Overload and shutdown

I had a busy weekend. In the course of about twenty-four hours, it involved:

  • Two long car journeys (including one which was almost double the expected length due to traffic)
  • Near-constant social situations except for sleep
  • Eating unfamiliar things in unfamiliar places, repeatedly
  • Sleeping in an unfamiliar place
  • Several busy social situations with lots of new people
  • Unstructured time in inescapable social situations

…and that’s just the highlights. Overall, it wasn’t completely un-enjoyable – it was just extremely tiring.

I thought it would be a good occasion to write about how I deal with overload when it doesn’t turn into full meltdown. The busyness was spread fairly evenly over the time, and I managed to get enough breaks to keep myself together until we got home – for which I’m quite proud of myself!

Noticing Overload

This is something I am really not very good at. When I’m in a social situation, I automatically switch to ‘NT-passing mode’. Stimming gets shut down, speech gets ramped up, and I start to drain all of my excess resources to keep it going. It requires an unsustainable amount of energy – that is, it takes more energy in a given time than I am able to renew.

But its only fairly recently that I even realised I had an NT-passing mode. I used to just think that I became inexplicably more sociable and energetic when I was forced into a social situation, even if I had been dreading it. In fact, that’s something that had me confused about depression for a long while, too. I used to doubt that I could be depressed, because I always seemed to be so happy when I socialised. But really, that ‘happy’ act had nothing to do with depression, it was just my automatic NT-passing kicking in.

So, I’ve learnt that I do have an NT-passing mode. But I still have great trouble identifying it. I can talk about it in a detached way like this, but it’s very hard for me to recognise it when it’s actually happening. And that can be troublesome, because it means I can’t always tell when I’m being overloaded (until it’s too late and I’m melting down).

My best solution is simply to learn what kinds of situation overload me, and then assume I’m being overloaded, even if I don’t actually feel it. I’m getting better at doing that – and this weekend is a good example. I knew in advance that it was going to be difficult, so I made sure to look after myself during the time – even if I didn’t think I felt overloaded.

Recovery

Being in NT-passing mode or in an overloading situation uses more energy than I can replace in the same time. That means that after the situation is over, I’ll be left with an energy debt. The longer-lasting or more difficult the situation, the greater the debt. In order to ‘repay’ that debt, I have to find a way to renew as much energy as possible, and spend as little as possible.

This is what I think of as a ‘shutdown’. I know that definitions of shutdown vary even more than meltdowns. Some people say a shutdown is a type of meltdown, or that it’s what happens before a meltdown, or after a meltdown, or it’s a meltdown in a specific situation… But for me, a shutdown is the opposite of overload – it’s the way I recharge my energy in the most efficient way possible.

There are different degrees of shutdown, just like there are different degrees of overload. If I’ve been socialising with my parents for a couple of hours, I will want to go to my room alone for a while afterwards. That’s the same type of response as when I sleep for ten hours solid following a huge party.

Defining shutdown

Shutting down involves two main things: 1. reducing the energy I’m spending, and 2. maximising the energy I’m gaining.

Reducing energy expenditure

  • I’ll always avoid further socialising after an overloading situation. Ideally, I would be completely alone until I felt fully recovered. Otherwise I’ll hide in my room away from anyone who might be in the house, or spend my time on independent activities and avoid unnecessary interaction.
  • I avoid physical activity. Although physical tiredness is different to overload tiredness, they feel similar. And physically exerting myself will drain overload energy as well as physical energy. I generally want to stay in the house and spend most of my time sitting or lying down. I often sleep a lot more than usual following an overload. Generally I need a pretty small amount of sleep, and I never nap during the day. But the day after my busy 24 hours this weekend, I slept in until almost midday and then dozed on and off throughout the afternoon. It’s disconcerting to feel so sleepy, but I’m getting better at accepting it as part of overload.
  • I avoid anything which may provoke anxiety. Anxiety contributes to a lot of overload for me, so I do everything I can to reduce it. This generally means avoiding any situation which is remotely threatening, difficult, new, or unpredictable.
  • I avoid thinking about anything too difficult. I’m in no state to make important decisions or solve problems – everything gets put on hold until I’ve recovered my energy.

Maximing energy gain

  • Stimming. Lots and lots of stimming. I find that I’m much more interested in large-scale movements when I’m recovering from overload. Lots of rocking, swaying, waving my arms, pacing. These movements help me figure out where my body is, which is important after overload – because NT-passing mode involves being very distracted from my internal state.
  • Physical rest. This is partly a way of reducing energy loss (like above), but it also recharges energy in itself. I sleep a lot, and when I’m not sleeping I’m flopping around or dozing or lying down.
  • Doing my favourite things. After overload I’m usually too tired to properly concentrate on learning about my special interests, or actively engaging with them. But doing things which are tangentially related makes me feel happier and calmer. So I’m likely to do easy special-interest-related things like watching my favourite TV shows, or even just thinking about my special interests.
  • Waiting. In the end, there’s nothing I can do to skip over a shutdown. Once I’ve been overloaded, I will have to spend time regaining energy. I can help that process along and make it more pleasant by doing all these things, but it’s still going to happen whether I like it or not.

Acceptance

My busy twenty-four hours was from Friday afternoon to Saturday afternoon. It’s now Monday afternoon, and I’m almost feeling back to normal. I’m still a bit more sleepy than usual (and I slept for longer than usual last night). I’m still feeling a bit more averse to going out. But I’m able to do some light socialising today, and my cognitive power is pretty much back to normal. I’m getting better at knowing my limits, and knowing what I need to recover.

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