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Autistic Burnout and Fatigue - Part 2 of 2

 Last time I talked about some of the reasons that autistic burnout occurs. I covered five of the more common ones. 

In this post, I want to look at how you can identify the signs of stress and anxiety which lead to burnout and how can you stop the burnout before it happens.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Throughout this post, I'm going to use the word "stress" but stress and anxiety are almost interchangeable terms. The key difference between them is that stress usually has an external trigger while anxiety tends to be purely internal. 

Recognizing Stress and Anxiety in Ourselves

Stressed Body Flags

Your body knows when it is under too much stress and will usually try to let you know. Sometimes stress appears as itching or as a rash. Sometimes it will appear as various other aches and pains including chest pains and headaches. 

You should always get these pains looked into but sometimes if there's no other obvious cause, it can be down to stress. 

Things to look out for in particular are:

  • Jaw clenching and teeth grinding: If you find yourself visiting a dentist with sore teeth but no obvious cause, ask yourself if you're doing a lot of jaw clenching and teeth grinding. You might even be doing this while you're asleep, so if you're waking up with sore teeth that settle as the day progresses, look into this. 

  • General Sleep Issues: If you're finding that you're feeling exhausted but you're still unable to sleep when you get into bed, this could be an indicator of stress. It's particularly obvious if your mind starts to race when you get into bed and you find yourself focusing on either the day's events, the things that you still need to do or feelings of loss, loneliness or depression. 

  • Low Immunity: When your body is dealing with a lot of stress, it has to divert resources from areas that need attention. This can result in lowered immunity. One of the most obvious signs of low immunity is the emergence of general issues that are often suppressed in the body. In particular, rashes and cold sores. If you start to see these and there's no other obvious reason, it's likely to be stress. 

  • Digestive Issues: Stress also affects the digestive system, so if you find yourself having unusual bouts of constipation or diarrhea and changing your diet doesn't seem to make any difference, consider that stress could be a cause. Stress changes the speed at which food moves through the digestive system - and it also affects the absorption of nutrients.

  •  Low Sex Drive: Stress could be a factor in your sex life. Stress has very clear effects on the females often resulting in the menstruation cycle being disrupted and either being triggered upon  a stressful event or delayed. It can also create errectile problems in men and a general decline in sex drive. 

Stress and Mental Issues 

Stress also affects our mental state in several ways:

  • Loss of Interest: A sudden loss of interest in "everything" can indicate either stress or depression (depression can also be an indicator of stress). I've previously talked about how important special interests are for most autistic people. If someone simply drops their interest it can mean one of two things, either that was a short term interest and they're transitioning to another - or they are too stressed to focus. 

  • Depression and Sadness: Similar to the loss of the special interest, an overall change in temperament towards sadness, isolation and depression can indicate high stress. It's quite common for individuals to seek isolation when stressed.

  • Panic attacks: High stress can bring on panic attacks, so if you're not prone to them but suddenly start to have them - or if you're having more than usual, it can be a side-effect of stress. Panic attacks can come out of nowhere and can leave you with heart palpitations (or a racing heart), dizziness, nausea, sudden sweats, shortness of breath and even fainting. You don't have to be engaged in a stressful activity for them to make an appearance.

  • Increased Addictive Behaviors: Basically everything we do that is enjoyable can become addictive. This includes eating, drinking, shopping, hoarding and gaming. An addiction isn't simply the repetition of behaviors, it's the repetition to the extent that endangers our other activities. We all have potential addictions which under stress can transition into real ones. If you find that your favorite activities begin to make normal life difficult, it's probably a favorite behavior transitioning to become addictive. Under stress, the urge to repeat behaviors that we find pleasurable will often increase. These behaviors will often take us away from stressful situations into familiar ones.

Dealing with Anxiety and Stress

It's not easy to deal with anxiety and stress. Everyone is different and not all methods will work for everyone. Many of the changes described here are difficult to implement and need the support of others around you. Change is hard for people on the spectrum and self-change is particularly difficult. 

Have a Plan

If you're going to implement change, you need to have a plan that prepares you for the changes you're about to make and that makes it easy to stay on task. 

When I was in my late thirties and I became aware of many of my unhealthy eating and drinking habits, I tried unsuccessfully to implement new years resolutions, fads and diets. Nothing worked. Eventually I made a single promise for a year. It was "drink more water". What I did was simply ensure that I had a bottle of water by by desk every day. I'd make sure to fill it and drink it all at least twice a day. This had a knock on effect of making me less hungry and definitely less thirsty. I didn't tell myself that I wasn't allowed to drink coke, I simply drank less because I was full on water. 

The other thing that I did was decide that there was no catch-up required if I mucked up a day. So instead of missing a day and having to drink four bottles of water, I simply tried harder the next day. It didn't work immediately but over time, it made a big difference. 

Sometimes it's easier to set a small goal that is unrelated to the activity that you're trying to control. For example, if you have a gaming addiction (I've been there too), instead of trying to restrict your gaming hours, make a rule that you need to do a 1 hour walk every day. That's one hour away from gaming. It's a good start. 

Don't be afraid to spread your changes over years and simply introduce a new rule every year. It's not a race and everything that you do to reduce stress and anxiety helps. 

Relax

A surefire way to annoy a stressed or angry person is to simply tell them to "relax" or "calm down". It's not possible in the moment. You need to be in the right place to calm down. 

There are all kinds of relaxation activities available. You just need to steer clear of the ones that feed your addictions, for example, eating, watching movies and listening to music are great relaxing things for overly active people but they're less effective if you're already doing them. If you're an inactive person by nature then unexpectedly, your best shot at relaxation is to be active.

Good examples of relaxing activities can include, exercise, yoga, walking, climbing, ten-pin bowling, photography, going somewhere (where you haven't been before, or haven't been for a long time). 

To be effective, a relaxation activity should be something that you're not already doing. After all, if you're stressed and already doing that activity, then it's clearly not working.

Work on Your Health

Having a healthy body is very important when it comes to combating stress. If you're on a lot of medications, consider seeing a medications specialist who can tell you what they all do and how they react in comparison to each other. Often such specialists will recommend that you replace three medications which all cancel each other out with one that does the job that is needed. Your GPs simply don't have that level of knowledge. 

If the stress is seriously affecting your life and you're unable to deal with it using general techniques, you may find that you need to look at stress control medications. Just ensure that you know what the side effects are because some stress medications have side-effects that are worse than the "cure". 

Look at your eating habits and see what you can do to make some healthier choices and changes. You don't have to drop everything and become vegan, simply make small changes. If there's something unhealthy that you're eating every day, see if you can just eat it on "Tuesdays". If there's a flavor that you crave, see if there's a healthier variant. Making huge changes (going cold-turkey) rarely works. It's much better to just take things slowly and review your progress every six months.

If you're an inactive person by nature, then take steps to become a little more active. There are easy ways to do this but the best all work by being fun. If you like people, use an app like meetup to find walking groups in your area. If you're more of a loner, try to combine an enjoyable activity, for example walking and photography. 

Get Support

No matter how hard we try simply can't achieve things entirely on our own. We all need support. Ideally, the best support should come from the people who live with you. If you can't find support there, then join a group - even if it's an online group.

You should be able to find appropriate groups on Meetup and Facebook. Just make sure that any group that you join is free of toxic people and will welcome and support you. There are also a lot of stress control apps available in the App stores for mobiles. Some are free and some come with subscription fees. Some progressive workplaces will even support the use of these apps and may pay the subscription fees for employees. Talk to your HR team if you're not sure.

Sometimes you need more than simply "free support". Sometimes you need a professional to help you to unravel your fears, anxieties, triggers and stresses. If that's the case, talk to your doctor about therapists. There's no shame in seeing a therapist and nearly everyone does at some point in their lives. Depending where you live, you might find that there are government health supports (including free sessions) to help with your mental health. Your local GP should know about these. 


The key to avoiding autistic burnout is the control of stress and anxiety. While these are an unavoidable part of life that everyone will face at one time or another, they're treatable and manageable conditions if you are able to recognize them in yourself. 

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