Language Note: Over the decades, many different terms have been used to discuss autism. AANE is shifting to identity-first language and the term “Autistic” to describe our community, but we continue to respect each individual’s choice of language to describe their own neurotype. We believe that sharing a wide variety of stories provides invaluable insight into the diverse perspectives and experiences of our community.
Imagine this scene . . .
You are thirteen years old and you walk into your school cafeteria. The lights are overwhelming, you feel swallowed by a sea of people, and your body is overcome by fear so intense, it feels as if you are being chased by a tiger. The “Fight or Flight” response, that can be so beneficial if you are actually at risk, is less so if you are just hoping to eat some lunch and make some friends in the middle of the school day.
Despite being such an inconvenience in my own life, I find the physiology of the stress response to be pretty interesting. Perceiving a threat, our nervous systems trigger a release of hormones that lead to a cascade of changes that provide certain advantages in dangerous situations. Our bodies’ resources are allocated to functions that enable a person to respond fiercely and effectively–for example heart and lung actions accelerate and muscle tension increases resulting in an ability to run faster. At the same time, functions less critical to dealing with a threat are inhibited–for example, digestion slows and the bladder relaxes. A person’s hearing might grow duller and tunnel vision might ensue, replacing peripheral vision with razor sharp focus. Because of these miraculous adaptive strategies, you might be able to outrun that hypothetical tiger and return home safely, relieved yet in need of serious recovery time.
Now imagine being subject to those same physiological spikes on a day-to-day basis–when you walk through the halls of school, or try to make small talk, or drive a car. This was my experience growing up as a child with undiagnosed Asperger’s. My body perceived activities considered innocuous by others as worthy of a crisis response. I was routinely flooded with adrenaline, causing the walls around me to seemingly close in. I could not identify any perceivable danger, yet my appetite evaporated and my muscles clamped down. Some moments felt like a code-red, others a code-yellow. Rarely, however, did my body let its guard down enough to fully recover.
I have spent decades learning to tame my overactive nervous system and I would love to share some of the strategies that worked for me.
1. Understanding the Effects of Environment: I now know the environments that overwhelm my senses and can make choices that work for me. I recognize that large crowds can trigger anxiety, so I do my best to avoid these situations and build in restorative time after necessary events. Getting out in nature seems to be the all-time best way for me to soothe my haggard nerves, whether it be a walk in the woods or a morning in the garden. I am a huge fan of sleep for recovery.
2. Practicing the Hard Stuff: I have also learned that there are many things in life that I can’t avoid and do not want to avoid. I have learned to gently expand my areas of comfort by practicing being calm while facing challenges in small doses. For example, after years of repeated social interaction, the sense of risk previously associated with verbal communication has softened. People are often surprised to hear that I have ever struggled to connect.
3. Asking for Help: I have learned that there are people I can trust and that it is O.K. to ask for help. I look to friends and family to help me understand confusing situations or to brainstorm effective strategies to deal with difficult situations. Interestingly, the more I share my experiences with others, the more I realize how many people share the same challenges.
4. Moving: Over the years, I have run, danced, practiced yoga, biked, and studied martial arts. These activities have served as moving meditations that have kept me grounded in the present and have taught me to control my breathing and my fear. Movement helps me to blow off excess energy, reduce muscle tension, and to connect with others in a positive way.
5. Knowing Myself: I have worked with therapists (both in one-on-one and group settings) to better understand myself and the impact of my thoughts and emotions. I now notice when my thoughts move unnecessarily in the direction of fear and can more easily shift to more positive, constructive thinking.
I can say that I now live a rich and meaningful life that includes many people, varied environments, challenging work, and even the occasional cafeteria. Anxiety can still sneak up on me, but it no longer dominates my life. In so many ways, I find my sensitivities to now be assets. I like to think that I have befriended that wild tiger.
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