Care not Cure
I want to take a moment to address something that feels deeply personal to talk about, but it's also vital.
I’m talking about intense emotions that lead to dysregulation and how this intersects with neurodiversity. For me, dysregulation comes when I am having strong emotional reactions, when I can’t identify my emotions or when I feel that I am being shut down by another person.
My reactions used to be very quick…screaming, hitting, pushing, biting (when I was a child), breaking things…because I had no filter between the antecedent (event) and the behavior (my action). I couldn't recognize the trigger, and then identify how it made my body feel before I reacted. That didn’t exist. It was event and action, event and action, no room for reaction before action.
In no particular order, before I figured out how to regulate myself and how to identify feelings in my body I have: given someone a bloody nose, scratched my skin until it bled, broken my wrist and left black and blue marks on a person from biting them. I’ve also screamed my voice hoarse, broken my toe from kicking things and ripped apart stuffies in fits of misunderstood rage. Oh, and I was bulimic for many years. That fits in here too because I’ve learned that, for me, it’s also tied to dysregulation.
Now, I am not by any means a physically abusive, angry or scary individual. My guess would be that most of my friends wouldn’t know about my emotional dysregulation. There is shame there, but I’d like to break down that barrier too.
As I’ve figured out my internal system (over many years, with the help of many different therapists) I’ve figured out what regulates me, what stresses me out and the signals my body gives when it’s hitting a yellow or red level. Now I understand the environments that can cause me stress and how my body feels when it's getting dysregulated. I have the ability to stop before action...I have space for reaction before action. In my learning I have also opened up to a world where self care has become extremely important (as in non-negotiable).
Particularly in the wake of my husband’s death, long walks, meditation, nourishing foods, the comfort of friends, time alone, massage, hot tubs, dancing, singing, journaling and laughing have all helped to regulate me. Sometimes, as I go through this process of greiving I fall into an extreme state of dysregulation, and it can blindsight me. I am tempted to hurt myself or break something. During these times I am now able to notice the feelings of hot, tight or angry and, before I jump to self-harm or destruction, I do something that calms me. Sometimes it’s as simple as a long walk, yelling into a pillow or, one of my personal favorites: taking two ice cubes, one in each hand and holding them until they melt. This has been an extremely helpful practice to me over the years. It brings me into my body, and makes me hyper-focus on just being in the moment. Sometimes I return to a routine to help me regulate…like an exercise routine (e.g. putting space in my calendar for exercise) or a food routine (e.g. making my lunch the night before)…something that helps me center when things around me seem so unknown and unpredictable.
Grief is probably the strongest emotion I have ever experienced. It basically hits all of the top negative emotions in one: sadness, anger and fear. I naturally pair it with a pleasing emotion to make it more palpable, to move through it. I remember gratitude for the love I had, for what I have learned, and for where I am today. I remember joy for the good times, for the things that can be funny even in death, and for the natural world that surrounds me. I also remember love, the basis of all creation, the reason I am here today and the love I have for myself. Together, the feelings of sadness, anger and fear are so much easier to digest when mixed with gratitude, joy and love.
Getting to know our body is VERY important. It has taken me a lifetime, and I’m still learning. I get asked by somatic therapists: “where do you feel that in your body?” Half the time I still don’t honestly know, but I close my eyes, and try to tune in anyway. Often it’s just a lump in my throat, or a pit in my stomach. Sometimes it’s somewhere else, but no matter what, I try to tune in. Sometimes I picture a color instead of a feeling, and that seems to help too.
Practicing self care is ESSENTIAL. I spend a lot of time resourcing. What I mean by this is I spend time by myself or doing an activity that is enjoyable to me. I take my dogs out on walks for hours every day. I don’t have as much time right now as I’d like, but if I did I could easily walk 10 miles a day, maybe more. I resource when I am alone, when I am in the woods or when I am meditating. I meditate every day. Other acts of self care include journaling, being near friends, taking a hot tub, getting a massage, singing, keeping a solid exercise routine, eating well, getting deeper in touch with my intuition, moving forward with my business and life plans, keeping organized and reading.
I share my story here as a way of helping others like me understand there is a way to regulate ourselves. I also share my story as a way of helping those who love someone like me. It’s been a slow process…over 20 years…and I have gained a ton of insight. I don’t have a formal diagnosis of autism, but I do identify as neurodivergent. I believe that what happens to me, also happens with people who have a formal diagnosis. Difficulty with identifying emotions or body sensations, extreme anxiety and strong reactions are all common in the world of autism and neurodiversity. Our triggers may all be different...stress, crowded spaces, too much noise...but what happens is our bodies send us a signal before flipping out. We need to learn to pay attention to that signal and nurture it. We need to learn ourselves.
There is no cure for neurodiversity (autism, anxiety or the like), but there is care for it. When we learn to care for ourselves and to identify our triggers, we can move into a state of regulation. In regulation we feel good…we have appropriate reactions, we can ask for what we need, and we can be that person we’ve always been but maybe couldn’t quite access.
This started out as a piece about neurodiversity and grief, but then I realized I had a lot more to say about neurodiversity and strong emotional reactions…grief certainly falls into that category. Grief is one strong emotion, I can tell you that for sure.
Emotions are tough. Strong emotions can be scary, yet there are ways to help learn ourselves so we can learn how to react to our emotions with better intelligence.
I hope you found this helpful. And remember: self care and understanding our bodies is essential for us all, it just looks a little different for everyone.