How I Cope With Stress

Today in her Sunday Poser, Sadje asks how we cope with stress. We all face stress in our lives, yes, even the most laid-back people out there. Maybe they’ve just found better ways of coping with it.

I for one find that a major stressor for me is frustration with my disabilities. For this reason, it may be that my parents thought I was very laid-back until I became aware of my blindness when I was around seven. Now, frustration in general, such as with failing technology, can set me off, but really so can frustrations when trying to accomplish something.

So how do I cope? Over the years, I’ve found several ways to ride the waves of frustration. Dialectical behavior therapy and in particular the ACCEPTS skill set has helped.

I find that distracting myself by focusing on something other than the frustrating situation or thing helps. This is hard with my autistic tendency to perseverate. For example, when I get frustrated with a polymer clay project, it’s currently hard to let go and focus on something else. But it is necessary. This is why my staff encourage me to take regular breaks and also do other activities, such as walking, besides polymer clay.

I also find that talking through my problems sometimes helps. Then, I may realize I’m catastrophizing or using other cognitive distortions. Often though, to get rid of a stressor, I need someone to take over part of the problem, or all of it, from me. After all, my problem-solving skills are practically nonexistent.

Other things I do to cope with stress include finding relaxing activities, such as diffusing an essential oil blend or lying under my weighted blanket. Lastly, writing about my stressors, problems or frustrations also helps.

What helps you cope with stress?

Angry and Dissatisfied

Today, I feel flooded with emotional flashbacks that I’m not 100% sure about what triggered them or even what they are about. To give myself some insight, I picked up the book Journal Writing Prompts for Child Abuse Survivors again. Somehow, the prompts about anger appealed to me.

Growing up, I was always described as “too quick to anger”. There is some truth to this, in that I have and always had an extremely low level of distress tolerance.

My parents would react to this with resentment, but they’d generally solve my problems anyway. This at one point was described as having low expectations of me. When the psychologist who did my latest autism assessment, said that, I was triggered. After all, if my parents had expected me to be able to work stuff out myself, would that have been any better? I understand all about letting babies “cry it out” and I’m not a fan of it. I don’t have a clue whether I was left to “cry it out” a lot. I think so, as I was in the hospital for the first three months of my life and I don’t expect the nurses to have attended to each baby’s every cry. As such, even if my parents did attend to my every cry for attention, I must’ve been allowed to learn some self-regulation through “crying it out”.

My parents weren’t the most patient people in the world. At one point, my father explained to me that a family is like a business, in that it has to be run efficiently. As such, I can understand why my parents rarely let me work stuff out on my own. I also understand why they resented helping me.

Growing up though, my poor distress tolerance skills were seen as mere anger and oppositionality. I’m not sure why people perceived me as always angry. They weren’t just my parents, after all. Maybe I am quick to anger. I don’t know, but to be honest I think distress is different from anger.

When I became an adult and was admitted to the psych hospital, my nursing diagnosis at least off the record was “angry and dissatisfied”. Again, I’m pretty sure the staff confused distress with dissatisfaction. Distress is an inability to cope. Dissatisfaction is an unwillingness to accept the situation. I was perfectly willing to be discharged back into independent living if that was what was deemed necessary, but I didn’t promise I’d cope. This was considered blackmail.

Now that I’m in long-term care, my staff no longer see me as angry or dissatisfied a lot. Even so, I haven’t changed much. I still swear and scream when my computer or iPhone won’t cooperate. Staff do help me now, but they don’t resent it anymore. This has also allowed me to practise asking for help in more productive, proactive ways, which, in turn, helps me become frustrated less easily. I like it that way.

ACCEPTS: Coping with Distress By Using DBT #AtoZChallenge

I haven’t decided on a theme for this year’s #AtoZChallenge, so I can basically write about whatever comes to mind. Right now, we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and we’ll most likely be by the end of April still. As such, today’s post is about self-care in times of distress.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a commonly-used approach to treating emotion regulation issues such as those found in borderline personality disorder, but its strategies can be useful for anyone having a hard time coping with crisis. DBT’s founder Marsha M. Linehan was probably fond of acronyms, as DBT has many. One such acronym, which is particularly useful for coping with difficult emotions during times of distress, is ACCEPTS. ACCEPTS stands for the following.

Activities: find a hobby or sport to do. Yes, playing video games or watching Netflix counts. For me, reading is my hobby of choice.

Contributing: do some form of volunteer work or help a friend. The book The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care by Anna Borges provides babysitting for a friend as an example. This is not likely possible in these times of lockdown, but helping out online probably also counts.

Comparison: look to a real or fictional situation that could be worse.

Emotions: try to channel the exact opposite of the emotion you’re trying to fight. For example, if you’re sad, watch funny YouTube videos. You can also train yourself to act opposite of the emotion. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to put on a smile when you’re sad, though that might help. It also means, for example, doing the opposite of your initial response to your emotion. For example, if you’re feeling like sleeping it off, try exercise.

Push away: visualize building a wall between you and the negative emotion or imagine that it is a mass you can push away.

Thoughts: do something that requires your full cognitive attention. The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care clarifies that you don’t need to do any sort of critical thinking. Borges instead provides the example of reading a book, focusing on each sentence intently. I prefer word games.

Sensation: provide yourself with a strong sensation to focus on. For example, hold some cubes of ice. I’ve seen some people even suggest smelling ammonia. That’s crazy to me (I initially thought ammonia was another acronym). Borges, however, says you can actually focus on pleasant sensations such as soft textures too. I love essential oils.

What are your favorite techniques of coping with distress?

What Day Is It Anyway? (March 23, 2020) #WDIIA

Well, this thing called What Day Is It Anyway? (#WDIIA) is presumably a daily feature during the COVID-19 crisis. However, I won’t promise I’ll make it a daily feature. I’d like to participate when I can though, as I must admit I lose track of the days too.

Today is Monday, March 23. I awoke at 8:29AM according to my Fitbit activity tracker. I got showered, brushed my teeth and got dressed. I then had nice yoghurt with crunchy muesli with nuts for breakfast. I bought it with the staff on Saturday.

Then I went back to my room for a bit, until it was time to have coffee in the living room, which is our day room now that the day center is closed. The day activities staff are still figuring out how to best help all clients in the seven homes that are part of the facility.

I went for two walks during the day, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. Then after dinner I went on the elliptical. Then finally while prime minister Rutte was delivering a press conference on the COVID-19 situation, I took another long walk. I reached nearly 12000 steps today.

As such, I didn’t hear myself what the prime minister had to say. I later heard on the news that people found gathering in even small groups can be fined up to €400 per person. It’s up to each city’s mayor though to take appropriate safety measures. Shops can (and probably should) have strict limitations on the number of people entering at a time. All events and festivals have been canceled until June 1. The prime minister will give out further details about school closures next week. But the good news is… no complete lockdown for now! Though the prime minister did say that people should really go outside alone if they’re outside at all, I doubt I’ll be fined for taking walks outdoors with just one staff. I hope not at least, as walks are true stress-relievers for me in normal times already and this time is definitely more stressful than normal.

Then again, I’m not sure I’m affected more by this situation than most others, or maybe even less. I am constantly on edge, but that’s my normal. That’s what living life with (C-)PTSD and BPD traits is like everyday. My distress level simply is never at a one and this time is no exception. Though obviously the lack of routine is distressing, I must honestly say it’s really more the usual things that cause me overwhelm.

Writer’s Workshop: If I Could Change One Thing About Myself

Mama Kat in one of her prompts for this week asks us what one thing we would change about ourselves if we could. She also asks us to think on why it can’t be changed.

This is pretty much a no-brainer to me. If there’s one thing I could pick to change about myself, it would be to widen my window of tolerance. The window of tolerance is the window at which point someone is stimulated enough that they aren’t bored too much, but not so much that they are overloaded. Each individual’s window of tolerance is different. Some people thrive on challenging activities and exciting stimuli. Others can barely handle any sensory or cognitive demands. I belong to the latter category.

If I’m correct, the window of tolerance also refers to the ability to tolerate distress or frustration. My distress tolerance is and has always been extremely poor.

So why can’t it be changed? Well, I tried. Ever since I was a little child, psychologists have recommended I work on distress tolerance. Now I must say I really wasn’t aware of the problem at all until I was about eleven, but even when I was, I had no idea how to heighten my distress tolerance.

My tolerance for sensory and cognitive demands was manageable up until I suffered autistic burnout at age 21. I mean, I was in classrooms with 30+ students in them, doing my schoolwork at a high level high school. Ever since my burnout though, I’ve hardly been able to function in group settings without getting overloaded. I also can’t seem to handle any sort of pressure.

In 2017, when I was being kicked out of the psychiatric hospital, it was recommended that I do dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). One of the modules of DBT is distress tolerance. The community psychiatric nurse (CPN) who started DBT with me, even wrote increasing my frustration tolerance as a treatment goal without my having asked her to. I didn’t see how I could work on this. After all, seeing this goal written on my treatment plan already created such immense pressure that I felt overloaded without even trying to work on the goal.

I know I have a bit of an external locus of control. This seems to be tied in with poor distress tolerance. I mean, it isn’t that I genuinely think the world owes me a sensory-friendly, low-demand environment. However, I can’t see how I can work on changing my ability to handle sensory stimuli, demands and distress.

Mama’s Losin’ It