Category Archives: Anxiety

Chronoception

Chronoception

chronoception: the sense and perception of time.

Time perception is one of those things that’s so taken for granted, it’s really difficult to actually explain or talk about. Time doesn’t seem like something we perceive or interpret, it’s just seems like something that is. But of course it is something we interpret, because we interpret everything, because that’s what it means to be a brain living inside a meatbag.

Chronoception is also strange because no-one can really agree on whether it’s a neurological sense – along the lines of sensing temperature and balance – or something more psychological.

Time problems

I’ve always known I had a weird ‘Thing’ about time. The first example I usually think of is that I always find it really stressful and anxiety-inducing to know that I have a fixed period of time ahead of me, like “I’ll be in school for six hours from 9 until 3”. I’ve never been able to properly express why it’s so stressful. It’s not simply that I didn’t want to be in school, or that I didn’t want to be there for so many hours – it’s something inherent about a fixed time period, regardless of what or how long.

I’m similarly stressed by things like, knowing that I need to leave the house at a certain time to catch a bus. When that’s the case, I veer between being over-prepared and ready unnecessarily early, and ignoring the time limit (as a way of avoiding the anxiety) and ending up rushed or surprised. Often I go between those extremes more than once in a single period of preparation.

I’m not very good at keeping track of dates in the future. I’ve always had a tendency to anticipate things a really long way in advance. But I also quite often find myself surprised when a certain date arrives even though I knew about it.

Just recently I’ve come to the conclusion that all of these ‘weird time things’ I  have actually do all relate to each other, even though they seem very different at first glance. They relate to each other because they all arise from the fact that I have very poor chronoception. I’m bad at sensing time.

Outsourcing

It sounds weird to say, because like I said above – time doesn’t feel like something that you sense. Time just happens, and I know that. There’s a certain number of minutes in an hour, hours in a day, days in a year, and so on. I know all of that, rationally. But I know it in the same way that I know the earth is rotating. I know it, but I don’t feel it. And so, in the same way as a scientist keeping track of the earth’s rotation through calculations and measurement, I have to outsource my sense of time in order to understand it.

That outsourcing is mostly in the form of checking clocks and calendars a lot. I carefully plan times and dates and always try to get an objective estimate of how long something will take or last. Because of all that, I probably seem like I’m good at time perception. But it’s all just overcompensation, like someone who acts arrogant because they lack self-confidence.

In fact most of the time now, I try to arrange my life so that there’s little need for that compensation at all. These days most of my time is pretty unstructured. I avoid commitments that have a set time or deadline, because commitments like that require me to put a lot of effort into keeping track of the time manually and trying to understand it. If I don’t bother with that, then sure I do lose track of time sometimes and forget to go to bed or don’t notice that I haven’t moved in hours – but at least I’m not under constant stress .

Explanations

My lack of chronoception neatly explains all of my weird time problems. I’m stressed by things like fixed time periods and deadlines because I know they’re important and meaningful, but I don’t have an instinctive sense of what they mean. So I have to put lots of effort into consciously trying to understand and keep track of something that’s inherently totally abstract and confusing to me.

I unpredictably veer between being under- and over-prepared because I don’t have any natural ability to judge the ‘correct’ rate to do things. Where someone else might easily be able to think “I have half an hour to get ready, so I know what things I have time for and how quickly I need to try to do them”, I just have to guess and hope for the best, and constantly check how I’m doing to try and adapt as I go.

I can’t keep track of dates in the future because everything in the future is just in one big amorphous ‘some time other than now’ category in my brain. An appointment next week, and my birthday next year, both pretty much live in that category together. So although I can intellectually know which will come first by thinking about dates and years and numbers, it always feels like something of a surprise when any given date actually arrives.

This also explains why I intermittently come across as either very patient or very impatient. If I want something to happen, then I want it to happen now, because now is the only thing that really means anything to me. But if something isn’t happening now, then I usually don’t care much when it is happening – because next week and next month and next year all feel more or less the same.

My systems of overcompensation paradoxically mean I’m generally really good at meeting deadlines. I talked to my brother who does seem to have a decent sense of chronoception about how he handles deadlines and he said “I just work at a fairly steady rate until the deadline”. Because somehow he has the ability to know what rate he needs to work at in order to correctly meet the deadline?! I don’t have that, but I do still have a strong feeling that deadlines are important and missing them is bad.

So my solution is to pretty much always do things as soon as possible and as quickly as I reasonably can. I work on a university assignment at the same rate, whether the deadline is tomorrow or next month. I never have to try to make decisions about how quickly to work or when to do something, because I just have one setting – ‘now’. As with many things, that system has its pros and cons. The upside is that I pretty much never miss deadlines. The downside is that I sometimes cause myself stress even over things which don’t have deadlines (or which have very distance ones), because I still have the feeling of ‘must do it now’, even if I actually don’t need to do it for months.

Realisation

Chronoception is now another in my very long list of things that made me go “…you mean everyone isn’t like that?”. There’s been some little pieces of research into the link between autism and time perception, but it doesn’t appear to be something many people are interested in. Anecdotally I know quite a few autistic people who have similar chronoception problems to me. It feels like an autistic thing, because it’s to do with processing and instincts and all those subtle things that are different for us.

It’s also on my long list of things that I don’t (yet) have any solutions for. But it’s always interesting to have a new word and a new concept to apply to my experiences.

Advertisements

Burnout

I crashed out of secondary school twice during the course of my five years there. I dropped out of college by the end of my second year. I bailed on my first ever ‘proper’ job at a fast food restaurant after less than two months and about ten shifts, half of which I didn’t go to. I had to give up on my volunteering position in a cafe after a few months and several missed days.

For a long time I was able to recognise this pattern, but I couldn’t understand it. I was never able to explain it to other people, because it just sounded like I was being irrationally negative: “I just have mental breakdowns every few years, so it’s bound to happen again soon.” People would just try to reassure me that I was exaggerating or making assumptions. But… I usually turned out to be right.

Eventually I came across the phrase “autistic burnout”. It’s an experience that lots of people have described, where a period of long-term gradual overload becomes intolerable. That sounds understandable enough: non-autistic people experience burnout sometimes too, maybe when they have major life events happening. But my burnout hasn’t been at times of particularly major life events – nothing more major than others around my age were going through. The explanation for that is deceptively simple, but difficult to fully explain: I have a much lower than average threshold for stimulation.

Stimulation

I’m not just talking about sensory stimulation here – that’s a part of it, but only a small part. I’m talking about the really general meaning of stimulation. For me, that includes things like:

  • Spending time around people (moreso if they are strangers).
  • Being told what to do.
  • Doing time-dependent and time-limited tasks.
  • Travelling away from home.
  • Anything which involves commitment to a task or a time or anything else.
  • Dealing with a rigid social hierarchy of any kind.
  • Sensory input – a lot (e.g. crowded places), bad (e.g. smells), or both.

There are other things, too – I only wrote down the main ones. Some of them are so subtle that it’s difficult to even define them. It’s probably easier to define what stimulation isn’t. It isn’t “me being at home by myself doing whatever I want”. Anything which deviates from that will be stimulation of some kind or another.

Threshold

I think the concept of stimulation applies to everyone – autistic and otherwise. Everyone is probably familiar with the feeling of needing a break, or being desperate for a holiday, or just wanting everything to STOP. Everyone has a certain amount of energy (or spoons, if you prefer) per day, per week, per hour – and it costs that energy to deal with stimulation.

The difference is that not everyone has the same amount of energy. The average able-bodied NT person has plenty of energy to spare, so that they rarely ‘run out’. Most of the time they are perfectly able to have a full-time job, socialise, look after themself and their home, and pursue their interests and hobbies. The idea of a limited energy level that doesn’t simply result in sleepiness after a long day is difficult to understand if you’ve never experienced it.

But some people – autistic people for example, or people with chronic illness, or mental health problems, or many other things – have a much smaller amount of energy to spend. That means they run their energy down to zero much more quickly when doing the same things. People with reduced energy thresholds can still exert themselves once they’ve run out – just like spending money with an overdraft. But overloading that energy debt can have extreme negative consequences (just like how you pay back more in interest than the amount you actually borrowed).

Depending on the reason for a person’s reduced energy threshold, the result of an energy debt may vary. For a person with chronic pain, getting into energy debt might result in a flare-up. For me, the energy limit is not so much physical as neurological. So the result of me getting into debt is a mental inability to cope: which results in severe anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.

Burnout – meltdown

My description of an inability to cope with overload might sound familiar if you read my post about meltdowns. That’s because it is similar. In fact, I’d say that burnout is a type of meltdown – one that occurs over a much longer timescale. It fits the same niche: it’s my brain’s last resort, an extreme emotional release as a result of overload. But it’s a response to a chronic energy debt, instead of an acute one.

Burnout eventually does have the intended effect – it stops the overload. Because it stops my ability to function at all, which handily includes my ability to go to school or work or do the things that were draining my energy faster than I could replenish it. Just like a meltdown forces me to get out of whatever situation was acutely overloading me.

Aftermath

After I’ve hit burnout, there is an unavoidable period of rest as I pay back that energy debt (which could take weeks or years, depending on how large the debt is). And then, if I haven’t learned my lesson, I go back to the overloading things and start racking the debt back up again.

So, I think I will try to learn my lesson. The trouble is, that’s not easy. I’ve spent my life so far having full-time occupations and catastrophically failing to cope with them. I don’t actually know what it’s like to have a level of stimulation that I can cope with. I don’t know what level of stimulation that will be, and I don’t know how to find out without testing myself until I crash again.

For now, my plan is to increase my level of stimulation very slowly. It’s been two years since I dropped out of college after my latest period of burnout. I spent the first year with no real occupation, which was needed in order to repay the massive debt I’d accumulated over the years previously. For the last year I’ve been studying at home full-time, which entails only minimally more than zero stimulation.

This next year I’m planning to carry on studying full-time, and incrementally add more things into my life. I’m about to become an assistant presenter for courses about autism, which will probably only happen a few times a year but is very high-concentration in terms of stimulation (talking to groups of strangers – eek!). I’m tentatively starting to work on a book and looking into publishers. I’m hoping to take more direct action on my mental health. I want to try to see my distantly-located friends and brother more frequently.

Those are mostly good things, but they’re also very hard. I am extremely wary about pushing myself too much. Burnout is not fun.

Disabled

It’s difficult to explain the concept of limited energy to people who haven’t experienced it. It’s even more difficult to explain when I actually have functioned with a full-time occupation before. If I now say I’m unable to do that, it either seems like I’m flat-out lying, or like I’m deliberately ‘disabling’ myself by limiting what I can do. But neither of those is the case. I never knew that most people don’t feel overwhelmed and overloaded all the time. I did know that most people don’t have mental health breakdowns like clockwork every few years – but I didn’t know why that happened to me and not others. Maybe most significantly, I didn’t know that energy limits existed, let alone that the idea could explain my experiences.

Now that I do know those things, I’m not lying about my past or trying to make myself worse off than I am. I’m finally being honest, to myself, about my own abilities. If that looks like I’m limited myself, it’s only because I’ve pushed myself way too hard for my whole life until now. It might look like I now have the life of a ‘more’ disabled person than I have before. But it’s actually the opposite. I am just as disabled as I always have been, but now I am taking some control over how my life works. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens.

“Everyone feels that way”

This is one of those seemingly small things that really irritates me. It’s such a natural response for a lot of people when someone talks about something difficult, but it absolutely always makes me feel worse.

It’s never true. I mean yeah, a lot of things are pretty common among a lot of people. But nothing is completely universal to everyone. So it’s always an oversimplification and an exaggeration.

It probably means you don’t understand. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to someone talk about an experience and said (or thought), “everyone feels that way”. If I ever do think that, I always assume that I’ve misunderstood, and that generally turns out to be true. If something seems like it’s universal, that’s probably because you haven’t got all the detail. Even a seemingly ‘common’ thought, like “I’m not very attractive”, is always way more complicated than it seems. At its simplest, it might be true that a lot of people think things along those lines. But when you get down to what’s underneath that thought and what it really means, it’s always unique to any person. So dismissing it as “everyone feels that way”, is really just saying “I don’t care enough to understand the full extent of what you are talking about”.

It doesn’t make me feel any better. This is probably something that varies between individuals. Maybe for some people, knowing a problem is common actually does make them feel better. But that doesn’t work for me. If I have a problem, I want solutions or nothing. And telling me that other people have the same problem does not count as a solution.

It makes me feel weak and broken. This is really the big one. Telling me that “everyone feels that way” has the subtext of “and everyone else handles it better than you”. That might not be the intention, but it’s the way my brain interprets it as the most logical meaning. If I’m talking about something fairly everyday that causes me crippling anxiety, and you tell me that everyone gets anxious about it – the implication is that everyone else gets anxious and does it anyway. And I don’t want to, or I can’t, and that means that I’m weaker than everyone else.

It’s a way of one-upping other people’s problems. It’s great to offer advice based on a similar experience. But when that turns into “my problems are worse than yours”, it gets unhelpful and annoying really fast.

Maybe this is all just one of those mysterious autistic-NT communication barriers. It’s hard for me to imagine being the type of person that finds this helpful, but maybe most NT people do. Otherwise, they wouldn’t say it all the time, right?

Decisions

People often tell me I’m a very decisive person. My parents say that when I was a kid, I would carefully choose the toy I wanted to buy, and then that was it – decision made. No further questioning or deliberating, and I would never change my mind.

I’m still much the same now. I sometimes take a long time to make a decision – especially if it’s something very important, but also for seemingly small and insignificant things. I take great care to weigh out pros and cons and work out the logical reasoning to make the right choice. But once I’ve made the decision, it’s final. The other possibilities get deleted from my thoughts and are no longer up for consideration. I never wonder whether I should have made a different choice, or what might have changed if I’d decided differently.

I think this could be something to do with imagination. I have trouble making decisions because I can’t imagine the outcomes very well. I can’t just ‘intuitively’ know what I want or what is best, I have to use logic to work things out. But that means that once the decision is made, I still can’t really imagine the alternative outcomes. Obviously I can think “If I’d chosen to cook pasta then I would be eating that instead of noodles right now”, or “If I had applied to Bath University then I would be searching for accommodation in a different city”.

But beyond that, I can’t really imagine myself in the alternative situation. That means there’s no real way for me to imagine how the present or future would be different if I made a different choice in the past. There’s nothing to regret, so I can’t really worry about it.

Unfortunately this doesn’t translate into being free from anxiety. The fact it’s hard for me to imagine myself in future situations means I worry about them more. I try to plan and prepare for all eventualities, but I can’t actually put myself in the future in my ‘mind’s eye’, so I never feel like my preparation is sufficient.

Routines

I’ve talked about my trouble with edges. This is one of the reasons routine and familiarity is so important for me.

Sameness allows me to stop worrying about my edges. If I’m anxious and I feel like I’m losing them, I use familiar routines to keep hold of them. Familiar things work like signposts to the reality of my existence. Even when my internal self is in chaos, I can check on my consistent surroundings to keep hold of things. Routine also allows me to protect myself from unnecessary input. If I’m in a situation that I know is safe and familiar, then I don’t need to be on alert for danger or threats.

If I’m overwhelmed after a loud party, I can retreat to the safety of consistency. I can sit on my bed and turn on my laptop and use the familiarity around me to re-draw my edges after they’ve been overwritten and erased.

If I’m stressed and anxious and I feel my edges starting to disappear, I can try to protect myself by using routine to reinforce them. I deliberately avoid unfamiliar or new things so that I have the best chance of staying calm.

If I’m too tired to figure out how I feel or what I want, I can keep myself going and save decision-making energy by relying on sameness. I return to what I know – eat the foods I always like, do the things I always enjoy – and save my cognitive energy for the essentials.

If I’m anticipating something difficult or overwhelming I can plan and prepare to make things as predictable and familiar as possible. I make sure to have whatever safe and reliable anchors I can gather around myself – books, toys, people.

All of these things might look like irrational rigidity from the perspective of a neurotypical person. But they’re actually coping mechanisms. The world is scary and overwhelming a lot of the time, in ways that people don’t always understand. The best way for me to handle that is to impose order wherever I can.

Meltdowns and panic attacks

I realised after my latest post that I didn’t really explain how I learnt that my ‘panic attacks’ were meltdowns all along.

I spent so long researching meltdowns and trying to figure out if I experienced them or not. But it was only when I did more research into panic attacks that I realised my assumption had been wrong from the start. My first ‘panic attacks’ were when I was pretty young, so I just trusted the people around me when they told me that’s what they were. There was no reason to question it, because anxiety was the predominant emotion.

But one thing I came across when I was learning about panic attacks recently was “sudden onset”. Mine almost never started suddenly. Instead, they came after a gradual increase in stress and anxiety, as a result of various (mostly external) factors. That’s when I realised the description of meltdowns was a better fit: because it took into account the way that seemingly unrelated input could contribute to the overload.

The most confusing part is that emotion itself can add to overload. Which means that anxiety can push me towards a meltdown, but when I meltdown it’s expressed through anxiety! So it’s a strange sort of feedback loop, a bit like the kind that happens in a panic attack, but a bit different.