The raw, the unwrapped, the ripped open wires
inside me call for brand new Hiroshimas.
From DNA, and the world climbing onto my back
I have gone tone deaf to everyone.
(From my poem, “Meltdown”)
In last week’s post, I talked about why we with Asperger Syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders have more difficulty dealing with stress and anxiety. To recap, some of the reasons include low frustration tolerance, unpredictability, monotropism (the tendency to see and focus upon only one part of the picture instead of the whole), and problems reading non-verbal cues. These difficulties can turn an already uncertain and stressful world into a downright frightening one for us. But we are not defeated – there are ways that we can help ourselves cope. I’d like to share a few of those with you in today’s post.
I’m continuing to read Dr. Nick Dubin’s book, Asperger Syndrome and Anxiety: A Guide to Stress Management. So far, his book has been a very informative and useful guide in dealing with both stress and anxiety. As an Aspie himself, Dr. Dubin is very familiar with the sorts of difficulties we face in this area and knows that dealing with it is not as simple as saying “just relax”. In the very first chapter, he breaks down some of the common reasons for our anxiety and how to deal with said anxiety. I’ll highlight some of these for you below.
First off, Dr. Dubin gives the reader two very useful definitions of psychological stress. The first states that it results when “a person feels vulnerable when confronted with a source of power”; another useful definition is that psychological stress happens when “the demands imposed on you from the outside world outweigh your ability to cope with those demands”. Some of you are probably reading this and saying, “Great, Nicole – but how does that help me?” But just follow me for a moment while I unpack these two definitions a bit and cast them in the light of cause-and-effect.
Let’s speak about the first definition – the feeling of vulnerability when confronted with a source of power. Looking back on my own life, I remember this as a feeling of “being small” in the face of something or someone “very large”. That means that mostly, the stressors in those situations have been other people or organizations. For example, a little over ten years ago, I chose to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy due to my financial circumstances. As federal law proscribed at that time, I was to attend a meeting of the creditors some time after I filed; my creditors would have the option as to whether to attend or not. When I thought about it, I would get a very sick, cold feeling in the pit of my stomach – I was picturing every one of my creditors showing up to that meeting and grilling me with questions, with the end result being my petition for bankruptcy denied. As Dubin says later in this same section of the book, I was “giving power” to those creditors over me – in retrospect, I realize that I was doing this because I knew deep down I had made some really stupid financial decisions, and this was producing guilt inside of me. However, this giving away of my power was increasing my vulnerability, fear, and of course my anxiety – and the worst part about it was that I was doing this well in advance of the meeting! In the end, it turns out that I was worried for no reason at all – none of my creditors showed up, and with a few questions from the magistrates the meeting was over. I was granted my bankruptcy.
Now, onto the second definition: ability to cope does not meet up to perceived demands. I’ll use the bankruptcy example again to illustrate how this has played out in my life. When I filed my petition with the courts, I was 23 years old. I’d just moved into a brand new apartment, and my car had just died and needed extensive engine repairs that I could not afford. My job as a entry-level technical support analyst in a call center for a major corporation was stressful and demanding (think about the repeated social interaction required for a job like this) without the intrinsic satisfaction, or, “psychological income” that I deeply desired. And I had a fresh diagnosis of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. My age, my recent move, my loss of regular transportation, the job stress, and the ramifications of my recently diagnosis seemed to all be taking a little bit away from my “gas tank” – they all required something out of me, which didn’t leave as much as I felt that I needed to deal with the bankruptcy. In essence, I didn’t feel like I had or was “enough”. Combine that with the feeling of “being small” that I described earlier and I had some real fear and anxiety going on.
As I mentioned above, things played out in my favor. However, retrospect, I do wish that I would have had better coping skills to deal with my fear and anxiety. More situations in my life happened, both before and after the bankruptcy, that taxed my capabilities. Had I had the tools years ago, perhaps I would have suffered less stress, fewer panic attacks, and I would not be dealing with some of the issues I am dealing with now.
So, what are some of the tools? Dr. Dubin tells us a few important coping strategies that can help:
- Healthy compensation. What this basically means is that you focus on your strengths and assets and have an honest knowledge and assessment of your weaknesses. You do not try to hide, cover up, or deny the weaknesses, and you compensate for them by either a) using one of your strengths or a new strategy to help in the area of the weakness, or b) you simply focus more energy and attention on your strengths. In either case, this requires acceptance and a full recognition of who you are in both strength and weakness.For example, I consider myself a skilled and talented poet; however, I have trouble with performing my work. This is partially due to the effects of Asperger’s (oversensitive nervous system plus trouble with social cues and eye contact – all of which might pose difficulty when performing onstage) and partially because I have held some erroneous beliefs about my ability to perform in front of an audience (more on that in a later post). Four ways in which I have chosen to compensate: 1) I took an oral interpretation class at a local community college to learn the art of performing from text; 2) I watched other performance poets and took notes on their technique and delivery, 3) I have been doing “reality checks” after each performance from which I glean evidence to debunk my belief that I cannot perform effectively in front of an audience, and 4) I have taken a very important piece of advice from my fiancé which ties into what I learned in my oral interpretation class: “let the words lead you” – in other words, let the words in the text dictate my performance values.
- Challenging yourself. If we had no challenges in life at all, we would never grow. On the other hand, challenges that are far beyond our capabilities can send us into a variety of stress responses, including panic, inaction, addiction, and health problems. Just the right amount of challenge, however, can help us grow. Dr. Dubin gives the analogy of a ladder – with each step up, we gain strength, experience, and skill.A great example of this in my life happened about two years ago when my fiancé and I went to our first poetry open mic. I had no intent on reading that evening; however, I was encouraged by a poet who we’d just met at this same open mic to get up and read my material. I gained a sudden burst of courage and signed up to read, and then sat there and said to myself, “Why am I doing this?” But I got up there, took a deep breath, and read a short poem. When I got off the stage, I was hit with the realization and the thrill – I’d done it!
Keep in mind that this strategy requires, again, a bit of wisdom and self-knowledge which includes an honest assessment of our skills and capabilities. I have tried to complete in poetry slams a few times, and while I’ve gained the experience of having done it, I realize that there are some things I need to do before slamming again, such as practicing, gaining more confidence, and learning how to apply what I learned about performance to the slam environment.
- Sublimation. This basically means channeling your stress into a positive outlet for release. I emphasize the word positive because we can, of course, channel our stress into negative outlets, such as addictions and undue aggression towards people who are not the cause of our stress (i.e. yell at your spouse, kick the cat, flip off the driver who cut in front of you…you get the picture). But done in a healthy way, sublimation can be a wonderful way to release stress and tension. There are a myriad of possibilities – exercise, which can be a more physical form of release (i.e. punching on a punching back, aerobics, martial arts), meditation, hobbies, and creative arts/pursuits.Some examples from my own life: I take a twenty minute walk nearly every day during the work week immediately after lunch. This allows me time to get out of my office and be just with myself, the outdoors, and the music on my MP3 player (speaking of which, music may have a soothing and pleasurable effect as well); this, of course, would qualify as a more physical form of sublimation. Also, I leak out my feelings into my poetry – this is a way of “getting it off my chest” in order to feel better.
- “Applying the brakes”. Two different facets of our nervous systems control our stress responses – the sympathetic nervous system, which controls our “flight or fight” response, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is supposed to cool us down and reduce the tension within once the perceived threat has passed. As Dr. Dubin explains it, we can sometimes be stuck in a perpetual stress response, which means our sympathetic nervous system is “always on”. That means we become nervous, edgy, and “keyed up”. If the sympathetic nervous system never kicks off and allows the parasympathetic nervous system to take over and calm us down, we can suffer some real health and emotional problems as a result, such as anxiety disorders, heart disease, and type II diabetes (which by the way, I have). What “applying the breaks” means is learning how to kick our parasympathetic nervous system on so that we can relax and ease the nervousness and tension inside us and we then don’t suffer those kinds of consequences that I just mentioned. There are things we can do cognitively to reduce our stress response – I will be dealing with those (including some concepts from cognitive behavioral therapy) in a future post.
A few things that Dr. Dubin hasn’t yet mentioned up to this point in the book but that I would like to talk about:
- Having a good support system. Each of us as human beings needs to have a support system in place which is made up of people who care about us, who are willing to listen to us, and who will give us honest assessment and feedback about us and whatever situations we face. These individuals could be other Aspies, neurotypicals, or we could have both kinds in our support system. In either case, these individuals can serve as sounding boards, a “second pair of eyes” through which to view a situation, a shoulder to lean on or cry upon, or someone who will just listen if we need to get something off of our chests. I cannot emphasize enough how important having a good support system is – these individuals could be family, close friends, clergy that you trust (if you are religious), or even a counselor or therapist.
- Talking it out. Related to the above: I cannot stress also how important communicating our problems, stressors and worries are. I have a tendency to “lock up things” inside me and not talk until it’s too late. This is due to a) natural communication difficulties inherent with Asperger Syndrome; and, b) some erroneous beliefs I picked up as a child and teenager (from my father, that I had to be strong and independent to the point of where I didn’t need anyone, and that relying on others is bad; from my aunt, that my concerns were trivial and not worth expressing or addressing). I am having to learn how to talk, and sometimes the act of talking itself releases the pent-up emotions and anxiety that I have. Related to my above point about having a good support system, the major thing you need to make sure of is that the person you talk to is patient, is someone that you trust, and understands any inherent communication difficulties that you may have.
- Crying, or the freedom of emotional expression. As we with Asperger’s are aware, our low frustration tolerance can lead to inner tension, anxiety, and turmoil. We’re all familiar with “meltdowns” – when all of that emotional turmoil, tension, and possible irritation builds up inside us and we can’t keep the lid on it anymore. In at least two of her materials, Dr. Temple Grandin gives some very sage advice: crying is much better than a temper tantrum. In other words, you have to give yourself permission to cry because a) it will give you the release you need and b) there are more severe consequences to having temper fits in public: if you go too far, you could get fired, arrested, banned from a particular establishment, and so on.At the risk of sounding stereotypical, I will say that in general women may have an easier time with crying than men. I’m probably an exception to the rule – I am more likely to have a temper tantrum first: but I am trying to learn how to cry instead. And I really do believe that men on the spectrum should also learn how to give themselves permission to cry to better release frustration. If you have to go into a bathroom stall or into your car, do it. You’ll thank yourself later.
I’ll wrap up for now, but I plan to continue dealing with this topic. The next installments will deal with cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive strategies to reduce our stress, the unique challenges that Aspie women face with stress and anxiety, and medication. Please stay tuned for more.
I enjoy having you here to read and interact with me. Please talk back to me and tell me what you think. What have your experiences been? What have you done to help yourself deal with stress and anxiety? What have been your particular challenges? I’d love to hear from you.
Until next time,