Healthy Management of Anxiety and Traumatic Experiences During the Holidays

trauma-and-anxietyAnxiety and trauma are very common among autistic folks, and that’s especially true during the holidays. Because there are so many:

  1. changes in routine
  2. challenging situations and
  3. societal expectations about what the holidays are supposed to be like

your anxiety levels and trauma responses may increase significantly during this time.

And while the holidays are stressful for most people, it’s hard for neurotypicals to understand exactly how difficult the holidays can be for you because they don’t have the same sensory and social communication challenges to contend with. This means you may feel especially alone and misunderstood during the very time when society expects relationship bonds to be especially strong.

Mike’s Story: I have a significant case of noise sensitivity and depression. Even a door slamming, someone coughing or a truck driving by feel like an electric shock on my body. For some reason, the sensitivity and my depression have always been worse in the fall and winter. I just don’t have the energy to be around people. My wife takes it personally that I don’t want to spend the holidays around her and I don’t even have the energy or the words to explain it to her. That makes me feel even more depressed. I don’t want to hurt her feelings.

Research tells us that our anxious and traumatic responses can happen automatically as pre-programmed reactions to our environment and difficult situations. In other words your emotions may be on autopilot and heading in a direction that isn’t healthy without any deliberate effort on your part.

Julie’s Story: Two years ago my best friend and I had a falling out the day after Thanksgiving. I feel like it was my fault and to make it worse, the slightest little thing reminds me about what happened and how I wish we could still be friends. For example, I remember the song that was playing on the radio at the time and all of the Black Friday announcements and the vanilla candle that was burning at the time. All of these things bring me back to remembering that day and I can’t get the thoughts about what happened out of my head. It makes me so sad, especially during the holiday when other people are with their friends and loved ones.

The good news is that there are some very effective ways to cope and even re-wire the way your body responds to challenging circumstances. The following tools and techniques have been demonstrated effective through research or are commonly reported as effective in the autistic adult community. You will need to experiment and find what works best for you.

Rate Problem:
1 Mild
2 Moderate
3 Severe
Challenges Check tips you want to try Possible Solutions
Sensory Overload – painful response to sights, sounds, touch, scents. Generalized feelings of achiness, soreness in joints, headaches. Noise canceling headphones – (there are reports in the autistic community of decreased headaches, nausea and sensory overload when using these. Wearing headphones also indicates that you do not want to be approached when in public).

Weighted vest or blanket – (especially helpful for general aches and pains and may decrease hypersensitivities overall).

Self massage/joint compression – (Stomping your feet or firmly squeezing your arms or legs can help ease some people’s achiness. This can be done in the form of a favorite sport such as soccer or basketball but can also just be done while standing in line at the grocery store).

Sensory/stimm kit – (in spite of what you may have been told as a child, stimming is good for you. Put together a collection of strings, rings, squeezy, gooey, stretchy, sparkly or spinny items to use when stressed. Better yet, use them before you feel the signs of anxiety for prevention).

Swinging – (Spending time on a porch swing for subtle movement or a playground swing for more intense feedback can help some people achieve the feedback their bodies need to feel more regulated).

Participate in a local or online support group – (You are not alone, but sometimes it’s easy to feel that way in a neurotypically dominated world. Support groups connect you to people who understand what you are feeling. Many of these individuals have already developed some effective ways to cope with life challenges and they are willing to share ideas with you).

Check with a qualified health professional about seizures, gastro-intestinal, autoimmune, and other medical issues – (Some autistic adults report that an increase in certain sensitivities is correlated with hormonal changes or specific medical conditions. It is possible that optimal physical health can improve sensory functioning).

Anxiety – feelings and thoughts of fear or anxiousness about situations or events. Deep breathing – (Research indicates that proper breathing techniques can lower blood pressure and cortisol (the “stress hormone”) levels).

Progressive muscle relaxation(As autistic people, we tend to tense up. This technique focusses specifically on relaxing that tension and can prevent or limit headaches and muscle pain).

Aromatherapy(Research shows that rosemary and lavendar essential oil in particular are effective for lowering cortisol levels).

Meditation – (meditation is exercise for the brain and it has been shown to ease anxiety and lower blood pressure amongst it’s many positive health benefits).

Listen to soothing music – (there is a reason autistic people listen to the same song 800 times. It works to sooth and ease anxiety and create a feeling of predictability).

Power poses(how you hold your body/posture can actually change your hormones and how you feel. Try a “victory pose” or the “Wonder Woman pose” for 5 minutes before making a scary phone call or entering a crowd of frenzied holiday shoppers).

Exercise – (While it may not feel intuitively like the thing you want to do when sad or anxious, a balanced exercise program has been shown to ease symptoms of both stress and depression).

Spend time in nature – (time spent around trees, flowers, birds and bees has a qualitatively different effect on people than time spent in cities. Being in nature lowers cortisol levels, and depression, increases creativity, improves memory and cognitive function).

Check out this link for a review of evidence based techniques including those listed above to manage stress and improve clear thinking.

Trauma and perseverative thoughts about the past- automatic distressed emotional responses to present situations and ongoing thoughts and/or visualizations about past events (especially re-living certain memories and wishing you had handled them differently) Tools for sensory overload and decreasing anxiety – (listed above)

Creative visualization – (Research shows that the brain does not recognize the difference between an event that actually happened and one that you create in your own mind. So any time you re-live a traumatic experience, you are re-traumatizing yourself. In contrast, any time you create a new ending for your past by visualizing a healthy, happy and positive outcome, your mind responds as if that positive outcome has actually happened and will produce a positive state of mind to match the visualization).

Professionally guided trauma therapy – (If you choose to pursue therapy to work through any traumas be sure to find a processional who is experienced working with adults on the spectrum and recognizes some of the unique characteristics autistic adult have such as hypersensitivity, photographic or visual memory, and perseverative thinking).

Check out this link for a review of evidence based techniques including those listed above to manage stress and improve clear thinking.

##ActuallyAutistic#Asperger's#Asperger's Syndrome#Aspie#autism#autism spectrum#Autism Spectrum Condition#autistic#coping strategies#holidays#Living Well Holiday Guide

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