Here are some tips to help you manage stress and anxiety as you raise your child on the spectrum.
Given the state of the global health crisis, it is not surprising that many of us are struggling with our mental health as we face increasing levels of stress and anxiety. This may apply particularly to caretakers of individuals with exceptional needs and those of us with underlying conditions that make coping with stressful times that much harder. Now, more than ever, it’s beneficial to understand how to better prepare ourselves to cope with distress and unease.
Stress vs anxiety
It’s important to note that the words stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably, even though they are two separate concepts. Stress is oftentimes a byproduct of sudden news, expectations, change, or uncertainty.
When experiencing distress, an individual typically knows what they are upset about. A cause can be pinpointed, such as the pandemic, with its consequences of having to homeschool or adjust to vocational and income changes. Stress is often associated with frustration and is always a result of an external force—something causing outside pressure.
Anxiety comes from an internal place of unease—a place of fear and worrisome thoughts. Stressful situations sometimes lead to anxiety, particularly when a person feels exhausted, doubtful of their capabilities, has trouble stating their needs, or experiences a loss of control. Unlike stress, with anxiety, it is often difficult to pinpoint what is causing the anxious emotion.
When experiencing anxiety, a person’s reaction to their emotions becomes part of the challenge, e.g., nervousness about an imminent event. Anxiety involves anticipating future danger and experiencing apprehensive thoughts about how to handle the situation. Anxiety involves fear.
For example, a parent might experience anxiety about an upcoming teacher conference. The parent may feel apprehensive about a potential unfortunate outcome for their child’s future. This apprehension might lead to increased worry, negative self-talk, or even the imagining of multiple worse case scenarios—events which likely would not play out.
Anticipatory anxiety is the worry or dread felt before an anticipated event. Anticipatory anxiety can vary from passing nervousness to debilitating dread and result in cyclical thinking.
Challenges of stress and anxiety for people on the spectrum
For some individuals on the autism spectrum (and those with similar profiles) handling stress or anxiety is challenging. This may be because coping mechanisms require executive functioning skills and specific cognitive reasoning aptitude, such as identifying symptoms, causation, and emotions, and recalling relief strategies.
Stress and anxiety also lead to stress hormones. According to the National Autistic Society: “In most people, these hormones usually return to normal levels once the stressful event has passed, but research indicates these hormones may remain in the body of an autistic individual longer, causing a residual level of stress.”
For many autistic individuals, myself included, feelings of anxiety and worry can be a daily experience and involve moments of intense fear or panic. Some of us have coexisting conditions of Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
An autistic individual might respond in ways that are not readily recognized as traditional markers for anxiety. Some ways include withdrawing, meltdown, shutdown, repetitive speech or action, increased time with an interest or hobby, obsessive thoughts, or insistence on routines or lack of routine.
No matter our neurology, there are many strategies that can assist us and our loved ones during these times of emotional upset. The following is a list of 10 ways to manage stress and anxiety levels.
1. Talk it out
- Sometimes the best stress or anxiety reducer is sharing feelings with someone. The act of talking it out (or writing it out in a journal) is often an excellent way of reducing distress and anxiety
- Consider developing a visual graph to indicate events that lead to increased worry. Have conversations to identify how stress and anxiety is manifested in the body and behaviors
2. Build an emotional vocabulary
- Teach and learn about identifying and recognizing emotions. Label basic emotions (happy, sad, mad, disappointed, scared, etc.), discuss degrees of different emotions, and list complex emotions. Play a game of emotional charades. Paint or draw while listening to music and discuss the emotions brought up. Sculpt emotions with dough. Build an emotional art pizza (gluten-free, as needed)
3. Track stressors
- Identify situations which create high levels of unease. Identify if stressors are controllable/uncontrollable or important/less important
- Record thoughts, feelings, and information about the environment, including the people and circumstances involved and the physical setting and reactions
- Taking notes can assist in finding patterns and solutions
4. Move through it
- A brisk 20-minute walk once or twice a day can do wonders for the body and mind. Establish times for moving through dance or a form of gentle exercise
- Chores can incorporate stretches. Extend the bend to pick up an article of clothing off the floor. Take a walk around the block when retrieving the mail. Invest in some roller skates or walking sticks. Walk to the corner grocery. Play tag or The Floor is Lava in the house. Make an obstacle course in the backyard
5. Immerse in nature
- Just putting your feet on the earth can help ground emotions and bring new perspectives
- Connect with the outdoors. Leave nuts or seeds outside for a bird family. Gather mushrooms for identification (not eating). Take walks amongst the trees. Bring nature indoors by growing plants from seeds, adopting a pet, playing nature sounds, or using essential oils. Try watching uplifting nature documentaries
- Make a nature week theme at home
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6. Recharge batteries
- Take several deep breaths throughout the day
- Participate in prayer, mindfulness, or meditation. Find a quiet place to listen to birds or favorite music. Create a music playlist. Play a game or disengage in another relaxing way, perhaps a warm shower or bubble bath. Drive around town to gain some alone time with no destination in mind
- Do something less serious and less intentional. Escape in an interesting book or movie plot. Get a good night’s sleep or take a nap. Treat yourself to something you enjoy. Take a stay-cation or check into a local establishment
7. Nourish through and drink
- Support your health with nutrition. Eat something, if you haven’t eaten in a while. Protein for breakfast is known to help with anxiety levels. Rehydrate. Keep track of food and water intake
- Consider researching foods and supplements that naturally reduce stress and anxiety. Visit a vineyard, outdoor garden, or farmer’s market. Invest in a juicer. Consider a delivery service of fresh produce
8. Manage time
- Dedicate time at the start of each day to prioritize tasks
- With emotions of overwhelm, consider constructive and practical suggestions. Be realistic about what is feasible given the circumstances. Avoid over-committing. Resist perfectionism. Practice realistic expectations for yourself and others. If you feel pressured, identify needs and establish boundaries and periods of respite. Block out times on the calendar for stress management, hygiene upkeep, creative endeavors, calling friends, and productivity
9. Give it time
- Note that some days will be worse than others. Don’t try to solve problems or debate when under distress or high anxiety
- Allow time to process and regroup. Have a mantra or motivational quotes. Move things on the calendar, when needed. Cancel appointments that can be delayed. Decide what is the most important thing to spend time on, and do that
10. Use your best judgement
- Try not to take any actions or words personally, and assume best intention over malice, ill-will, or other negative assumption. This includes being gentle with yourself and allowing space to be human and experience your own and others’ emotions without shame
- Report to a mental health practitioner or medical professional at any indications of extreme emotions, especially those that indicate a chance of self-harm or endangerment. Reach out and find support. Remember to take care of you
This article was featured in Issue 124 – Autism Around the World