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The Effects of Stress Are on a Spectrum Too: Why I Can’t Think

To say that stress and anxiety are issues these days is to state the obvious. I have been having trouble doing my long-term work. I couldn’t focus on anything that wasn’t immediately tangible like a zoom meeting or writing a blog. Autistic and neurotypical friends were having the same problems. Even those who didn’t usually have executive function problems were having trouble with executive functions: keeping organized mentally and with things, initiating work and getting distracted. I wasn’t alone.

Marcia Eckerd, PhD

Marcia Eckerd, PhD

I’m not worrying about getting sick with COVID-19 all the time. I’m practicing the recommended precautions. I work from home and stay busy. But the constant background of the pandemic is stressful. The world as I knew it is upended and I do everything differently. A neighbor’s dog ran across the street to me and his 20-year-old son alarmed me by not wearing a mask and what seemed like yelling at his dog in my face. I take walks in serpentine tracks to keep social distance. This can’t help but affect me; I’m always aware that we’re in this pandemic, that safety is an issue and I have to rethink how I do what I do. I feel threatened and that does make me anxious.

In fact, the difficulty I’m having thinking is due to the automatic stress response of my brain. The point of a stress response is to kick the body into gear (via the serotoninergic system) to deal with a perceived or real threat. The problem when there’s an ongoing threat there is likely to be a stress response that’s also ongoing – a pathological stress response – which impacts us emotionally, cognitively and physiologically. Our negative emotions can be obvious: anxiety, sadness, anger, frustration.

Thinking and decision making are among the cognitive processes affected by stress. The hippocampus and amygdala (to simplify this) kick the pre-frontal cortex partly offline, so to speak, depending on how activated we are. Putting it simply, when our bodies (and minds) are scanning for threat, we’re not using the thinking part of our brains as effectively. We’re not necessarily in the present – we may be in what just happened or what might happen, the past and the future. We’re not grounded in right now when perhaps nothing is actually going on.

Not everyone is feeling stressed to the same degree. Some autistic people* welcome working from home without the social and sensory demands of the office environment. They are comfortable being alone. I know both neurodiverse and neurotypical friends who have found this to be a time when they can garden, read, work and do things they never had time for. They are focusing on enjoyable things, and their activities are bringing them into the present moment. Many feel this way AND still have that background trouble with thinking when not engaged in specific positive activities.

Now that we face “opening up” there will be new challenges: keeping track of changing rules, changing “facts” defining what’s happening, changing social demands navigating the rules and how people observe them. People who felt comfortable at home might be less comfortable and more anxious when they feel expected to be “out” in work or community environments.

There are also both autistic people and neurotypicals who are much more vulnerable to intense anxiety or depression. This emotional reaction can be due primarily to stress, or it can be ongoing and intensified by the stress response. For those overwhelmed by the sheer number of demands in their lives, by fear of illness or isolation or by anxiety dealing with the fluidity and lack of predictable parameters for what’s going to happen, anxiety can be over the top; they are suffering badly. Ideally, they can reach out to others who can be of support. A few might even be suicidal.

My suggestions below are to help those struggling with stress, anxiety or depression at any level. For those who need it, teletherapy services are available. Insurers are now covering codes for teletherapy and telemedicine. Positive psychology, CBT and experience have a lot to offer.

  1. Create a structure to your day – Get up at a time you decide. Have actually scheduled times for different tasks so you’ll feel more organized and in control. I have to set alerts for what I schedule, especially involving meetings, since time seems to blend together.
  2. Practice good self-care – This is an important time to take care of yourself. Eat well and get sleep. Try to maintain a consistent sleeping schedule. Exercise. Walk, and there are plenty of online exercise classes; some like Daily Om let you pay what you can.
  3. Unstick yourself if you are stuck on a thought – If one is stuck on negative thoughts, use a pattern interrupt. Take 10 deep breaths, sing, do jumping jacks, walk outside or just change what you’re doing. Focus on a positive thought, a way in which things are working OK. A thought like, “I can make it through this, so many are in the same boat” is honest.
  4. Meditate – If you haven’t had a mediation practice before, this is a great time to start with an online app such as Headspace, Calm or Insight Timer. Meditation is scientifically proven to create structural change in the brain that makes you more stress resilient.
  5. Practice mindfulness – Many of our worries are about the future; try to get back to the present moment. Do mindfulness exercises where you focus on your sensory experience of breathing, holding an object and noticing all its details, letting a mint melt in your mouth noticing every detail of each moment. Even washing dishes can be done mindfully.
  6. Reach out – People are getting creative about using Zoom, FaceTime, Hangouts, Google Duplo and other apps to see friends and family and spend time together, whether with friends, groups like book groups; any meaningful connection. Find a support network and use it.
  7. Take advantage of what’s online – Think of things that were interesting and you had no opportunity or time for them. Everything is online, from developing creative art skills to touring museums and national parks. This can be a time to grow. I have a friend taking her cello lessons online. There are short and long courses, podcasts, all kinds of projects. Try a yoga class or learn to juggle or anything that might interest you.
  8. Do some things simply for pleasure – Binge on a TV show or find other opportunities to enjoy yourself. This is the time to indulge – mystery novels? Sci-fi movies? Do whatever you will enjoy, without feeling guilty you’re not doing something “worthwhile.” One meme said, “This is the only time in history when you can save the world by doing nothing and watching TV. Don’t mess it up.”
  9. Limit exposure to media – Keep up with developments in what we’re directed to do but monitor how much time you spend upsetting yourself.
  10. Focus on what’s positive – While many resist writing things down, a gratitude journal helps. Take a moment to be grateful, even writing down a single gratitude each day. I’m grateful that I am OK, that today the sun was out, and my tulips are blooming.
  11. Be a problem solver rather than a complainer – Reframe difficulties as problems to be solved and explore logical alternatives. Look outward for resources. Prioritize.
  12. Give up perfectionism for a while – Cut yourself some slack. With all this stress, perfectionism isn’t going to work. Good enough is going to be the goal for a while.

For those in need of help, there are teletherapy resources and multiple hotlines you can use.

Teletherapy

Talk or Text Hotlines

  • 24-Hour Helpline to talk: 1 (800) 537-6066
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME To 741741

Suicide Hotlines

We can make it through this time taking care of ourselves and helping each other. The bottom line is that despite our differences, we’re all going through challenges together.

* I use identity first language instead of person first language at the request of autistic friends.

Dr. Marcia Eckerd is a licensed psychologist in private practice since 1985. She specializes in assessing, treating and consulting with individuals of all ages with autism spectrum disorders and autistic traits (including formerly Asperger’s Syndrome), Nonverbal Learning Disability, (NLD), anxiety and social skills challenges, Dr. Eckerd is on the CT ASD Advisory Council, the Clinical Advisory Group of AANE, and the professional advisory board of Smart Kids with LD. She writes extensively on ASD and neurodiversity. Her professional journal articles include diagnosing autism in adults and specifically in women, as well as writing regularly for parenting magazines and her blog, Divergent Thinkers: Aspergers, NLD and More on Psych Central.

Dr. Eckerd can be reached through her website www.marciaeckerd.com.

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