Adulting for Autistics: Stress Management

Today in Adulting for Autistics, I’m going to talk about stress management.  Autistic people often get a bad rap as being overreactive, easily freaked out, and generally emotionally fragile.  While it’s true that we have a higher baseline for stress than NTs, we don’t deserve that kind of stereotype.  Stress management is even more important for us than for other people.  Believe me, I know you can’t control the world around you.  You can’t control other people, loud places, or other sensory madness any more than you control the weather – don’t we all wish we could!  What you can control, though, is yourself and your own reactions.  This is all part of self-regulation and it’ll help you function as an adult and even avoid meltdowns (which are no fun).  Here’s what I’ve learned about managing stress in my life.

Be Aware of Your Stress Levels

The most important thing I’ve learned to do is to monitor my stress levels so I can keep them from getting out of hand.  For a long time, I got overwhelmed out of nowhere (I thought) and, if asked, I couldn’t actually say what was wrong.  With time and work, I learned that my body and mind will show signs of stress long before I lose it, if I’ll just pay attention.

I have a weird thing where I tend to hold my breath when I’m stressed.  It’s totally involuntary and I don’t know I’m doing it until I exhale.  When I catch myself doing this, it tells me that I need to take several deep breaths and make a point to keep my breathing even from then on.  Whether you hold your breath or hyperventilate, your breathing probably changes when you’re stressed and focusing on your breath will help you calm down. 

I’ve also learned to pay attention to the tension in my body.  If you stop what you’re doing and take your awareness through your whole body, you’ll probably find some pockets of tension that you can relax – maybe your shoulders or neck, maybe your legs, or maybe your face or your hands.  Everyone holds their tension in different places.  When I find myself holding my shoulders and neck stiffly or tensing my legs, I try to relax them with a few deep breaths or progressive muscle relaxation.

Even if I miss my body’s signs of stress, my mind will give me plenty of warning signs.  My thoughts may race or get stuck in a loop.  Sometimes I have trouble thinking coherently at all – I can get through about half a thought before another one comes in and I lose my train of thought as easily as blinking.  All of this is a huge red flag that my stress levels are climbing and I need to address it before I get overwhelmed.

Take Steps to Bring Down Stress

I have a few favorite ways to reduce my stress levels.  I highly recommend intentional stimming – there’s a lot to be said for just sitting down and rocking for no other reason than that I like it and it makes me feel better!

At work or in the middle of a project, my best advice is to take breaks.  Watch a quick funny video or spend a few minutes with a favorite song, maybe even run off to the bathroom for a few minutes just to breathe in private.  I make a point to go walk around my office building for about ten minutes or so at least once a day.  Not only does it give me some time to myself to de-stress, but it makes a good transition between my quiet morning work and the phone calls I have to make later in the day.  (I hate phone calls, do you?)

At home, I have more options for comforting activities.  I might put on a favorite podcast or play my favorite music.  I could also put on a stimmy movie or video (you know, the ones you watch over and over and over… The Princess Bride, the Harry Potter series, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and Red Dwarf are all good for me).  Using my hands is a good way to slow down my brain, so I might knit (my latest obsession) or cross-stitch or cook something from scratch.  Even cleaning can be helpful.  Of course, the ultimate in relaxation (for me, anyway) is a nice hot bath with lots of Epsom salts and some nice-smelling oils.  Add a good podcast or audiobook, and I’m a happy girl!

Prevent Stress with Self-Care

Self-care is SO important for autistic people!  Because we live with higher stress levels just by virtue of being who we are, it is vital that we take care of ourselves. 

First and foremost, eat properly!  Your body can’t build the necessary neurotransmitters without the right raw materials, and when your brain chemicals are out of balance, depression, anxiety, and a host of other bad feelings can take over.  For me, the keys are getting enough protein and regularly eating some fruits and vegetables (I don’t even try for every day, just several times a week).  If I eat nothing but grains and carbs, my anxiety gets worse and I can fall into a really bad depression.  I know a lot of autistic people have food aversions and restricted diets, and if that’s you, please make sure that you take a good multivitamin or get your nutrients through some other means.  If vegans can get enough protein to stay healthy, you can find ways to get balanced nutrition, too.  Your brain will thank you!

Next comes my biggest challenge – sleep properly!  I admit, I don’t do this.  I’m a night owl working on a 9 to 5 schedule, plus my fibromyalgia keeps me from getting good quality sleep.  When I do get a solid night’s sleep, though, I feel like a new person!  The fact is that a rested brain will handle stress more effectively than a tired, frazzled brain.  So learn about good sleep hygiene and do as much as you can to improve your sleep.  You’ll feel much better for it.

Lastly, we have my favorite part of self-care: do things you love!  Spend time on your hobbies, watch your favorite tv or movies (for the seventh or seven hundredth time, who cares?), play your favorite songs on a loop, snuggle your pets, dance like a madman (oh, is that just me?), whatever you enjoy.  Counter daily stress with daily fun to help keep yourself in balance.

Adulting for Autistics: Stress Management

Stress is harder on us because, as autistic adults, we experience more of it than our NT peers.  We can’t use that as an excuse to not function, though.  We have to take responsibility for managing our stress for our own health. 

What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to stress management?  What’s your favorite way to de-stress at the end of the day or during the workday?  Do you hate having to make phone calls at work?  Got any tips for maintaining good nutrition or good sleep?  What’s your favorite stimmy movie, tv show, or song?  What do you do to counter daily stress with daily fun?

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