Anxiety in Context

As part of my human services class, I wrote about the differences between an approach that attempts to help a person by understanding their problems in the context of their environment, versus one that focuses on something like childhood trauma as the root of their trouble. I used an example from my own life to illustrate the point I wanted to make, and given the content of that example, I thought the essay could pull double duty as my blog post for this week. 🙂

By focusing on the individual in context, we can take into account environmental factors that may be influencing a person’s internal state and related behavior. This approach locates the source of problems as being in the relationship between the individual and her environment. Potential solutions, therefore, will take into account environmental changes as well as personal changes, perhaps even extending up into changes in law or cultural expectations.

In contrast, a focus on personal history, such as childhood trauma, locates the source of problems as being within the individual herself, and seeks to address them on that level. Potential solutions will then revolve around personal changes within the individual herself, and not larger structural changes in society. It could be argued that considering the role of childhood trauma is taking the individual’s environment into account, but it is the environment of the past, and specific to that person’s history.

When I first started therapy, I was primarily seeking help with anxiety. Part of this manifested as high levels of social anxiety when interacting with other people. We discussed childhood experiences for quite some time, and I could definitely relate incidents of childhood bullying, betrayal, and ostracism to the anxiety I continued to feel in groups of people, or when meeting someone new for the first time. This located the problem within me, in my particular history and its reverberations.

Years later, however, I gained a different understanding of my social anxiety when I learned that I am autistic. Instead of this social anxiety arising specifically from past experiences, I saw it as arising from a life spent in a world that expected me to think and behave like everyone else, all while not knowing that I was autistic. In a way, this may still sound as if I am locating the problem within myself, specifically in my autism, but in truth the problem comes from the interaction between me and an environment that does not expect or understand neurodivergence.

This has become clearer to me as I gain more experience interacting with other autistic people. When my ways of thinking and acting are understood and accepted, I do not feel the same social anxiety that I do in other contexts. In other words, my social anxiety is a product of me being in a particular environment; if my environment changes to one with different social expectations, the anxiety goes away. Even just knowing that the problem is a transactional one makes a difference on those occasions where I can’t change the environment. Understanding where I might have difficulty allows me to change my approach, and also helps avoid excessive self-blame if things still go awry. I can see my anxiety as a bad environmental fit, rather than entirely a personal failing.

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Keeping My Cool

Snow-covered hemlock trees with the morning sun behind them

I hate conflict. Really, seriously dislike it. I always end up feeling terrible after (and during) an argument, even if I feel that I was completely in the right. Part of it is that I always do want to consider other perspectives; I want to be fair, and hear the other side out. But what this feels like internally is this: I absorb the other person’s viewpoint, and really take in what they’re saying. It can even feel like I am adopting their point of view, “trying it on” to see if it makes sense to me. But then I end up getting defensive, because it feels like my own perspective is being overwritten, and I’m afraid of losing my own viewpoint. I feel like I have to claw my way back to my own thoughts and feelings, and that can be scary.

On top of that, I generally don’t feel like the other person is doing the same thing, so I end up feeling like I am losing ground, wavering in my conviction by even pausing to consider the other point of view. But I really do think this ability to take on other perspectives, to suspend judgment for a moment and really try to see where they’re coming from, is a strength, and that society would be a lot better off if more people did this. So it’s not that I want to close myself off and stay dogmatically attached to my own opinions — but I do want to avoid that feeling of defensiveness that arises.

What I try to come back to is this: people are free to disagree with me, and I am free to disagree with them. I don’t need to convince everyone to agree with me, and in the end it’s not possible to get everyone to agree on everything. This is freeing to remember, and allows me to step back from seeing an argument as a battle that can be won or lost, and instead think of it as an interaction that might show me something interesting.

I’m not always able to remember this, but when I do, it calms me down immensely. I am not responsible for single-handedly “fixing” the world, or for changing everyone’s minds. Even when the issue is something I consider extremely important, even vital for people’s well-being, this is still the case. Often it’s just not the time or place for a particular argument to be accepted, but I also know that very often people hear and dismiss things that they later come back and reconsider. So maybe I’m planting a seed that will bear fruit later — I may never know. The only thing I can control is how well I make my case; whether that changes the other person’s mind is up to them.

Running Just Below the Line

I have felt on the verge of a meltdown for the past several days. Stress built up steadily for all of last week, and being out of town for the weekend meant that I was not able to maintain my usual routine that brings me into the next week more refreshed. Being aware of this has allowed me to avert some of the negative effects this might have caused, but I still feel like I am running just below the red line. So I started thinking about meltdowns, including the word’s origins in the management of nuclear reactors.

Nuclear reactors run on heat; they essentially use atomic fission as a fancy way to boil water. But too much heat can become dangerous, so there are mechanisms in place to keep the temperature under control. The main one is to circulate water through the system to keep things cooled down to a manageable level. This needs to be done on a continuous basis; even if active fission is not currently happening, the system still needs to be cooled. Things in there are just hot, and it takes a lot of effort to keep that heat balanced and contained.

I often feel like I run hot inside. If operations are proceeding on their usual routine, it’s manageable — I might not even feel it if I’m doing a good job of balancing out stressors with some nice, cooling downtime. Working on projects I’m interested in also feels cooling, even though it can involve a sense of passionate intensity; it’s a different kind of heat, I guess. But I need to have that balance.

If the water circulation in a reactor is stopped, the heat from the fuel rods will boil away any existing water until they are no longer immersed in coolant. At this point, they can literally start to melt, creating a pool of very hot, highly radioactive material on the floor below. If this is left alone, it can get so hot that it melts through the surrounding containers, spreading radioactive contaminants into the outside world.

When I don’t get my cooling time, I can feel things start to come apart. My chest tightens, and I start to feel tension around my eyes. I feel stifled, bottled up, in need of something to release the pressure. At this point, every new frustration, no matter how small, ratchets up the heat a little bit more. And if it’s a big frustration? Now we’re in trouble.

But notice that a meltdown is not an explosion. It is a melt. It is damage sustained by the reactor due to its own heat. That damage can spread outside if its containment becomes broken enough, of course, and that is always the main focus of public concern. But it starts in the core. Whatever else happens, the first casualty is the reactor itself.

My meltdowns don’t hurt other people. Perhaps they’re more like partial meltdowns, when the fuel rods have started to melt, but are able to be cooled before they burn through containment. I cry, I scream, I find other ways to dissipate the heat. So after an initial show of concern, all seems under control, and the public breathes a sigh of relief.

The reactor core, though? Still damaged. Still unbalanced. And still in need of cooling for a good long time.

From Overload to Anger

Sometimes overload — whether sensory overload, social overload, or general emotional overload — feels like exhaustion. It feels like muddy thoughts, dull senses, and an overwhelming desire to escape. That’s often what it feels like, at least for me. But sometimes what overload feels like…is anger.

Let me back up. For most of my life, I didn’t know I was autistic, so I didn’t realize that I was extra sensitive to many sensory inputs. Sure, I could tell when sensory issues were bothering me, but in general I assumed that if they were bothering me, they would be bothering anyone. The situation alone was the cause, not the situation plus my (autistic) sensitivities.

What this means is that I assumed that other people would know they were creating an offensive sensory environment, and they just didn’t care. I assumed my assessment was an objective truth: it simply was too loud. Too bright. Too smelly. Too chaotic. Too upsetting. All the other people involved? They should have known this was too much.

And I would get so angry that they didn’t. Angry that I had to say something, to call attention to myself and the difficulty I was having. Angry that they didn’t just know. Because it should have been obvious…right?

But my assessment is always my assessment: the combination of me and the specific situation. Yes, some things would be too loud/bright/scratchy/crowded for almost anyone, and yes, sometimes people are inconsiderate. But often I would end up getting angry about something no one else even realized was a problem. It might be the annoying, distracting buzzing sound that no one was fixing because no one else heard it. Or the loud background music that kept me from understanding what someone was saying…because of my own auditory processing issues, not the music’s volume.

So I try to catch myself now when I start feeling this way, and ask myself whether the problem really is as self-evident as it feels to me, or if it’s partly my own idiosyncratic (and autistic) response to things. Of course, if it is the latter, I can still ask for the situation to be changed — and now I can ask in a way that acknowledges that other people may not have realized the problem, rather than angrily assuming they didn’t care.

And none of this is to imply any self-blame on my part; there’s nothing wrong with having sensory sensitivities and needing to take steps to be more comfortable. But being aware of those sensitivities, and how they contribute to my perception of a situation, can help me not only head off feelings of overload, but also recognize and own that perception before overload flashes into anger.

Delayed Perception

As I’ve been learning more and more about autism since my diagnosis, I’ve come to recognize how different autistic traits manifest for me. (For a recent example, see my last post about black-and-white thinking.) It’s been an interesting process of translating descriptions of autistic traits and/or diagnostic criteria (which can be fairly abstract) into real-life examples — and it’s a process that would not be possible without the many first-person accounts by other autistic people in books, blogs, articles, and tweets. You’ve all helped me understand what a particular trait might “look like” in different autistic people, and so what it might look like in me.

What I’ve been noticing, though, is that while I can read about autistic tendencies and think, “Yes, I experience that,” it’s often hard to notice in the moment that I am experiencing them. Now, I think I’m a pretty observant, self-aware person — but things like sensory overload, or brain fog after stress, can still be affecting me without my conscious awareness. In a way, it’s just part of the nature of the beast — exhaustion after social activities makes any kind of thought more difficult, for example. Sensory overload from external sources makes it hard to notice my internal state. Eventually I notice that I’m feeling fried, but only after it reaches a tipping point. Up until then, I don’t feel myself getting fried.

And then there’s delayed processing. Delayed processing can give me an emotional reaction to something that happened long enough ago that it’s not part of my conscious memory anymore. That makes it hard to realize just why I’m getting emotional. Add to that a degree of alexithymia, so that I don’t necessarily even know what I’m feeling, and things can get very confusing, indeed. So I end up with delayed processing, and also delayed recognition that I am even still processing something.

No wonder meltdowns and shutdowns can seem to come out of nowhere!

So I try to pay attention to my internal state, and also build up greater recognition of the types of situations that are likely to trigger these difficulties. But I’m also trying to learn how some of those intermediate stages feel, like the point where I’m getting socially fried but am not quite there yet. I’m hoping that will help me head off those kinds of problems earlier, and just generally pace myself better when I’m out in the world.

Baggage

I’ve been getting a few glimpses lately of emotional issues that are resurfacing long after I thought I had dealt with them. This has led to some interesting thoughts (well, interesting to me; you can be your own judge after you read them).

Because I often don’t know what I’m feeling — at least not right away — I also don’t know how much emotional baggage is piling up from the events I experience. This has two parts to it, really: 1) it can take me a long time to realize how much of an impact something has had on me, and 2) even when I realize that, I forget that the event was having that impact the whole time I didn’t know about it. What I’m realizing now is that #2 is an even bigger factor than #1 when it comes to my long-term mental and emotional health.

Of course, #1 has layers to it as well. Even when I do recognize an immediate impact, for example, I don’t always realize the full extent of it until much later. For example, I got divorced from my first husband many years ago. This was obviously an emotional event, and I got emotional about it — but it took me many years to realize just how deeply it had affected me, especially when it came to my sense of self and my worthiness to be loved. I absorbed a deep sense of “not okayness” from that event, which has taken a long time to come to the surface.

Other things in my life have had similar delayed impact, sometimes decades delayed. But the thing that I realized with #2 is that delayed impacts aren’t really delayed; it would be more accurate to say they’re unconscious and therefore invisible. So I wonder if one reason things get harder for autistics as we get older — often leading to burnout — is that we accumulate more and more baggage we don’t know how to process. In fact, it’s baggage we may not even know that we’re still carrying, so we don’t know that it even needs to be processed. Of course it piles up.

Night Driving

Blazing,
Too intense;
Eyes are headlights in the dark.
Just one pair brings pain,
And too long a stare
Erases thought,
Takes the whole world
Out of my sight.

It takes time to bring it back,
To realize where I am
After the glare has passed.
And once the first has caught me,
It does not take many more
To disorient,
To dazzle,
To plunge me into danger.

What saves me then
Is silence,
And lessons learned
From night driving:
I drop my gaze,
Searching the ground
For the painted white line
That will lead me home.