Stress, Anxiety, and the Aspie Woman: Part I

Understand that I am
already peeled open like cables, like
you can see the Morse code walking through me
in light-up footsteps.

(from my poem “Touch”)

By now, you may already understand that the nervous systems of people on the autism spectrum are more sensitive than the average neurotypical – because of this, everything affects us more, from emotion to stimuli. I touched on this in my last post, which discussed empathy and the Asperger person. Consequently, stress affects our nervous systems more and we encounter a very common ailment in our lives: anxiety.

As I mentioned in my first post, I had been having panic attacks on and off for several years. As far back as I can remember, I have always felt like a stripped open wire or a raw, exposed nerve. Part of me enjoyed being able to feel this intensely (go fig, since I’m an Enneagram Type 4), but it was hell on my nerves. It felt like the entire world was climbing on top of me – sometimes, I even expected it to. This was one major cause of my anxiety: anticipation and dread. This affected me in several aspects of my life, including outings, shopping, public performance, and work. There were times that I lived in a state of low-level fear, trying to “psyche myself out” for the next bit of overstimulation or the next time I’d be interrupted and pulled away from a task at work or the next time I’d have to perform on stage. The combination of overstimulation/frustration and my nervous system going haywire mixed in with anxiety, fear, and difficulty communicating what was going on would often lead to these attacks or worse – a full Asperger outburst or temper fit.

When I first figured out that I had Asperger’s, I began understanding that my nervous system is more sensitive than that of a neurotypical. I compared my own feelings, experiences, and reactions side by side with the basic “stuff” of Asperger’s. The sensory dysfunction explained why I would get overstimulated and tired more quickly, which explains why things such as shopping have been a problem in the past – and some of my attacks have occurred during or after a shopping trip. As for social interaction, I have gotten accustomed to doing it over the years, but sometimes it feels like a script – and sometimes I feel lost; because it’s not native to me, it can lead to both becoming tired and anxiety over whether I’m “getting it right”. The sensory stuff plus the difficulty with social interaction has sometimes made it more difficult for me to perform my poetry – even as recently as couple of months ago, I’d still freak out a little and try to “psyche myself up” to do it, trying to ignore the dread and fear that I would totally screw up and have the entire audience laugh me to scorn.

Then, I came across a book by Dr. Nick Dubin called Asperger Syndrome and Anxiety: A Guide to Successful Stress Management. In the book, Dr. Dubin cites a few reasons for why Aspies have a rougher time dealing with both stress and anxiety.

  • Low frustration tolerance. On the whole, people with Asperger’s have a low tolerance for dealing with frustrating situations and events, according to Dubin. One factor that contributes to this is hypersensitivity to stimuli, such as light, sound, and tactile sensations – this, of course, is what I mean by the sensory dysfunction problems I referenced both earlier in this post and in last week’s post.  Of course, these hypersensitivities can make many kinds of situations stressful and in turn would cause us anxiety in regards to how we deal with those situations; plus, we would also experience anxiety when we anticipate and then feel discomfort as a result of our hypersensitivities.  Also, because of our tendency towards black-and-white thinking, we may incline towards perfectionism – which can make our lives that much harder. With such all-or-nothing thinking, we may think that we have completely failed if we fall just a little short of the proverbial “mark”. Or we may have unreasonably high expectations of ourselves, such as expecting ourselves to perform like neurotypical individuals in areas that are not our strong suits (such as multitasking, switching tasks, and socializing).
  • Unpredictability. Dubin also mentions that people with Asperger’s have a harder time dealing with unpredictability. Because of this, we may spend a lot of energy trying to detect and worry about every possible thing that could go wrong in our daily lives. Related to this, he also mentions that we have a harder time transitioning between activities, which can also cause us anxiety and frustration.
  • Monotropism. Dubin cites Wendy Lawson’s definition of monotropism, which is the tendency to process information in bits and pieces rather than as a whole. Because of this, we tend to single out and focus on only one aspect of a situation – and if it’s how we “failed” or “screwed up”, that can certainly lead to anxiety as well as low-self esteem and a negative self-image. This would be especially damaging if we end up focusing on a mistake or a faux paus we might make that is related to one of our common Asperger weaknesses – for example, if we accidently say something blunt or embarrassing at a party without realizing it. Because of monotropism, we will focus on and blow that mistake out of proportion and convince ourselves that we are weird, incapable, a screw-up, etc.

  • Problems reading non-verbal cues. Many of us are already aware that we have problems reading social cues. We have to work harder to do what comes naturally to a neurotypical person. This can not only cause us anxiety, but frustration when we get it wrong, and exhaustion from the whole process since we have to work harder to do it in the first place.

These are just a few things Dubin cites; he discusses additional factors in the book, such as auditory processing difficulties, coexisting conditions, and depression.

Dubin also discusses how our bodies and minds respond to stress and anxiety, the basic nuts and bolts of cognitive behavioral therapy, more specifics about anxiety, and meltdowns. He assures us that yes, it is possible as Aspies to cope with stress and anxiety.  I’m not quite done with the book yet, but I plan to be writing more about it, as well as stress and anxiety in Aspies, as I continue to read.

As I read and thought, I reflected and understood that yes, I am working with “half a toolbox”, as author Maxine Aston puts it in her book, Asperger’s in Love. While I can make accommodations and adjustments to help myself along, I knew that the world was not going to stop for me. I knew I was going to have to take matters into my own hands, and find healthy coping strategies to deal with the stress in my life. For example, in my work as an administrative assistant, I am often required to multitask, interact socially, and switch between tasks frequently – none of which are my strongest suits. But, I need to develop my own strategies to deal with this.  Dubin has already made some fine suggestions – which I will deal with in the next post on this subject. So stay tuned to find out more. In the meantime, please talk back to me. How have stress and anxiety impacted you in your lives? What do you find aggravates the stress and anxiety? What coping strategies have you discovered?

Until next time,

Nicole

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6 thoughts on “Stress, Anxiety, and the Aspie Woman: Part I

  1. I’m so happy to have found your blog. My 5 yr old is currently diagnosed with PDD-NOS but is being re-evaluated and all signs point to Asperger’s. It’s SO misunderstood and I get a lot of strange responses when I talk to people about him. It’s wonderful to know there are people out there that understand…..thank you. All of the things you listed above are him, to a T.

    • Hi Casey: thanks for stopping by. Sorry I’m so late on commenting back! Yes, autism, spectrum disorders are VERY much misunderstood, including Asperger’s. It’s as if we inhabit some border town between “normal” and “not normal”. At first glance, or even after a short period of observation (depending on the person) we may not appear to have anything different about us…until certain behavioural things begin to happen. I think the lack of knowledge and the level of misunderstanding there is about ASDs is what contributes to the kinds of responses you describe. Yes, I went pretty public about my having AS here, but I’m careful about who I mention it to and in what context. I strongly feel that educating people about ASDs is the way to help us.

  2. Those books you mentioned sound great. However I haven’t had any of the sensory issues described since I was a small child, and they involved the combination of sounds and visual stimuli, such as shopping centres. As I got older I developed a tune out function that I use in those places so I now enjoy shopping because I zone in on what I like to look at, like a pretty dress or a new video game, and while I’m walking I just day dream, much to the dismay of my sleep deprived menopausal mother who wants me to make sure she doesn’t forget what she’s doing. She also hates shopping centres but she doesn’t have aspergers she just likes quiet places as she’s from a rural area originally. So I just go shopping with my boyfriend or by myself, however I make a compromise if my boyfriend wants to go and look at sports equipment lol.

    By the way I’m sick of those books that just describe the symptoms. I just think to myself “Hello not all aspies are four year old boys!” The whole focussing on males thing annoys the crap out of me. I think it’s harder being an aspergers female as society tends to put us women on pedestals and unless we behave normally we are shunned. It seems more acceptable for males to be eccentric. Even at university sometimes people reject me as a weirdo. However I learnt as I got older that people that are patronising to women or aspies can go f**k themselves!

    • Hi Mona: Thanks for stopping by. I’m beginning to think that with the issue of sensory dysfunction, it’s a case of Your Mileage May Vary. I’m 34 years old and still have some sensory issues — they tend to be scattered across the tactile, auditory, and visual dimensions and while milder than what some report, their aggravation can cause me to be come annoyed, irritable, or anxious. The biggest problem I seem to have any more is in some grocery or department stores with florescent lighting and white walls — especially Wal-Mart. I become tired easily after shopping in one of those places, however I’ve found that the best way to shop in them is to wear my sunglasses, which reduces the intensity of the light. Hey, whatever works, you know?

      And you are correct about some of the limited thinking and short-sidedness of those describing Asperger’s or autism in terms of young boys. Autism is an equal opportunity condition and that kind of limited thinking is why so many girls and women miss diagnosis in the first place. And speaking of people being quicker to accept an eccentric male, that raises a question in my mind. I have noticed that women tend to pressure each other to conform a lot more often then men do, and I have been on the receiving end of such peer pressure as both a teenager and an adult. Oddly enough, the last males who I encountered who had problems with me as an eccentric female were in high school, and those were the individuals who bullied me. Once I left college, I didn’t encounter this problem very often from males. It makes me wonder what gives and perhaps think about exploring the social mechanisms among women to see why this might be so.

      -Nicole

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