Managing sensory overwhelm and exhaustion for introverts, empaths, highly sensitive people, and those who identify with the autistic female profile with Lindsey Pearce

“Put as many experiences between you and trauma as you can”
-Winnie M Lee

The summer is often a difficult time for me because it’s my late partner’s bereavement anniversary around that time. So,  usually I try to go away somewhere in the summer, but being an autistic female with a different type of executive function means I struggle envisaging, and thus making, travel plans.

While being elsewhere is illuminating and invigorating, planning to be in transit drains my energy. I have to block out huge chunks of time in my schedule to organise the details of travel and manage my other priorities and human resources.

For August 2018, I planned a cycling trip to Bruges, dropping in things I wanted to do around my downtime. I can say Bruges is one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been to, but before I could experience that, I had an internal nightmare getting there.

Although my body felt it was in a vice, once I walked out into Bruges for the first time, I squeezed out of neurotypical travel world order and settled into my own rhythm of being which is much slower and quieter than the norm. Cycling is a wonderful way to explore the city and is very freeing for the soul.

OK, now for the prior sensory overwhelm story and solution: before I could travel by Eurostar to Bruges I had to renew my passport as it had run out of its ten year lifespan. I’d like to draw your attention to the shutdown I experienced trying to get passport photos one very cold, windy, spring afternoon on a Birmingham high street.

Diagnosed an autistic female later in life

I was diagnosed autistic in 2019. This means that I’ve spent my entire life masking (imitating social norms I barely  understand), people pleasing, trying to fit in, trying to be less sensitive and look less tired because I was worried it was annoying to others or making others feel like they’re boring/not good enough/rejected. I worry about this less these days, because the diagnosis has helped me to understand what I was doing and why it’s exhausting. It’s true though, masking is part of my personality now because I’ve been doing it since I was a child.

As a sensitive female and socially conditioned kid, I adapted to expectation, the expectation that girls just manage and shouldn’t be agitated or struggling. I’m only just starting to understand the language around how to explain to friends and family my shutdowns and sensory overloads; it’s not your fault, I’m just really overwhelmed right now because it’s noisy, right, I’ve been out for too long, etc…

I’d been suffering sensory overwhelm forever but, with diagnosis, now I knew what it actually was.

I live in Birmingham, and on this particular occasion the passport photo booths in not one, not two, but THREE supermarkets local to me weren’t working. Really? All three?

I was running out of time to get these photos, so I decided to combine collecting them with meeting a friend for a cuppa on a high street in an area of Birmingham called Kings Heath. Straight forward, right?

Wrong. Kings Heath is a great place, one of the few more independent areas of Birmingham and buzzing with interesting activity.

Mostly on high streets or other crowded areas I expire after an hour or two, like a shrivelled up mushroom, because my neurology doesn’t like it much after that. Why?

Neurology types

1. I’m an Introvert: introverts have a different brain dopamine response to extroverts, so they need more quiet, calm environments to recharge their energy once it starts to deplete from sensory overstimulation.

2. I’m what’s called a HSP, or highly sensitive person: HSPs have high sensitivity to the sights, sounds, emotional cues due to the high awareness of the needs of others, and other stimuli around them which can lead to overstimulation and exhaustion.

3. I’m an Empath: empaths absorb the energy of others, and can find negative energy especially overwhelming. To an untrained empath, other people’s energy can feel like it belongs to them which can be a crazy-making feeling.

Managing this is completely achievable but can be tiring and takes practice. I’m still learning!

4. I’m an autistic female: autism is a spectrum of neurological differences in a human compared to the neurotypical (that’s non-autistic folk) known and standardised brain type. These differences are to do with socialising, communicating, thinking, and emotions. In relation to this article, some autistics, like myself, experience sensory overload which means they struggle
to filter non-essential sensory information such as background noises.

Overwhelmed autistics can also struggle to calm and self-regulate their arousal level when the world is turned up too loud for them.

Think of 1000 noisy airplanes taking off at once in all directions—that’s what happens to a sensitive nervous system in a place so crowded like Kings Heath, when it’s 11 degrees cold, blowing a gale, and for the life of me I have no idea in which direction Google Maps is saying the photo booth harbouring supermarket really is.

Imagine: air traffic control has gone on strike, all the airplane pilots are disorientated, but what the hell— they’re keen to accelerate anyway!

I was going to get the passport photos if it killed me.

When I met my friend for the cuppa she looked at me and my photo and said “bad day darling?”

Dealing with a shutdown away from home

When a shutdown comes on away from home, all I can really do is do my best to smile, and enact my boundaries by explaining as calmly as I can that I’d love to stay but I need to get home.

Movement when I’m stuck like this can help, and often just walking to the train station can temporarily help.

Dealing with a shutdown at home

When I got home I stared into space for an hour. After that hour, I could see myself sitting there, frozen. A voice inside my head said get up and walk about. Shake it off. I went to my notebook (my short term memory and ability to map modes of operating to different contexts is sticky at best) and assessed my “Lyndsey User Manual” for times of glitches and overheating.

Here’s what I was reminded of…

1. Introvert super secret: Build in down time first, assess priorities and add those in, sprinkle social interactions on top like sparse sugar granules and don’t plan in too many—I didn’t stay too long with my friend and went home early. She gets me. She understood.

2. Empath and HSP super secret: ⁃ If you’re interacting with person, especially if they need to get something off their chest and they are feeling negative about a situation, there’s a great visualisation technique that does help me you could try. I imagine the energy pouring through my chest, into my heart, and out the other side. This way I can be with the person as I intend and desire to be, but I work on not absorbing their energy or feelings.

If I need to take things a step further for self-protection, I excuse myself and go to the toilet. Breathing deeply or jumping on the spot can help to change my pattern back to what it was before I interacted with the person. When I go back to the person I was interacting with, I’ll bring my awareness inwards and feel the feeling within me to understand how I’m separate to them. The feeling inside me will pass as it stays in the body for 90 seconds if I sit with it and let it go. I’ll identify if this is mine or someone else’s but I aim not to think about this any further than that.

Giving this mental energy makes the resistant to the feeling grow inside me, a feeling that wasn’t even mine in the first place and that I’m happy to let go on.

3. Autistic person super secret: Deep touch pressure is awesome for shutdowns and sensory overload. I have a three step approach to this when at home:

⁃ First, bath. Submerge, stay in the water for at least 10 minutes and focus on a candle or spot of the wall. This turns off the part of the brain that keeps trying to focus and eases cognition. The heat from the bath is soothing and raises your temperature when you’re cold and feel like you’re in a vice.

⁃ Put fresh pyjamas on or clean comfy scruffs and lie belly down on a large bean bag for 5 minutes; this is akin to a yoga child pose and resets your nervous system.

⁃ Finally, get hold of an around the shoulder wheat pack and heat it up in the microwave. Then sit, relax with the heat and the compression on your shoulders, and read or watch something funny.

A massive thank you to Lindsey for sharing this powerful and raw blog with us.

You can find Lindsey on Facebook by clicking HERE

And head over to her website HERE

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