A Challenging Behavior Vanishes

Person in a grey shirt, sitting on a grey couch, staring forward.
I have long maintained that behavior is a symptom. A recent revelation in my own life led to my own challenging behavior instantly vanishing, once I got to the root of the issue.

This happened to me recently

Can I get personal for a moment? We’re all friends here, right?

Recently in therapy I connected the dots between a series of awful experiences in middle school and a behavior that has puzzled and disturbed me for years.

This fascinates me because I’ve already worked through each of those experiences in therapy, and felt immense relief from them, and nothing new really came up, it was just that I suddenly realized that they all happened around the same time.

And then all of a sudden this behavior I had been doing since my pre-teens evaporated practically overnight.

What I was doing

You could call it a coping mechanism, a maladaptive strategy, or a “challenging behavior.” What I had been doing is retreating into made up worlds in my head, creating complex storylines that I’d live in when I got overwhelmed and couldn’t face reality. I would stare off into space, or lie in bed, and live in the safety of worlds in my head. It was an avoidance technique; a way for the scared little girl inside of me to hide.

I’ve been aware for a long time that this was a symptom of anxiety, and I knew it was escapism, yet I couldn’t figure out exactly why it started.

Because here’s the thing. Behaviors don’t just happen out of the blue. There’s always a reason. You do something because you feel a certain way, or are trying to accomplish a certain end, or to avoid something. Not necessarily consciously, or intentionally, or rationally, but there’s always a purpose. No one does any kind of repeated behavior, no matter what it is, for no reason whatsoever.

No one does any kind of repeated behavior, no matter what it is, for no reason whatsoever.

This is where I clash with behaviorism and behavioral based treatments. I have no interest in controlling or managing behavior, because that’s never the root of the issue. Behavior is always a symptom. Granted, sometimes it’s not obvious what it is a symptom of—in my case it’s taken me years to unravel the complex web of trauma, anxiety, and depression that went into this coping strategy.

Trying to control or modify a behavior doesn’t fix the underlying problem, and not being allowed to cope often adds anxiety and an identity of being broken or wrong or not good enough or unworthy.

My own escapist retreating into these words in my head has been naturally lessening over the last several years as I have found ways to reduce my stress, strategies to reduce and manage my sensory overwhelm, and in short, have felt more capable of handling my life, but it intensifies again whenever I feel overwhelmed. Yet I still couldn’t figure out what exactly I had started hiding from in the first place.

Why I hid

When something shifted in therapy recently and I realized that this series of traumatic experiences all took place in and around middle school, it suddenly became obvious that this was a time in my life that I felt intensely overwhelmed in multiple different ways, not just by one kind of thing. Within a period of about three years, so many things each became overwhelming, and taken together it was so beyond my ability to cope that I desperately needed an escape.

I needed to feel safe in a world I could understand and control. Even if that world was a made up place with made up people who only existed in my mind.

Like many autistics, I have a very powerful imagination, and that is a wonderful thing. Using it to avoid my life hasn’t been so great. It was what I needed at the time, because I didn’t have better ways to deal with what I was going through. Now I do.

Now I know how to pick apart feelings of overwhelm to figure out what it is about something that is difficult for me.

Why it went away

Now I have better strategies and a lot more skills and experience. I know how to pick apart feelings of overwhelm to figure out what it is about something that is difficult for me, and how to figure out what I need to deal with those parts rather than avoiding the whole experience.

This is a very different way to live. I have more resources now, and have been using them to try all sorts of new things and enjoy many of them. 

When I realized this, that hiding “behavior” went away on its own and hasn’t come back because it simply isn’t needed anymore. I don’t need to hide anymore. Because I don’t feel the need to avoid my life now. I am building a life I love.

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks, Heather. I see similarities to how my son is “hiding” in the world of video games. Your experience gives me hope that he too will work through it and become aware of his stress behavior.

  2. Hi Julie, yes, video games can also become a type of hiding. It’s not easy, but it is possible to work through it and come out the other side.

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Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Hi, I’m Heather. I’m an Autistic writer, advocate, and life coach, and I'm building a life I love. I help other Autistics to build their own autism-positive life. I love reading, jigsaw puzzles, just about every -ology, and Star Trek!

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