In my practice, I find one of the primary issues faced by people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and those with Asperger syndrome, is feeling overwhelmed.
It starts in early childhood
In early childhood, even as young as one-years-old, children with ASD become easily overwhelmed and instinctively react by trying to shield themselves from exposure to excess stimuli. Parents of children with ASD can easily relate to stories of children who cover their ears with their hands in response to everyday sounds they perceive as loud and stressful. As the child ages, the coping skills for shielding oneself from excess exposure to environmental stimuli become more subtle but the consequences are the same.
By environmental stimuli, I mean people, places, and things. Too much exposure can produce overwhelming feelings. It can cause the person to feel they need to retreat to safety until they have calmed down again.
But as we get older, retreating from life brings consequences. These consequences are often themed around unfinished work, school projects, and poorly developed relationships with others. The effect can also lead to unwanted isolation and a lifestyle marked by underachievement.
What we can do to help
The solution is easy to understand but challenging to implement. It is also well worth the effort.
The solution is to do nothing in response to feelings of being overwhelmed. By doing nothing, you are choosing not to be reactive to your feelings of being overwhelmed. This prevents you from engaging in a series of patterns of behaviors that are designed to prevent yourself from experiencing the emotions you need to experience. Regardless of the specifics of what you do, your being reactive will be an attempt to control, manipulate and/or change your reality to manage your feelings.
Instead, by choosing to do nothing, you allow yourself the opportunity to experience the emotions you need to feel. Your challenge is to simply accept these emotions for what they are without being reactive. By choosing not to be reactive, you are beginning the process of deactivating your fight or flight response pattern, thereby opening access to your solution focused mind.
Transform fear into courage
When people choose to stop responding to their feelings of overwhelm that are fueled by their fears and worries, they become more insight-driven and solution focused.
To the outside observer who isn’t aware of the changes taken place inside the person, they will often simply observe a person who is behaving more courageous in their daily affairs.
In fact, the person is behaving more courageous, as they are now in the practice of moving through their daily tasks despite their fears. They are in the process of seeing their fears as inconveniences rather than catastrophes.
Catastrophe or inconvenience?
In my practice, the usual (and natural) reaction I get from a client once I ask him or her to do nothing in response to feelings of overwhelm; they usually give me an example of a catastrophe they recently experienced in their life. My response is to process the incident with them, and what they find is what they viewed as a catastrophe only began as an inconvenience which they poorly reacted to, thereby worsening the situation.
Catastrophes do happen in life, whether as an initial incident, or as an incident made worse from an overreaction. Regardless, the most effective response is to accept the situation for what it is and accept your feelings for what they are. Once this is achieved, only then can you begin to take a solution-focused response.
The process of doing nothing to feelings of overwhelming stress and anxiety is something that takes quite a bit of effort for a first timer. Specifically, there are evidenced based cognitive behavioral strategies, like the ones found in this CBT workbook, “Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks: A Workbook for Managing Depression and Anxiety,” by Seth J Gillihan Ph.D.
A person can study and practice these strategies on their own, or with an experienced therapist.