For most of my life, I have been incredibly guilty of having and utilising unhealthy coping mechanisms. Growing up undiagnosed Autistic is most likely the cause of that, and only after diagnosis did, I learn to switch to some healthy coping mechanisms. Well, I actually had to take several months off work last year because I was utilising unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with many stressors and that was my tipping point. So, I thought for our series of blog articles for April I would contribute with my own experiences in a “here’s how not to do it” way.
To be clear; an unhealthy coping mechanism is something we do in response to a stressor. It may be beneficial in the short term but doesn’t resolve the issue in the long term and, in some cases, could be causing us further harm.
A healthy coping mechanism is also something we do in response to a stressor, but it supports resolving the issue or benefits us long term.
When we are under a lot of stress, it can be very easy to slip into unhealthy coping mechanisms to help us deal with what is going on around us. Whilst we may feel like we are coping well, in reality, that is not the case, eventually, the stress catches up with us and more often than not, we then have to deal with the fallout from not having properly dealt with the root cause of our stress.
The first of the unhealth coping mechanisms is avoiding the stressor, ignoring it and pretending it does not exist. This more often than not results in the stress building and building until we simply cannot handle it anymore. It may not even be the main stressor that tips us over the edge, it may be a small inconvenience such as stepping in a wet patch on the floor or finding that the store has sold out of the one item we went there to buy. As the saying goes; “those are the straws that broke the camels back”, it was just one thing too many for us to deal with. Long term avoidance can result in us having to take time off from work, perhaps we end up having to cancel plans we were looking forward to or it may impact our studies.
Instead of ignoring our stressors and the situations we don’t want to face, dealing with them early on can save a lot of stress down the line. Now I am not saying to just “deal with it” as that is not in any way helpful. I also apologise to readers with PDA, I know that this is going to be hundreds of times harder for you than Autistic people without it.
Something that have helped me overcome this unhealthy coping mechanism is writing. Writing things out can also help you identify different chunks of the issue, and you can then break it down further leaving you with a handful of smaller issues to handle, making it feel a lot less intimidating to deal with. Talking to other people about your stressors can also be really helpful too. Bouncing ideas off someone else, sharing what’s bothering you and coming up with some ideas of how to solve them are really supportive. Don’t underestimate the importance of online friends, people you only talk to whilst gaming, reddit, discord, etc. These people are just as valid relationships as those we see face to face.
This moves us into isolation, where we pull away from other people and close ourselves off. Sometimes when we need support from others the most, we do the opposite and pull away from those around us, this can be for a few reasons:
Years of struggling as an Autistic person, especially those late diagnosed, can lead to internalised ableism. All those times you’ve been told you “should be able to do that” or asked “why can’t you just get on with it” seeps into your head and becomes part of your own internal narrative to the point we tell ourselves to “shut up and get on with it” when we really need to reach out.
This is the trauma you face after sustained periods of being invalidated. Being told that your needs are not valid like “the music isn’t that loud”, “you’re clothes are not that itchy” and “no one wants to hear all of your questions”. This has a profound effect on us and can lead to choosing to withdraw rather than face further potential invalidation.
Low Self Esteem
Sometimes this is just down to low self-esteem, whether that’s because of some of the reasons above or we’re just not a confident individual. We can start to believe we’d be a burden to others if we asked for help or discussed our feelings and so try to hide away.
There isn’t an easy answer to fixing this, other than working on yourself and your relationships (and that’s so hard!). Getting professional help in terms of counselling or psychological therapies is also very difficult for Autistic and Neurodiverse (ND) people. There are currently no specialists in the area (that I know of) who are specialised in ND conditions, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t therapists out there who aren’t willing to learn. The standard “gateway” services are extremely busy but there are many paid-for services that charge based on income such as the Nottingham Counselling Centre and the Nottingham Women’s Centre.
Here at Autistic Nottingham, we don’t offer therapy but we do offer a Peer Support Group and a Creative Expression Group that can both help reduce isolation and build up new friendships and support networks.
Addictions and Reliance on Substances
Thirdly there are what are considered ‘traditional’ unhealthy coping mechanisms to take into account such as turning to alcohol or recreational drugs, whilst we may feel our use of these substances is not a cause for concern, a 2016 study found substance-use related problems were observed in 19-30% of autistic adults in clinical settings. The same study also found autistic adults with co-occurring ADHD had a significantly increased risk of a substance-use disorder.
This can also include over or undereating. Many ND people have sensory difficulties around food including overeating due to sensory seeking. In research around eating disorders, there are figures claiming anywhere from 4%-40% of all Autistic people currently live with an eating disorder of some kind. Sometimes this can be simply due to sensory seeking or avoiding, but it can sometimes come from wanting to gain control of stressors you feel are out of your hands.
I don’t have anything different to add on how to cope with these. It is a constant journey of reflection to identify stressors, to talk to others and to create our own unique health coping mechanisms.
The best thing I can say is to try and swap out the unhealthy for healthier coping strategies but do it in a way that works for you, not in ways people say should work for you.
It’s not helpful when people say “yeah, but have you tried yoga?” because you instantly want to throw a hot drink in their eyes. However, exercise can genuinely help if you find a type that motivates you. You don’t have to go to the gym (although I am getting into the gym a bit at the moment), you can go for a walk, join a dance class, you can even download a fitness game on your Nintendo Switch.
Meeting new people doesn’t need to be in person, and socialising doesn’t need to be every day or even every week. If you enjoy your own company then that’s brilliant, don’t force yourself into this because other people think it’s “what’s best for you” and remember: It’s only unhealthy when it’s negatively affecting you either short or long term.