Monday, October 10, 2011
Autism and stress
Question posed: What makes it so easy for people with autism to freak out?
On the surface, some may be offended at such a question. It's really a good opportunity to educate on what it can be like to live with autism or several other disorders that aren't plain to the naked eye. So, rather than get offended, I suggest sharing what stress levels are like for disorders of this kind.
First let's define stress in the psychological sense. First you may be interested to know that stress is a very subjective word and everyone has their own personal view of its definition. For the most part just about everyone understands that something irritating you is stressful and causes you "stress". There are positive and negative forms of stress as well. Everyone handles stress at least a little bit differently.
Another thing most people can agree on is that stress has its limits. You can only take so much of a "stressor" before you need to take a break. A good example of this is to think of exercise. Imagine picking up a five pound weight and bending your arm while lifting it. When you lift the weight you put stress on the muscles in your arm. The first time you lift it, may provide little stress. If you lift it a few more times, your arm may begin to get tired. The more you repeat the process of lifting and lowering the weight, the more difficult it becomes. This shows the limit of stress on those muscles. Eventually you will reach what is called "muscle failure" and you will have to put the weight down and let your arm rest.
In mental stress you deal with a similar style of limits, but different kinds of stressors. For example, think of your monthly bills. If you are having financial trouble or just on limited income, your monthly bills (electricity, phone, rent) may be a source of negative stress for you. Fear is another stressor, whether fear of losing your home, having your phone turned off. Fear may be of something real or imaginary.
One more thing that we can usually agree on is that, with enough stress applied, most things will break down in some fashion. That breakdown point is called a "stress limit". How many ways can you see stress limits in your day to day life?
Here's an idea; when you sit down to your next meal, pay attention to how you feel while you are eating. When you feel hungry, that is a stress. So, you eat your dinner and towards the end of it you start to feel full. Feeling full is a stress limit on your stomach. Whenever you breach a stress limit there is always a consequence. Overeating will make you feel bloated or sick, for example.
Now, lets consider another area of stressors. These are stressors that you face every day. They likely mean nothing to you at basic levels if you don't have a disorder. Environmental stressors, like odors, temperature, sounds, weather, traffic, and even other people bombard you every day. Your typical person learns to filter most of these out as they go about their daily routines. Even these stressors can be too much for you though. When you are tired and trying to sleep at night, you don't want to listen to your neighbors stereo rattling your windows.
So what are your stress limits? Well, consider your stress level through the day, like a weight scale. Take into account that all forms of stress add toward your personal limit. If you get enough rest and are of good health, you should start out your day with low stress and energy to move forward with. As you go through your day and handle work and various things that pop up in life, these will add in their own way. By the end of the day( which is different for everyone) you feel tired and need to rest for your next day. This can also change based on how much stress piles onto you in a short amount of time. That is the clincher.
With disorders like autism, PTSD, MS, Bipolar and various sensory issues, the limits to stress are not necessarily less. Instead, the senses and mental limits take on their full limit faster than with other people. In autism, the brain may not filter out all the stressors like typical person can do. Thanks to that, if you have autism, your stress limit in your senses may be maxed out before you even get your day started.
Having senses too high or low in sensitivity creates high demand on anyone. It makes your interactions and reaction with the world around you chaotic at best. That also creates frustration which adds to the stress and then you're even worse off than before. Then other people lose their patience with you (as you are likely also doing for yourself) and guess what? More stress! And, chill out doesn't work.
Improvement can be found in practice for some, but it depends entirely on the person and how strong their disorder is in them. Just like lifting that weight. If you do it every day or even just every other day, your ability will increase. You will be able to lift and lower more times before you have to stop. Some levels of our disorders will not allow for this. Take Multiple sclerosis for example. As a progressive condition, it takes away from what your body can tolerate or do. The practice may slow it down, but it it's strong enough, it will overcome your best efforts.
Because all stressors lend toward your full limit (yes some can be rested from in short periods), people with disorders reach lost limits much faster. Some are always at their full limit. If you were at your full limit on stress like that, you might find it easy to "freak" too.