Anxiety Reduction for Neurodivergent Humans

Blue solid foreground with text "Anxiety Reduction for Neurodivergent Humans"
Here's one of the most helpful reframes I’ve ever come across when dealing with my own anxiety, or helping my clients through theirs.

Straight talk about anxiety

In this workshop, I share (and unexpectedly demonstrate) one of the most helpful reframes I’ve ever come across when dealing with my own anxiety, or helping my clients through theirs. We put theory into practice with a powerful yet simple tool, and ideas for variations to tailor it to your own preferences.

This workshop is geared toward neurodivergent folk and is inclusive. The presenter is likewise Autistic and ADHD.

This is a recording of a workshop hosted by Heather Cook of Autism Chrysalis on April 19th, 2023.

The recording

Anxiety Reduction for Neurodivergent Humans

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    Here’s the full transcript

    Welcome to this workshop on anxiety reduction for neurodivergent humans. Today is April 19 2023. And I am Heather cook.

    So I’m going to share my screen.

    Chat window is open. All right, here we go.

    So you are welcome to have your camera off or on during this, you’re welcome to move around to fidget, stimm, tick doodle, look away, there’s lots of ways to pay attention. All of that is fine, or whatever else works for you.

    And just a reminder that there are Zoom options, you can turn the chat on or off, if you want to see that or not see it, you can turn the closed captions off if you don’t want to see that. And if you don’t want to see the view of yourself, you can press the three little dots that’s on your picture, and click the hide self view option. So those are available. And I would ask people to keep the microphones on mute so that we reduce background noise. Because a number of us do have audio sensitivities. But if you if you want to contribute, go ahead and unmute when that’s appropriate.

    All right. So here’s a plan for what to expect today.

    And then talk a little bit at the end about how we can support others through their anxiety. And if we have time at the end, we’ll open it up to questions. And I’ll offer my contact info.

    Let me assure you at the beginning that this is not a sales pitch, I get really annoyed when someone says that this thing is free. But then it’s basically just a commercial, that’s not going to happen here.

    I’ll mention that I do offer one on one coaching services. And I’m creating various other things, I do have an anti anxiety course in the works that I’ve taught on Outschool to teenagers about a dozen times and I’m creating a version of it for adults that’ll be coming out in a few months. And that is pretty much it.

    So all I ask for is a little bit of feedback for this because I do these workshops every few months, and they’re completely free. And having some feedback gives me a better picture of what’s helpful, what’s not, how I can make it better. So if you can fill out my feedback form afterwards, that would be lovely. Thank you so much.

    And if you find this useful, please share it, let other people know.

    All right, so my name is Heather Cook, and I’m autistic. I’m ADHD, I have sensory processing differences and Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, POTS, various other things.

    And I’ve dealt with a lot of challenges in my life, including disability, chronic pain, poverty, trauma, and repeated autistic burnout. And so this is coming from a lot of my own lived experience as well as my work, working as a coach to help other people who are earlier on their journey. I have not finished mine, I am still learning every day, figuring things out.

    But I can help people who…I’m a little bit farther in my journey than they are.

    And in my journey, I found healing, I’ve found friendship, I’ve found compassion, energy, and purpose, and this is where my purpose is directed at this point in my life.

    I also want to acknowledge today that my ability to talk to you from this place where I live and work is a result of many people losing their homes, their livelihoods and their lives. So I want to remember the tribes who live on this land,

    the Omaha tribe, the Southern Ponca, the Ioway, the Missouri, the Sauk and the Fox tribes, and the Otoe. It’s my hope that the work that we’re doing here and the work that I do in, in my life is steps in the direction of dismantling the thought patterns that lead people to hurt and oppress each other.

    Okay, so in my last workshop, if you happen to catch that it was on autistic burnout, I had this slide that a lot of people resonated with, where I presented the five areas of working through autistic burnout. And I would also argue that these are the five areas of building a neurodivergent-positive life. And so I wanted to put this into that framework. So what we’re doing here is anxiety reduction and anxiety management. And that is under the heading of dissolving negative messaging.

    Messaging from society, messaging from a list of beliefs and expectations, trauma, all of that stuff. So this is one part of that. And I’ve already done some workshops on some sensory stuff, I’ll be doing others in the future.

    But what I’m about to suggest as where anxiety comes from, is also just one small part, there’s a lot of different options, there’s a lot of different ways that it comes about. But I think for a lot of us who are neurodivergent, who are different in some way, especially ways that aren’t super obvious to outsiders,

    we can do with some of the things that they can do. And we can do things in the some of the ways that are expected by society, the standard model, the perceived norm, but some of it, we don’t, or we get it a little bit different than what is expected. And those differences get comments, they get disapproving looks or

    social isolation, people ignore you or they say mean things or they’re, quite brutally mean about it. That could be the whole range from just little comments or looks to, to actual abuse. But we get these messages that whatever it was that we did, was not okay.

    But they don’t explain why. They don’t say what about it wasn’t right. And so we’re often left to our own devices to troubleshoot what went wrong. And it feels like it went wrong. I would argue that it’s not, but, like, there isn’t a right or wrong.

    But it feels like that at the moment, especially when you’re very young. And we don’t understand it’s just, you did something and it got a negative reaction. And you have no idea why and they don’t explain it. But people are so complex. And life is so complex that you try and figure it out, and you try something else, and it doesn’t work quite right, or doesn’t work the way you expect. Or it does sometimes, but not other times. And you can’t figure out why, like, what’s the difference there. And so gathering data is hard, like trying to troubleshoot this and find a better way is hard.

    And it seems so obvious that we’re just the problem, like we’re broken, we can’t figure this out, we do it wrong, we are bad at this or something along those lines, we can come up with all sorts of different painful beliefs around that.

    And this this thing where it’s not always it’s not consistent, is actually really, really powerful. Because consistent reinforcement is the strongest kind of reinforcement. But if you’re consistent reinforcement is that–

    Intermittent reinforcement is the strongest kind of reinforcement. So when you’re doing it wrong some of the time, but not always.

    And you’re getting the message some of the time, that it was wrong, that it was bad, that it was inappropriate, that it was rude or whatever it is, but not consistently.

    But when you can’t figure out what it is, there’s no solution, you doesn’t close the loop of oh, there’s a thing that that went wrong. And I figured out how to fix it. Problem solved.

    Resolution, feelings of goodness, all that. It doesn’t, it doesn’t close the loop.

    So all that’s left is that anxiety, the well, what about this? What about this time? Like, maybe this time it’ll go right? Maybe this time? It’ll go wrong? I don’t know. And I have no way to tell. So it reinforces that anxiety.

    Is this resonating with anyone? Is this making sense?

    Yeah, absolutely. Okay, I’m getting a few yeses. Yeah. Like massively. Yes, it is. Yeah. Okay. It makes so much.

    All right.

    So then what happens is that we get into these loops, I heard someone refer to anxiety once as a worry trap, and I loved that it just feels like that it’s like a trap that you get into and you can’t get out of, because you don’t have that resolution, you don’t have that, that closed loop of being able to solve the problem.

    So let’s talk a little bit about anxiety itself. And this is going to be a very non medical version of describing it, but it is also very medically accurate. I just find it easier language.

    Okay, so I invite you to imagine for a moment, if this is not triggering, if it is please tune me out for the next two minutes.

    Say you’re in that stereotypical situation you’re in a back alley at night, it’s dark, and someone pulls a gun on you and says your money or your life.

    How are you going to react?

    Give them the money. Okay. How are you going to feel?

    Powerless. Powerless.

    Freeze up. Yeah.

    Helpless. I’m guessing some fear.

    When you are actually in a physically dangerous situation, you want to feel afraid. You want your stress response to activate, you want the adrenaline to rush, you want to have that fight or flight or freeze or fawn response, it’s going to get you out of there alive.

    It may not be a lovely thing to experience. It’s not it’s awful, but you’re more likely to survive if you do one of those responses. That’s where we have it built into our system. It’s a healthy thing. And we genuinely don’t want to get rid of that entirely. Because well, then you won’t respond appropriately when you are in a physically dangerous situation.

    And the healthy resolution is that after the danger ispassed your stress response, your fear response, lowers, it comes back down to your baseline.

    And anxiety is often when that response stays on, it doesn’t turn off. And when it can get triggered when your there’s not actual a real clear and present threat. So it’s fear without a physical present threat.

    Another way to phrase that is, anxiety is when you get caught in those loops about what might happen, or when you’re paralyzed with indecision over the possibilities. Or when you focus on all the things that could go wrong, or how it’s all doomed to go bad again. Any of those types of reactions are anxiety.

    Anxiety, however, is not the same as sensory overwhelm. I want to make a distinction here sensory overwhelm can lead to anxiety. But when it’s when it’s too many sensory things going on, or unpleasant sensory things going on, and you’re feeling overwhelmed by that that’s not the same thing as anxiety. Again, it can lead to anxiety if you don’t want it to happen again. Or if you’re afraid that it’s going to happen again.

    Also, anxiety is not the same thing as remembering all of the shit that’s happened to you in your past. And replaying that over and over and focusing on that. Those things can lead to anxiety, and often do. But the remembering itself is not the same thing as anxiety, I just want to differentiate those a little bit.

    And also, anxiety is not being afraid when you have genuine evidence that something is about to go wrong. That’s not anxiety, that is a completely reasonable and appropriate fear.

    Okay, so does this, do these distinctions make sense?

    Alright, so here’s a few things that can increase anxiety and make it even worse.

    Some meds can cause anxiety, and it has nothing to do with you. It’s just it’s the medication they’ll do that. Autistic burnout can increase anxiety. If you’re someone who menstruates, during the premenstrual or the menstrual phases of cycle, some people experience increased anxiety. And again, it’s not about you.

    There’s a question, which kind of meds I don’t know, off the top of my head. And I don’t want to give out false information accidentally. But some of them can do that. I also recognize that giving a vague answer like that might also increase anxiety, I apologize.

    Insomnia or sleeping challenges can increase anxiety, because when the brain doesn’t have a chance for restorative rest, where it cleans out chemicals in the brain that built up, as you just go through life, those are cleaned out during restorative sleep. And when you don’t have a chance for that the brain doesn’t function as well. And so one of the results of that is increased anxiety.

    Also, the system that we live in is designed to provoke anxiety, highly demanding industries, artificial deadlines, you have to blah blah blah blah. A sense of urgency, false urgency, specifically.

    A lot of the elements of white supremacy culture are anxiety producing. And that’s not you gone wrong. That’s the system is designed to that way.

    And also I apologize in advance, talking about anxiety can increase anxiety. So I’d like to invite just a moment of quick anti anxiety technique that can help us maybe through this workshop, something that I call safety anchoring.

    I didn’t come up with the, the technique. I’ve heard this from a number of sources. I don’t know who to credit for the original. But I haven’t heard a name for it. And I call it safety anchoring. And it says just reminding myself that in this moment, I am safe. I’ve got all these thoughts going through my head and they’re freaking me out. But in this moment, I am safe. If you are in a safe place. This might help if you are physically in danger right now. Don’t try and do that because that’s just gaslighting yourself. We don’t need more messages that we can’t believe our own senses.

    But sometimes it’s just the reminder that even though there’s a lot of thoughts in my head that are freaking me out and I’m worried about what might happen. Right now in this moment, I am safe.

    In five minutes, things might be different, but in this moment, I am safe. I’m worried about what might happen later, or tomorrow, next week, in three minutes. But right now, in this moment, I’m safe. I do this a lot, just repeating to myself, in this moment, I am safe. And after three or four repetitions, I often feel my nervous system de-stressing a little bit.

    Okay, so let’s talk about anti-anxiety, reducing anxiety, because anxiety is not who you are, it’s something that happens, it’s a pattern that the brain can get into sometimes. And living in constant anxiety makes us more prone to problems, and ironically, less capable of seeing solutions.

    So there’s a number of things that can cut through anxiety, I’m listing a few of them here, there are more. Thought work can help. And I’m going to be presenting some thought work techniques in this workshop. There’s a number of physical techniques, there’s lots of them on YouTube or online, you can look up. I’ll be making videos of other ones in the future.

    Interoception, being aware of what’s going on inside your body, in either a neutral or a positive context, just noticing, yep, my left leg right now isn’t hurting. Okay? Just noticing that.

    This is not about focusing more on the pain. I live with chronic pain as well. It sucks. And there are parts of my body that don’t hurt, or feelings that I can experience that aren’t distressing. I can get into how to do that more another time.

    A connection with nature is, many people find that very regulating, mindfulness techniques, some people find regulating, some people find the opposite. If that doesn’t work for you, totally okay. Having a safe person, someone who feels safe to you, that can help cut through anxiety.

    Alright, so what I want to focus on today is the thought work, a more cognitive approach.

    Alright, so here’s the main thing that I’m hoping that…the main thing that I want to present today, and it’s the distinction between clean pain and dirty pain, this is a concept that Steven Hayes came up with. And I really, really appreciate this framework.

    So he talks about clean pain as the physical or emotional pain that you feel as a direct result of something happening that you didn’t want.

    So for example, if you stubbed your toe, the toe hurts, that is clean pain.

    Absolutely, it sucks. Toe hurts, pain. Then, but if you think, Oh, I stubbed my toe, of course I did. I am so clumsy. Or that’s just like me or the universe is out to get me or, well, of course, I just attract bad things. All of those are also forms of pain. And those create more pain on top of the sore toe.

    Okay, so you stub your toe if you think I’m so clumsy or I can never do anything right, there’s another very painful thought.

    Or in a situation that your cat died. missing them is clean pain, that’s a beloved member of the family potentially or just someone that you cared about. So missing them, feeling bad about that, the grief of that, that is clean pain. But then if you think well, no one will ever love me again. Or they were my only friend, or anything along those lines. That makes it even worse. That’s that’s dirty pain.

    Or if your friend says something hurtful to you, well that does suck, that hurts. That’s clean pain. But then if you think, Oh, well, they were never really my friend, or no one ever likes me, or people are all liars, or I can never trust anyone, or just goes to show you that everyone’s going to get you in the end, or everyone’s going to betray me. Those are all painful thoughts, and they’re going to make pain even more intense.

    And those are ways that you’re thinking about the thing that happened, that makes it even worse.

    So here’s one more example, say your partner takes you out to a restaurant that you don’t like, well, you’re at a restaurant that you don’t like, that kind of sucks. Maybe it’s overstimulation, that is clean pain, maybe, there could be a number, you just don’t like the food, whatever it is.

    You had a bad experience there before, you’re remembering that, those are all clean pain. But then if you think oh, well, they did it because they don’t care about me. Or I can’t trust people, or they don’t really love me. Any of those kinds of thoughts are dirty pain that we’re creating on top of the original pain.

    Is this making sense? I’m seeing in the chat that a few other people are already familiar with that, or with different forms of it. Someone’s described it as secondary suffering. I get that. Yeah, like this awareness versus judgment? Mhm.

    So someone asked is some what if someone has hurt you repeatedly? Okay, well, that is clean pain, that they have hurt you, every single time that they’ve hurt you. However many times it’s been, that is clean pain.

    The dirty pain might be…see, it takes some practice to get good at finding the difference between the clean pain and the dirty pain. So the dirty pain there might be, I deserve to be hurt. Or I can never trust anyone. Or I have to stick with this relationship because I’ll never find another friend.

    Or they don’t really care about me. If that’s true. They may not really care about me about you, they maybe they don’t, and maybe it’s a friendship that doesn’t need to be a friendship.

    Maybe some better communication could help the situation. But if you’re thinking, they’ll never listen to me as a dirty pain, but they will, or you haven’t tried it yet, then you might stop yourself from trying to communicate that that actually hurt you. And so that they’re gonna keep hurting you, but they don’t know that they’re hurting you.

    So if you can work with that dirty pain, and the dirty pain is the part that we can work with on the thought work, we’re not going to try to talk ourselves out of clean pain.

    But if you work with the dirty pain, saying, oh, they’ll never listen to me, then you can try to communicate, say, you know, that hurt. And this is why. And if they take that in, if they can hear that and respond to it and say like, Oh, I didn’t realize that. But I care about you. And so I’m going to change. Obviously, no one’s going to say it in those terms. But like, that’s essentially what if that if that happens, then great, you can maintain the relationship and it can improve the relationship. But if you do something like that, and they’re just like, Well, screw you, I don’t care, I’m gonna keep hurting you then maybe that’s a relationship that doesn’t need to be a relationship.

    But if you stay in it, maybe there’s some dirty pain that says I’m never gonna find anyone else. Or this is as good as it’s gonna get, or I deserve to be hurt. I deserve to be punished.

    Unfortunately, that’s a very common, painful thought.

    Okay, the question came up in the chat, I’m wondering how to navigate clean versus dirty pain in relation to self harming and addiction. I know it’s a loaded question, but if you can touch on it briefly.

    I have two thoughts on that. And I do want to touch on it just briefly first thought is that is, this is not exactly what you’re asking. But it reminds me of an important point.

    We never ever want to use this stuff to try and talk ourselves out of clean pain. We’re not trying to talk ourselves into staying in a relationship that’s bad for us. Because Oh, well, dirty pain means that they didn’t mean it. No, that’s not what I’m saying.

    Or I should always give them another chance. That is another potential form of dirty pain. It depends on the situation. But we’re not trying to talk ourselves into doing anything that hurts us. We’re not trying to talk ourselves out of the truth.

    We’re just trying to disambiguate the parts that are actually painful. The things that genuinely have hurt you, abuse, toxicity, or just meanness or fate, like bad situations that have happened, any kinds of things that have genuinely hurt you, we’re not trying to say that it shouldn’t have hurt or that you shouldn’t feel pain from it. We’re not trying to say that, that, that you should just get over it. We’re only trying to work with a dirty pain, the stuff that’s building up on it, or the things that are trying to keep you in that bad situation because you don’t deserve it or because of whatever painful thought that’s not true.

    Okay. That said, I quickly want to address the actual question that this person asked, which is dirty pain in relation clean versus dirty paint in relation to self harming and addiction.

    Okay, so…Wow, that is a loaded topic. And I’m not even sure where to start. Because there could be like, the reasons that you got into the self harming and addiction, and guessing that there was a lot of genuine clean pain that started that. That those things were coping mechanisms to deal with genuine clean pain.

    People or situations that were genuinely hurtful, that you couldn’t get out of at the time. And that you couldn’t, like you didn’t have the resources or the means to be able to extricate yourself from and so you found a way to dull the pain or to escape from the pain or, because maybe you were so numb, you just needed a way to create pain in order to be able to find it, to to at least know where the pain was coming from for once.

    That was one of my dirty pain thoughts. At one point in my life.

    And the dirty pain part of it is that, there could be a number of things but it could be like something like I deserve to be punished, or I deserve to be abused, I have deserved everything that’s happened to me. I’ll never get out of this. I have no options. I’m broken, it’ll never get better.

    The system is stacked against me and therefore there’s no way to win. The system is stacked against you, that’s clean pain. But there is, there are ways that you can live with it. Um, I’ll never be healthy again.

    Are any of these resonating?

    You don’t actually have to answer that and it might be too much to contemplate it seriously. If you want to watch the recording of this later and piecemeal it just a little bit at a time, like titrate the experience, that would probably be advisable, or just opt out. It’s okay

    Someone else suggested in the comments, clean pain could be the physical pain from the self harm. Dirty pain could be the thought that my life is worthless or I don’t want to burden people with my existence. I deserve death. Yes, all of those. Absolutely.

    Okay, let’s move into the next bit.

    So let’s try and put this this theory, the whole clean pain versus dirty pain into practice. Make it practical. So you’re welcome to do this with us. I’m going to introduce a technique in just a moment, you’re welcome to do it, you’re also welcome to not do it now and try it later. You’re welcome to do it never, totally okay.

    And I would invite you, if you’re wanting to do it, to, if it’s possible to try and pick small anxieties to practice with, because it’s easier to get the hang of this when your nervous system is not getting overwhelmed.

    If for you it’s difficult or impossible to tell which are small and big anxieties, that’s okay. Just pick anything.

    It’s also totally okay to practice this stuff intermittently, occasionally, when you happen to remember it. When…Yeah, like, you don’t have to do these anti anxiety techniques.

    Consistently, it can just be whatever it happens to work, whenever you happen to remember it, and you’ll still get benefit. There’s no should in this.

    I would say like small anxieties are things that get you worried, get you worked up, but aren’t completely overwhelming. It’s not the kind of thing where you go into that mental loop that you can’t get out of and that you’re starting to hyperventilate, and you’re starting to freak out and you go into a panic attack or a freeze mode. Those are big anxieties. Small ones are ones that stay in the realm of worry and rumination.

    Some people talk about small versus big anxieties in terms of like, what the item is like, what the actual experience is. And for some people, that’s relevant. For some people, it’s not always because I could say, figuring out what to do for dinner seems like a small anxiety to a lot of people. For me, that’s kind of a big thing. Like, it’s not going to send me into a panic attack at this point in my life, although it has.

    But like, what the actual situation is, I don’t think is a matter of whether it’s a big thing or a small thing. I think your reaction to it is a better indication of whether it’s a smaller or a big anxiety. And again, not all people can tell that if, if your internal awareness doesn’t give you a lot of feedback, you may not be able to tune into that very well. And that’s okay.

    What about anxieties where you get trapped in an imaginary scenario, like you’re ruminating on a future event that might happen? And your mind imagines all the characters and what they’re saying and how…

    So again, that would be like, is that getting trapped in that imaginary scenario? Is that creating rumination level getting trapped in it? Or is it creating either a panic attack or dissociation or something where you’re not able to, um.

    I’m trying to think of the word that I actually want to use.

    Not the ableist words that are coming into my head.

    Nope, I’m not getting a better word. So I’m gonna rephrase that from the beginning.

    Whatever the situation is, are you able to still feel like yourself, but a worried version of yourself? Or are you not yourself? Is it meltdown, panic attack, overwhelm, shut down, freeze, dissociation? Any of those I would say are big worry responses, whereas small worry responses are things that feel awful, but you still kind of feel like yourself, just a bad version of yourself, or a worried version of yourself, or a version that you don’t really want to stay there but it’s still you, more or less.

    So regardless of what the scenario is, whether it’s social stuff or whether it’s work stuff or whether it’s the economy, or what’s going to happen on my favorite social media , or whatever it is, is it the response? Which one of those is the response?

    And as you get better at this, those might adjust down, like the scale for what is big and small anxiety might adjust down. So that small anxieties might be like, a gut feeling of icky, but I could kind of deal with it. And big might be those worry traps and then huge could be like the dissociation, the really panic attack kind of things, like, your scale will eventually adjust downwards as you get better at this stuff. And as your general anxiety level lowers.

    Alright. So if you have an idea of some small anxiety that you can play with. So first of all, what part of that is clean pain? And what part of it is dirty pain?

    So in a social situation, it might be the clean pain is… Sorry, I’m just checking in with the chat. Oo, I even made a list of examples from people who wrote in questions beforehand. Okay, learning situations like test anxiety, the clean pain might be that your mind goes blank when you sit down to a test and now you don’t remember the answer is that you’ve actually genuinely studied for, where as the dirty pain might be thinking like “this is always going to happen”, or “I’ll never get any better”, or “I’m going to fail everything in my life, and die young and alone in a ditch somewhere” like all of that’s dirty pain. Okay, um, Zoom was telling me that screenshare was disabled when I switched away, okay.

    So do you have an idea of what parts the clean pain, what parts the dirty pain? As a hint, the dirty pain is often the thing that keeps going through your mind when you don’t want to think about it. For example, when you’re trying to sleep, or when you’re trying to work, or when you’re trying to do whatever the thing is that you’re having a hard time doing.

    Okay, a few people are putting examples in the chat. Yeah, so someone wrote ‘I applied for numerous jobs and didn’t get interviews the clean pain will be disappointment.’ Yes. ‘Dirty pain will be “I will never be successful”.’ Excellent. Yeah. Someone else wrote ‘my grief over my dog passing away is clean pain.’ Yes. ‘The dirty pain is the part where I’m convinced it’s my fault, and if I had done things differently, she’d still be here.’ Yes, absolutely. All right. So when you found the dirty pain, can you put it into a short sentence? It will make sense in a moment why. But you want to be able to say it without it becoming a tongue twister is the point.

    Oh, look at me. I was thinking ahead and I put in a slide for more examples. Okay. I forgot about this slide. So test anxiety is a situation, clean pain is the discomfort or the fear when your mind goes blank, dirty pain might be thinking “I’m doomed to fail at everything” or “I’ll get nowhere in life”. Or if the situation is you can’t get work done without pressure or deadline stress, the clean pain is the stress… like the effects of stress, the dirty pain could be thinking “I should be better at this” or “forcing myself is the only way”. It’s not. But it’s a really, really common, painful thought. And like so many painful thoughts, it feels so true in the moment, like forcing myself is the only way to get anything done. It feels true, but it’s not… “Or if I just tried harder”, yeah.

    Okay, here’s a situation: you’re afraid to speak up at work. Maybe the clean pain is painful memories, like you’ve had bad experiences with that before, it hasn’t gone well, maybe you got bullied at work. All of those are going to create clean pain. The dirty pain is maybe thinking, “I don’t deserve a voice”, or “no one will listen”, or “it’s never going to get better”, or “it’s all my fault”, or “if only I were different then I wouldn’t have these problems”.

    Or if the situation is that the economy is terrifying. The clean pain is dealing with uncertainty, or dealing with changes, but dirty pain might be thinking “I’m going to lose everything” or “I won’t be able to deal with it”.

    So someone asked in the chat, ‘what does work other than forcing yourself, and the pressure to get things done?’ That is a whole ‘nother workshop. Maybe we’ll do that another time. Yeah. Okay, so here’s the actual practical technique, what you can do to reduce dirty pain. This is the part where they always say, “get over it” or “let it go”, but they never tell you how. This is the how, this is the actually how you do it. So, first, I’d invite you to simply notice what happens when you think that painful thought.

    Whatever your painful thought is, what happens inside? What happens in your body? Do your shoulders tense up? Does your chest get tighter? Your stomach get tight, or does your toes curl up? Does your jaw get tight? Or what else happens? It could be thoughts, like it could start spinning all sorts of other scenarios in your mind. When you think that painful thought you could be remembering other things. It could feel like overwhelm.

    I’m hoping that you’ve picked something that’s not causing complete overwhelm or panic attack. If you do, go back to that safety anchoring right now. In this moment, I am safe. I’m having these thoughts, and these are just thoughts in my head right now. In this moment, I am safe.

    Okay, so I’m going to come back to this reducing the dirty pain thing. So what I would invite you to do with that… When you notice the painful thought, like notice what happens, I wanted to use that as like a before scenario, and then we’ll see an after scenario after you try it. That’s the whole point of that.

    Okay, so here’s the actual technique itself: say three times, aloud if you’re open to it, if you’re willing to it, if you’re in a space where that’s okay. You can also say it in your mind, but it tends to be a little bit more powerful to do it aloud. So that’s why I would invite you to do that the at least the first time, but you can do this in your head and no one even knows that you’re doing it, you can do it in a meeting at work and no one will see, you don’t have to go to the bathroom and hide, you can do this right in front of someone who’s yelling at you. And you can… I’m gonna give an example of that in a minute.

    Okay, so here’s the technique: it’s just to say to yourself, either aloud or in your mind, “I’m having the thought that…” and then whatever your painful thought is. Three times, not just once or twice. That tends to reinforce it, something happens in the brain after the third time it’s like “oh”, something’s switches and it can feel different.

    So if your painful thought, for example, is that…

    I’m having too many examples going through my head right now, I can’t pick one. Okay, I’m gonna pick my personal one, right now. I’m having the thought that I’m being a little bit discombobulated in my presentation, and that this is not coming across right, and therefore I’m a bad presenter, and you’re just getting annoyed at me, and all this stuff. So that’s my situation. That’s the stuff that’s going through my head right now. That’s all dirty pain, I’m recognizing. But I’m going to put that into a short sentence, as I’m having the thought that “I’m a bad presenter”. No, that’s not even… That’s not the crux of it, the crux of it is more, I’m having the thought that…

    I’m freaking you all out, that you’re not going to get anything from this, that this isn’t helpful. I’m noticing inside myself, as I’m doing this, which one of those makes my stomach clenched up the most. And the one that’s punching up the most was the “I’m freaking y’all out”.

    Okay, so I’m gonna go with that. So that’s my dirty pain. That’s my painful thought. So what I’m going to do is to say, “I’m having a thought that I’m freaking y’all out”. “I’m having the thought that I’m freaking y’all out”. “I’m having the thought that I’m freaking y’all out”. And the second part of this technique is to say, three times, again, aloud if you’re open to it, and your mind works to, “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that…” whatever your painful thought is. So “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that I’m freaking you all out”. “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that I’m freaking y’all out”. “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that I’m freaking you all out”.

    And I can feel my nervous system relaxing a little bit. I’m noticing that this is just a thought, and for a couple of people that might be true. But now, the thought that’s the most prominent for me is that no one’s going to get anything out of this. And I can go through that in my head too, three times, and then “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought”, three times.

    Okay, and then what I’m noticing is the next thing that’s coming up, the next most painful thing, and I think this is probably the more painful thing but the other ones were more urgent at the moment. I’m having the thought that I’m no good at anything. And that’s a very old painful thought, for me. “I’m having the thought that I’m no good at anything”. “I’m having the thought that I’m no good at anything”. “I’m having the thought that I’m no good at anything”.

    “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that I’m no good at anything”. “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that I’m no good at anything”. “I’m noticing that I’m having a thought I’m no good at anything”. And that’s just a thought, I have lots of evidence in my life that I’m good at plenty of things. I’m able to remind myself of that now, I’m able to remember that because more of my brain is coming online. It’s not getting stuck in that worry mode.

    And this is the whole point of this exercise, it can reduce that worry loop enough that more parts of your brain come online. Primarily the right side of your brain, the left side of the brain is the one that tends to get stuck in these worry loops. But when you can calm that just enough, your right hemisphere of your brain comes online more and it starts remembering other things, other possibilities, other options. It can imagine creative solutions.

    So how was this gone for y’all? I don’t really into myself there for a minute.

    It’s very helpful. It’s really useful.

    I’m so glad.

    Just checking up on the chat, go ahead.

    Is this the same ACT? Because I did some training and I use it with kids, in work things…

    Yeah, this is a part of ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Yeah.

    I find it really helpful.

    Yeah, it helps create that sort of boundary between the things you think and the things that you are, and helps you differentiate them.

    I like that, I like the way you put that.

    Yeah, and it can create some distance, it can just lower the intensity of it. Enough that you can do other things with it. Because we can think all sorts of things, and some of those things are brilliant, and amazing, and wonderful, and true, and need to be out in the world, but we can also think things that are so unhelpful. And just not true. Like, I can imagine all sorts of scenarios that have no basis in reality, but my body doesn’t know the difference and my body will react either way, to true painful thoughts and not true painful thoughts. And I can get worked up over either of them.

    So just reminding myself that not everything that I think is worth keeping is helpful. So you can… I’m recognizing that we’re kind of at our hour mark, but if a few people want to stick with me, I’ve got about maybe 10 minutes left… oh, not even probably that much. But anyway, you’re welcome to stick around.

    So you can play with this, like, this is not one of those things in life where you have to do it exactly the right way or it doesn’t work. This is one of those things in life where you can make it your own, you can play with it, you can do variations, you can find what works for you and it’ll work just great, maybe even better. So you can phrase it differently. Instead of “I’m having the thought”, you could say “I’m telling myself the story”. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same way, you can say “I’m telling myself a story that I’m no good at anything, but that’s just a thought and what I want to remind myself is that I have been good at lots of things. And that even though I’m kind of discombobulated right now, or I’m feeling like that, other people are probably getting something out of this.”

    Or you could ask yourself just is, whatever it is, is it true? Are you absolutely certain that it’s true?… Oh, and just a reminder, if you came off of mute, can you put mute back on so that we don’t have background sounds?… So, can I be absolutely certain that this thing is true? And again, we’re not using this to talk ourselves into genuinely bad situations, we’re trying to talk ourselves out of dirty pain and only the dirty pain.

    You can use that safety anchoring. “I’m worried that if this law passes, people are going to come out and get me. I’m worried about that. But right now, in this moment, I am safe. If that thing, if that bill passes, I will deal with it then. But right now, I’m safe. I’m worried about that bill, but I’m going to do some work, I’m going to do some activism to prevent it. And right now I am safe.” Because when you get stuck in that worry loop, we are less capable of doing the things that actually prevent the thing that we’re afraid of happening from happening, because we’re less able to function.

    But if you can reduce the anxiety, then you can function enough that you can do the things that prevent it, or you can deal with it better. Other ways that you can play with this is taking that painful thought and saying it in strange way or a funny way. In an odd way, in a voice of a character, like a pirate or like a Disney character, or your favorite politician or your least favorite politician.

    Like say it in a in an odd voice, it’s another way to distance it so that it’s not as intense. You can sing it, put it to music. ♪”I’m having the thought that I am terrible that I deserve every horrible thing in the world. But that’s just a thought and it doesn’t have to be something I’m focusing on.”♪ Please excuse my voice.

    Someone wanted to speak up?

    Sorry, yeah. When I’ve been off work for a couple of days or if things have been happening and I’ve got my emails to look at, to see what’s been going on with the kids or anything, I can apply it to anything. Someone suggested once that if you be like a detective and you’re curious, like, “hmmm, I wonder why?” And that works for me, because that gets my brain into “Oh, yeah, let’s have a look at this.” And that takes the anxiety away because you’re looking at it from an interesting, and “Oo, yeah, this could be…” you know? “Well, wonder what this is” like a detective. That helps as well sometimes, it works for me. But…

    Yeah, and that’s brilliant because what it’s doing there is when you engage curiosity, you’re turning on your right hemisphere of your brain. The creativity, the curiosity, that is totally right hemisphere. And the right hemisphere, it shuts down anxiety, it shuts down the left brain worry loop. Your left brain is powerful and wonderful, and it’s amazing, and I want it to work really well but it also gets stuck in these worry traps. And that gets shut down, not the whole left hemisphere brain but the worry traps, the loops get shut down by engaging your curiosity, your cer.. curit… your creativity. I can talk.

    Okay, so I want to acknowledge that in life, bad things are going to happen, frustrating things will happen, painful things will happen. But you can survive the changes, you can survive the uncertainty, you can survive the lack of control, you can survive living in an ableist society, you’ve been doing it your whole life. However long you’ve been alive, you’ve been surviving this, which means that you can survive it. You have power to make your life better and you can find things that can make it better. You can find new resources, you can find new skills, you can build skills, you can make it even better. And a useful place to start is dismantling these thought patterns that make it worse unnecessarily.

    Okay, so I just wanted to mention a couple of do’s and don’ts for supporting others through their anxiety, because that was a very common question that came up in the signup. A few things that are not helpful when other people are anxious: please do not belittle them, or condescend, or punish, or make light of it, or dismiss it, either them or the anxiety. Things like “oh, it’s all in your head”, or “it’s just her anxiety talking, don’t pay her any attention”, or “just let it go”, or “get over it already”, or “just ignore him, he’s always doing this”, or “why can’t you just… whatever it is? no one else has a problem with it”. Those kinds of things are not helpful and they do not in any way ever, ever, ever reduce anxiety. They don’t get someone to let go of it, or get over it. It doesn’t help and they’re not attention seeking, by the way.

    A few things that do help is being a safe presence. And you can be a safe presence by calming yourself, and I mean actually calm, not just quiet. You can be quiet and raging, and other people will pick up on it. It’s not helpful. But if you can actually do things that reduce your own anxiety, like lower your reactivity that center your nervous system. When you’re more regulated, it will help other people around you to regulate themselves better.

    Also take them seriously and take their fears seriously, even when their fears are not yours or when they don’t make sense to you. And here’s a way that you might be able to help do that. Like, what was just said, engage the curiosity. Try to think of a logical reason that someone might worry about this thing. Like, why would someone be worried about a haircut? Or why would someone be worried about what’s for dinner? Or why would someone freak out about a change in plans? Or why would someone be worried about… whatever it is? Like, why would that make sense?

    You can try and figure out how it might make sense, even if this is just in your head, and even if it’s not actually the real reason. If you can make it make sense in your head of why this might be reasonable. It can help engage your own sense of compassion. And to think that someone else is being reasonable here, you’re going to be putting yourself in a better place to be able to help them through it. Even if it doesn’t make sense to you.

    Even if it doesn’t, and you’re still like, “I’m not freaking out about this and I don’t understand why this is such a big deal to that person.” If I can think, “oh, this might make sense if… they have had bad experiences with change in the past”, or “it might make sense if… they’re worried about how the other person is going to react or how I’m going to react if they give me an answer”, or if they’re worried about their own safety. If you can come up with even a fictional scenario, that can help just engage your own compassion for them. And when that happens, you’ll be more likely to want to help and to do so in a calmer way.

    Another thing that can help is to ask them. To simply ask them what they want or what they need, or what might be helpful for them. They may not have a useful answer for you, but they might. You might be surprised.

    And my last thought is to remember that you may not be able to make it all better, but be a safe anchor for that person anyway.

    All right. So that’s what I have prepared for you. And just a quick reminder, I would appreciate a little bit of feedback in the feedback form. And if we can put the link to the feedback form in the chat, that would be great. And I want to…

    Sorry, mind got distracted there. I would like your input on what topic to do for the next workshop. So I have a poll here and you’re welcome to select more than one option.

    Okay, the link for the feedback is in the slides. Thank you.

    Oh, um, someone asked, “Do you have a PayPal or cash app where we can contribute as a thank you?” A, you absolutely do not have to do that. I’m very happy to give this away for free and, B, Yes, I do. If we can put the link to the tip jar in the chat… I set that up because every time one or two people really want that and if that helps you, that’s great. I do appreciate it, but you don’t have to feel guilty about not donating.

    Alright. I’m gonna leave the poll up for another minute or two. But if someone’s got a couple of questions, I’m happy to take a few questions. And that’s what I’ve got for you today. I hope that this is helpful.

    Alright. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I hope that you got something useful out of this and you’re welcome to replay it once the recording comes out. The transcript will also be available. And you don’t have to do it all at once. You can come back and just do little bits at a time. Remind yourself of things, don’t have to do at all. Alright.

    Thank you, so helpful. Thank you. Take care. Thanks.

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    Picture of 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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