When stress and excitement are much the same thing: mechanism of a shutdown

Stress and excitement…in my body they have pretty much the same effect, being agitation (and excitement, by the way, incorporates stimulation). To agitate is to mix-up, like stirring the pot of liquid causes friction and turbulence. Agitation is not my happy place as an autistic person since it scrambles the orderly continuum of my processing and, over time, can take its toll.

When I (rarely) get the kind of day when I am so systematically exhausted, so “done” (yet with nothing left that I have to immediately tackle) that I can finally lie still, slow my heart to a steady pulse, hold my temperature in a vague line and just be there noticing the responses in my body, it’s quite clear to me how the merest thought has an agitating effect. Such stillness in me is rare…and such fascination with my own body is a longstanding outcome when there is nothing else remaining for me to pay attention to!

One single cognitive action, like hooking a fish, causes my heart rhythm to increase and my temperature to sky rocket, instantaneously. It matters not whether that thought is “good” or “bad” since it’s all the same, being that the equilibrium is lost. This knocks me off my calm and sends my autonomic nervous system into overdrive. The effect is sometimes exhaustion before I’ve even begun and, when my week has been particularly strenuous (cognitively and emotionally), endocrine confusion ensues as a matter of course. Heart palpitations, arrhythmia, temperature disregulation and fatigue are often just a moment away. This is, many times, how I begin or end my day, acutely aware of how volatile my body systems are to the merest influence, and has become more noticeable with the passing years with, no doubt, increasing age and post-menopause health taking their toll. I’m left asking, do I have dysautonomic symptoms because I have a health condition called POTs or because I am an ageing autistic?

To recover my equilibrium, I have to prolong the stillness and calm for as long as I can on the rare occasions I have them, though it often feels like boredom internally. I have to train myself to luxuriate in the better-feeling sensations and to not apologise for going after them, doing (or not doing…) whatever it takes to prolong. For years, I would sacrifice them in the name of other people’s expectations of me (to be conversational or otherwise engage with whatever they want me to engage with). To maintain the rare and important calm my body needs, I have to become guarded of it and cease worrying how I am perceived, throwing to the wall decades of “appropriate” social responses acquired to fit in and just be the way I have to be for as long as needed.

For instance, I have to become extremely inner and locked into my own self for the duration, avoiding eye contact and left to my own devices. There is no stamina left-over here for holding socially acceptable facial expressions to reassure others. If I engage I have to be flat in my responses, dropping all the learned up-and-down-ness of the neurotypical communication style, which looks a lot like depression, moodiness or autism as it is so often stereotyped (with all the inherent assumptions) and also risks being labeled self-indulgent, rude, stand-offish or weird, yet just get on with it for my own sake. Behaving like this is not considered socially acceptable as things stand…but only because the world as it is was devised by a majority that do not know what it feels like or how unavoidable it is!

Because this is shutdown and I really need it to reset myself or I can’t continue, at all.

Excitement comes in many forms, and not all of them obvious. Using electromagnetic devices, consuming sugar, caffeine, glutamates, salt or potassium can count. I know I can’t take strong smells, loud noise or bright lights when I am like this. Second guessing the future or revisiting the past, formulating strategies, taking executive decisions (however minor) will agitate the same way, or more, as engagement with any of the more typically overstimulating types of thought. I have to find that middle road with no sides and stay on it, being as present with the moment as I can be, feeding it whatever my eyes can most neutrally land upon (such as watching the birds or the breeze playing in the trees). I can’t be around people right now except, maybe, those who recognise the signs and accept this is how I need to be for the time being, without judgement. I certainly can’t take conversation or even begin to “people” right now so don’t expect me to answer the door or engage with the neighbours. Small talk is out of the question; I can’t even begin. Nor can I take surprises, bad news or anything that looks like a problem to be solved and there can be no attempt at being empathetic when I am like this (highly empathetic though I normally am) because this is my own state of emergency and has to be dealt with as top priority, taking all my own resources and nothing left over. I am overwhelmed and have nothing spare to give right now, though I give too much most of the time (so please refrain from judging me).

I may be able to postpone this shutdown until a more convent time but I know I can’t cancel it…because it has to happen, to reset my system. Nor can it be foreshortened without risking of it building to an even bigger level shutdown event, further along the line. Nothing and no one can call time on shutdown without risking it happening again, perhaps more detrimentally next time, and it certainly can’t be disciplined or guilted away.

When this happens, I have to self-preservate the best way I can, which takes avoiding or becoming immune to the false assumptions of others as to why I have withdrawn or lost interest. This simply can’t be the time for engaging with social drama because all my coping skills for dealing with neurotypical expectations and assumptions have gone out of the window for the time being. Shutdown is survival mode, pure and simple, so I can’t risk being agitated in any form (especially not by guilt) or my overwhelm will be so monumental as a result of being prolonged and then only risk becoming more chronic, perhaps turning into burnout. Having experienced burnout before more than once, and one time spectacularly, lasting years, I am in no rush to go back there and will do what it takes to avoid it!

Yet (I have learned) if I don’t ignore shutdown but give it its space, there’s a very good chance I will rebound. When I hear it out and make room for it to safely happen, shutdown can mean reboot and provide a kind of rescue kit for my overwrought nervous system. When I detach from concerns about who I am disappointing, offending or alienating, I get to be my own medicine kit and to self-regulate in ways that no one externally is equipped to teach me since it is quite unique to me and not typical at all. This has taken years of acquainting with my own unique wiring and, importantly, reaching a place where I am prepared to stand up for it.

As I see it, shutdown is not a flaw but a kind of inbuilt system safeguard designed to preserve my over sensitive wiring. Without it, I would make no sense of my neurodivergent gifts the other 90% of the time but, rather, would be left floundering with the deficits most if not all the time. I simply can’t be this finely tuned person and not have a reboot setting to clear static off the lines. To maintain precision and such complex functionality most of the time, I need to come offline completely, for a full system overhaul, once in a while and can’t always choose when this has to happen, though I have got better at noticing the signs and then finding safe space best time, with maturity. The only residual problem now is how shutdown is received and perceived by others. If there could be more understanding and acceptance of autistic shutdown from family members and other close parties, employers, medical staff and so on, there would be far less of a problem here and my shares have that in mind.

Related topic – stress and autism; what causes a burnout?

This article discusses the fact that burnout doesn’t have to be from a major event but can be from a build-up of daily stressors (the kind that might provoke shutdown). It quotes from a 2020 study by the Academic Autism Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education (AASPIRE) which analysed how autistic adults describe burnout.

“Masking is when a person with autism tries to “hide” that they’re autistic. The majority of the people in the AASPIRE study listed masking as a significant contributor to burnout. One said: “The metaphor I use is that long-term … masking leaves behind a kind of psychic plaque in the mental and emotional arteries. Like the buildup of physical plaque over time can result in heart attack or stroke, the buildup of this psychic plaque over time can result in burnout.”

The participants also said that a lack of support can cause or worsen burnouts. Sometimes, the support needed was formal, like disability services or therapy. Others felt like they just needed more understanding from loved ones.”

Its interesting how that quote about psychic plaque, which I read after I had written the above post, echoes what I describes about needing to clear static off the lines of my nervous system. From my own experience, the more I allow shutdown to happen (and have the safety and support of those around me to do so) when it arises, the less likely that burnout will happen!

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