calmed down, I think about the situation and how I handled it. If I didn’t explode or yell etc., then I give myself credit for surviving the situation without blowing up. If I yelled or reacted inappropriately, I apologize (unless it is a stranger I have no way to ever contact).

Then, I try to figure out ways I can make my life easier next time. For example, I almost always carry my noise-cancelling headphones with me now, because I have learned from my past encounters with people who pissed me off that I need to always be able to drown out the noise of annoying people.

I’ve found that if I put my headphones on as soon as I get on the train or bus, etc, that the person who sits down next to me is less likely to try to make chit-chat. If they still try, I ignore them and close my eyes. Eventually they shut up.

I have also made some other changes based on frequent recurrences with people who annoy me. I do most of my shopping online now to avoid the people who piss me off in stores. I also decline invitations to most social gatherings, because I do not enjoy going.

I limit the time I spend with family members who annoy me. When I was stuck in the same house with them, I tried my best to set boundaries while I was in a calm mood. (For example, I asked my mom to please not come into my room to talk to me while I was trying to study, because it agitates me when I keep getting interrupted). It was difficult to keep a positive mindset while being trapped in a home with people who annoyed me, but I did my best. I tried to remain as focused as possible on finding ways to make more money so I could move out.

The bottom line is that all we can do is the best we can do in any situation. We can use each experience as a learning opportunity to try to make life easier for ourselves the next time. That’s how I try to look at it anyway.

How to Reserve Your Energy for Things That Matter

aspie blog - aspergers blog for adults with aspergersHave you ever felt completely drained of energy? Like you spent every last drop of energy you have? Then something comes along that demands more energy, and you shut down or melt down?

This used to happen to me almost every day. Sometimes by 10:00 a.m., I was already out of energy and just wanted to crawl into bed and shut the world out. But I couldn’t, because I had to work until 5:00 p.m. Then my boss would give me something difficult to do, and I would have a meltdown. Or, I would go home at night and a family member would criticize me, and I would blow up. This still happens to me occasionally, but I’ve figured out how to reserve my energy for things that matter most of the time.

Step 1: Take an inventory for a week.

Carry a notebook or use your smartphone to log everything you do in a given day and how each thing affects you.

For example, if you go to the grocery store, write it down. Did the bright lights and rude cashier and crowds of people coming at you with shopping carts give you anxiety? Write it down. Did your mother call and ask you what you’ve been eating? Did you feel annoyed or irritated by this conversation? Did you take a 30 minute walk after lunch? Did the walk make you feel more relaxed? Write it down. Did you eat ice cream? How did you feel while you were eating it? Did you watch a horror movie or stay up late chatting online? Write down everything you do and how you felt. If you aren’t sure how something made you feel, that’s ok. Did you have a meltdown at the end of the day? If so, maybe you can pinpoint this meltdown to a certain activity that triggered you, or maybe it was a combination of things that drained your energy. The more often you take this inventory, the easier it will be to pinpoint and avoid what triggers you to shut down or melt down.

The things you write down are the ways you spend your energy.

Step 2: Go through your inventory and determine which things are absolutely necessary.

Some things you probably can’t avoid, like showing up for work or taking care of your kids. These are the things that probably matter most to you. They may be stressful, but you have to do them. The goal here is to try to reserve your energy for these things, and to try to spend the rest of your energy on things that make you feel good.

Step 3: Go through your inventory and figure out which things drain your energy most, and cut some out.

Look back at the list you made for one week. Do you see any patterns?

For example, do you have meltdowns every day that you talk to your mom on the phone? Can you ignore your mom’s call and text her or email her instead? Do you feel anxiety every time you go to the hardware store? Can you order those items from Amazon next time?

Step 4: Look at your inventory and determine which things make you feel better, and do more of those.

Maybe you felt good on the day you ate eggs for breakfast, or you were more relaxed the day you left for work half an hour earlier. Try to do these things more and see if they continue to make you feel better.

Step 5: Repeat the inventory and assessment process regularly.

The best way to get good at something is to practice. Some days we might not even notice how many things we are doing, let alone how they affect us, if we don’t write it all down. The more often I take an inventory and assess how I am investing my energy, the better I am able to see how much of my energy I’m really wasting rather than saving my energy for the things that matter.

Once you have cut out many of the unnecessary activities that waste your energy, you will probably find that you have fewer meltdowns and shutdowns.

7 Relaxing Activities

aspergers stress management gamesWhenever I tell someone I’m stressed, one of the first suggestions is “You should take up meditation.” This is usually followed by “Oh, you should take a class on stress management.” I don’t know about you, but the idea of meditating stresses me out. I’ve tried meditating, and I’m not good at it. All those thoughts swirling around in my head give me an anxiety attack. Taking a class in stress management is probably the last thing I would enjoy, after meditation of course. (Who wants to sit in a room with a bunch of other stressed out people? LOL) So, here’s a practical list of simple and affordable activities that I do on a regular basis to help me feel less stressed. You will find that what these activities have in common is that they involve using your hands while distracting your brain. If you have any other ideas, please let me know in the comments.

1. Play solitaire. 

Although there are some great computer and smartphone solitaire games, I’ve found that playing solitaire is most relaxing for me with real cards. You can get a deck of cards at a dollar store or on sites like Amazon. I find that just shuffling the cards relaxes me. Solitaire is also one of the easiest, less stressful games I know. The rules are easy to learn, you aren’t competing against anyone, and it doesn’t matter if you lose.

2. Play with sand. 

I love sand. I love the way it feels in my hands, and it’s fun to make a little castle. I especially love kinetic sand, because it’s less messy. I was able to get a small sandbox kit on Amazon for about $20, but there are probably cheaper ones available. If you don’t like sand, try clay or dough. There are some interesting recipes online for making your own dough.

3. Color.

I’ve discovered that drawing and painting stress me out, because I worry about getting it right and become frustrated. Coloring is easy though. I ordered a stash of cheap coloring books and a pack of crayons for about $10, and they have lasted since last winter.

4. Play a wood peg game.

Wood peg games involve jumping one peg over the others until you run out of pegs. Here is an example of one that I own. This is a game you can play by yourself, or you can take turns with friends. I prefer to play alone.

5. Make a collage.

I love making collages when I’m stressed. This takes a bit of advanced planning, because you will need old magazines or something to cut pictures from as well as tape or a glue stick. I hate the way glue smells so I prefer the odorless glue sticks. If I’m on the verge of a meltdown and don’t trust myself with scissors, I will just tear up the paper with my hands. I’ve made a few creative stripped-paper collages this way.

6. Do a puzzle.

I own two big books of wordsearches and jumbles, because I find these puzzles to be relaxing. Crosswords and other word puzzles stress me out. I also own several jigsaw puzzles, which I find relaxing as long as I don’t buy the very difficult ones.

7. Treat yourself to a favorite.

I keep a “favorite box,” which is basically a large shoe box, next to my desk for when I need to de-stress. In my favorite box are two of my favorite dvds, a favorite cd, one of my favorite books, my favorite beaded bracelet (touching the beads relaxes me), my favorite tiny slinky, a little bottle of body spray that smells like lavender, and my favorite candy bar. I keep this stuff in there and sometimes put other things in there or change it up as needed, but I always know that when I am feeling stressed I can grab something out of there and it feels like I’m getting a treat.

What activities or things do you do to manage your stress? I know that what works for one person will be different for others (for example, my friend knits to relax but knitting stresses me out). It would be great if we could come up with a big list of ideas.

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