Recognizing Stress is Complicated When You Can’t Tell What Your Body Feels

How do you figure out where your kid's stress is coming from, when they aren't even sure of what they are feeling?

“What’s wrong?”

Okay, the second step in Self-Reg is to recognize the stresses, and we’ve just been looking at some common sources of stress for autistic individuals. But knowing which specific stressors are affecting you, or your kid, isn’t always easy. If it were, you’d have figured out all of this a long time ago.

You’ve probably figured out lots of specific stressors already. You know your kid can’t stand this or that, but she still gets set off frequently and you have no idea why. Sometimes you expect a horrible reaction and it turns out to be no big deal, yet at other times, a thing that used to be fine turns out to be horrible. It may feel like pinning down what is wrong is like shooting darts at a board 100 feet away while wearing a blindfold and dizzy.

And even asking your kid, “what’s wrong?” often doesn’t get you a useful answer. They’re likely to say, “nothing,” or “I’m fine,” or even blow up at the mere question.

Why this is hard: outside

So why isn’t it easy? To some extent, it’s because our society does not really value this process and so we don’t learn how to do this as part of growing up. Some of us do this more intuitively than others, and some are lucky enough to have families in which this process happens more, but many of us only figure this out in bits and pieces as we grow up, with varying degrees of success. 

Why this is hard: inside

For autistic individuals, this process is often much more difficult.

Do you remember the miasma of sensory confusion we discussed earlier? That complicates the process of recognizing what doesn’t feel good. Let’s look at how.

With a newborn baby is hungry, it doesn’t think, “I’m hungry, I need to cry so that someone will give me food.” Rather, it recognizes something closer to, “feel icky, waaaaaa…” Over several hundred repetitions of this process, the baby comes to associate that particular icky feeling with the tummy, and with being fed, which makes the tummy feel better.

Typically, this repetition will form connections in the brain between individual sensations in the body and what it takes to relieve those sensations—getting food. As the child develops language, this gets paired with the term, “hunger.” As the child gets even older, it gradually develops abilities to ask for food, and then to get food independently.

This developmental process can easily get mucked up when the sensations in your body are confusing, erratic, or extreme. 

For some of us, the physical sensations of hunger are under-responsive, such that it takes extreme hunger to notice them at all, at which point we are also angry and irritable and on the verge of meltdown. So now you have not only the hunger sensation that you’re finally, barely, noticing, but also all of the other body sensations of anger, physical irritability, and probably social pressures from people around you responding to your unkind words and outbursts, causing further emotional confusion, potentially embarrassment, etc. And none of this is a clear signal of just hunger.

And that’s just for hunger. Every physical sensation in the body, from heat and cold, the need to use the bathroom, when you’re getting tired, hunger and fullness, pain, and more, has the potential to be a confusing tumult of the wrong sensations at the wrong times.

Why this is hard: feelings

Add to that the fact that developing emotional awareness goes through the exact same process—noticing physical sensations in the body and tying them to an emotion word through many hundreds of repetitions. Most people connect those physical sensations with emotions at an early age, and may not notice the connections at all after a while because they become so deeply ingrained, but for those of us whose physical sensations aren’t always clear or consistent, we may not develop clear emotional awareness.

This is why so many of us autistics dislike the question, “how are you feeling?” Often we honestly don’t know. 

Not completely.

That said, not all of us have all of our sensations and emotions confused, but I would hazard anything that all of us have at least some of them mixed up.

Interoception

Bringing this back to where we started, recognizing stress becomes far more difficult when you don’t even know what your body is feeling, never mind what’s causing it or what to do about it.

The good news is, that this body awareness—called interoception—can be learned at any age (I started in my mid-30s and it still worked). It takes time and intentionality, but pays huge dividends. It is a process of sorting out, connecting, and developing a greater awareness of physical sensations and emotions.

When that happens, it is much easier—it becomes possible—to begin recognizing individual stressors and have some clue as to what to do about them.

This is an excerpt from my free e-book, Autism, Stress, and Self-Reg: A Guidebook for Parents and Caregivers, which you can download for free.

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Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Heather Cook is an autistic writer and autism coach. She finds joy in helping neurowonderful adults, teens, and parents find and remove the hidden barriers that are holding them back, so their natural strengths can shine.

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