Self care: Let’s talk about stress

I’d like to talk about stress, and how I am learning to manage stress in my life. First, let’s make sure we all understand what I mean when I say stress. I feel like societally we understand stress as an inherently negative thing. That is not the way I see it. I see stress as anything that creates a sense of tension or leads to a state of tiredness leading to overwhelm. Some stress is from things that are necessary in our lives, and some we can choose to avoid. Some stress comes from negative experiences, but some comes from positive experiences.

Some examples of what I think of as negative stress (not an exhaustive list):
* facing other peoples ableism as an obstacle to having success in advocacy situations
* dealing with people who are rude, inconsiderate, and bigoted/ discriminatory
* coping with environments that are sensorily hostile or inaccessible to my family
* physical illness or injury and pain

Some examples of what I think of as positive stress (also not an exhaustive list):
* spending time in small groups with friends and family
*  gardening
* karate training and tournaments
* advocacy work

The difference in the two categories is what I get from them. The negative stress situations only drain me and cost me more than I can possibly get from them. The positive stress situations drain me in some ways, but they also feed me in that I gain positive things from them that outweigh the costs of participating in the activities.

I’m going to expand on the example of karate training and tournaments. There are physical, mental, emotional, sensory, social and time related stressors involved in attending regular training and in participating in karate tournaments. These things certainly all take their toll on me. However, I also enjoy karate. I gain a feeling of confidence and satisfaction when I master a technique, learn a new kata, face my fears in competition and push my body to become more fit. I find the effort I put in for the 1 1/2 hour training session forces me to focus only on what I am doing (otherwise I’d fall over or hurt myself), so it helps me clear my mind of all other things for a while and acts as a kind of reset mentally for me. I am spending time with others who enjoy the same activity as me and who encourage me and who I can encourage. It is an environment that is predictable and positive and in which I am valued and can add value.

In the example of facing other peoples ableism as an obstacle to having success in advocacy situations, I simply find this draining. It is a situation that repeats itself over and over again, and even though I must deal with it, it sucks my energy and coping skills if I have to engage with it. It is predictable in its monotony and in its outcomes, and not in a good way. Being faced with the ugliness of what some people truly think about families like mine is not something I get anything positive from.

What I am learning to carefully consider when I plan my week, and as I make decisions when situations arise that require my attention, is whether I am balancing my need for self protection, self regulation and recovery time in good proportion with the stress I undertake to include in my life. This applies to both the negative stressors and the positive stressors.

I make decisions on an ongoing basis about how much negative stress I am willing to expose myself to, how much positive stress I can include, and how much down time I must include in order to stay healthy and able to do the things life requires of me. This can be hard. Sometimes it does mean saying no to things I would have liked to do. It is particularly hard when something out of my control from the negative stress category steals energy away and means I have to say no to some positive stress things that I wanted to do.

If I am careful to keep a good balance of stress and rest in m y life, over time I seem to be able to handle more negative stress before it overwhelms me. I do still find there is a point where I have to make a decision to avoid most stress (positive and negative) for a while every now and then. When that happens I just have a nothing day or two. Nothing days are when I do only the essentials- drop kids at school and activities, make sure everyone eats and are safe. On these days I will actively do things to keep my brain from engaging with things that will mentally drain me (so no social media!), and make an effort to only engage with what is literally in front of me. I try to stay home, even in bed if I can (not possible with kids really, but even an hour here and there helps me reset), and rest both physically and mentally.

In the past I have just pushed myself through stress, to the point of exhaustion that required medical support to rectify. I have been so underweight I was unhealthy, I have been diagnosed with depression, I have been through periods of insomnia, all because I pushed hard and didn’t listen when my body said stop. Listening to my body and being aware of how stress impacts on me has been a life changer for me. People didn’t know I wasn’t coping because I hid all my stress inside myself, to my own detriment. They didn’t realise how difficult I find sensory stimulation and social situations. Now people still don’t realise, but it is not because I am hiding and not coping in private- it is because I am self caring in private, and so I am coping better with life. That’s a thing I am proud to have learned.



This article has been translated into Russian on the Neurodiversity in Russia website. To read >> click here << (link will open in a new window)

5 thoughts on “Self care: Let’s talk about stress

  1. Oh, I can so relate to the pushing through stress thing. I had a major breakdown about five years ago that probably was autistic burnout, from working the equivalent of three full-time jobs and also not knowing that I was autistic (I’m pretty champion at passing) and how my autism was impacting that whole hamster wheel of awfulness. But now that I know I’m autistic, I also know what I need to do to avoid having that happen again, and I’m doing much better. Your blog has helped me a lot in coming to terms with all that, so thanks for this and other posts.

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