When all you have is a hammer…


Let’s get two really simple things straight.

Overload is not anxiety.

Shutdown is not dissociation.

Overload may cause anxiety sometimes for some people. But it is an experience that is at the heart of things… sensory, perceptual, cognitive, whatever you want to call it. But while emotions can be involved, it really isn’t at the core an emotional experience. Get rid of the emotions and overload and shutdown will still happen for most people.

I think there are two main things at the root of this confusion:

One, overload and shutdown are not ideas psychiatric professionals are generally taught about. They generally are taught more about emotional experiences than perceptual ones.

Two, the only time many nonautistic people can be driven to something that looks like overload or shutdown is in the middle of incredibly intense emotional experiences.

I had a “friend” for awhile (in quotes because I knew her during a period where I thought friends were anyone who would tolerate my presence, even though this particular friend did a lot of things that most people wouldn’t put up with from their friends) who had been traumatized to the point where sometimes her emotions got so huge that she just froze up and couldn’t function. I frequently overloaded and shut down in front of her in a way that looked superficially similar.

Thing is, my experience of overload was this: I was simply being asked to process more information at once than was possible for me. I would hit a cognitive bottleneck and my brain would start shutting down all functions it deemed unnecessary to concentrate on processing the information so it would get working again. This could be a scary experience when I didn’t understand why it happened and fear didn’t help but it happened often enough with no help from fear or anxiety.

So even though this friend knew me at periods in my life when I frequently had speech and motor shutdowns, the last time I talked to her, she insisted on reinterpreting all of my experiences of sensory overload in terms of trauma that she imagined I experienced. Even in the face of me explaining that wasn’t the case.

(Which incidentally made me remember how often she used to take advantage of my social passivity to explain my experiences and actions to me. Even if I was able to object, she refused to listen to my objections. She just went merrily on coming up with explanations for damn near anything I did, down to the way I parted my hair. And that realization is why I now want nothing to do with her. I don’t need someone prattling on about how I part my hair for any other reason than convenience or symmetry, or creating a totally false narrative about the reasons for everything else I do. And unlike childhood, I now know I am allowed to choose my own friends.)

So according to this person, all overload is trauma-induced anxiety and all shutdown is trauma-induced dissociation. So all the times I couldn’t speak or move in her presence were automatically caused by trauma. And unlike a real friend, she’s unwilling to hear the genuine explanations. (I am glad she’s not going into psychiatry.)

And I think for her the reason she believes that is that the only thing that can cause such severe speech or motor problems in herself is severe trauma. And that is probably a reason many laypeople would leap to that conclusion.

But for psychiatrists and psychologists I think it’s related to being taught more about emotions than about certain perceptual experiences.

I once had a case manager who insisted that if I walked into a closet to get away from the language and visual overload of a meeting, then I was dissociating. She also refused to take my word for it, but in her case it was because I was just a layperson so what did I know. The fact that I have had experience with severe dissociation much of my life (mostly because of pain) and can tell a definite difference, doesn’t seem to cross such people’s minds.

I also have experiences where I find it difficult to find my body. I experience all sensory input, including that from inside my body, as external. So frequently the body awareness signals get lost in the midst of awareness of lots of other things in my environment. This isn’t dissociation. It isn’t depersonalization. I’ve had depersonalization. It’s different. This is simply an outgrowth of the way I perceive my surroundings and the way my brain orders those perceptions.

I have seen problems like this throughout literature on autism. Tony Atwood has suggested that those of us who have periodic speech problems must be experiencing anxiety. Because in nonautistic people, such problems usually come from anxiety and psychiatry calls that selective mutism. Certainly anxiety doesn’t help, and some autistic people do experience speech trouble because of anxiety. But the reason speech drops out for many of us before other things is it uses a ton of resources for most autistic people. It is cognitively difficult and it requires thinking, moving in complex ways, and listening to this horribly loud sound in your ears that makes your head feel weird inside. It’s like that program on your computer that’s a resource hog and you have to kill it to keep the rest of the computer from grinding to a halt. So get anything else resource intensive going and speech can just vanish. It’s hanging by a thread. In one of my climbing analogies it’s like hanging on a cliff by your fingertips instead of standing on solid ground and when you fall, it goes away. (And for some of us we are too badly injured in the fall to ever climb so high again.)

But that is one reason a well known autism “expert” once told me that if she could reduce my anxiety, I wouldn’t need to use a keyboard. Hello? It’s been over ten years, my anxiety has steadily reduced, and my speech has steadily reduced as well. When I met her the periods without usable speech had stretched to include most of the day. Now they’re all of the day. Reducing anxiety didn’t help.

And that’s where these interpretations are a problem. If anxiety is a component of overload by all means try to do something about it. Same if pain is part of overload. But as I discovered once my anxiety and pain had been reduced drastically (and all the pain related warnings I got about overload were gone, so I had no way to predict it)… I went to a grocery store. And… everything around me speeded up. My brain felt like it was slogging through molasses. And I got slower and slower until I just, very calmly and painlessly (but still with a sort of cognitive discomfort)… stopped. Because anxiety and pain are not at the core of overload and shutdown, they are just elements that can make it worse if they happen to exist.

And the misinterpretation is a problem because if you assume that these are at heart emotional experiences, then you will spend a whole lot of time trying to move emotions around believing it will solve overload. When the real solution to overload is learning to detect and manage it by identifying what causes it and what should be done with it. If anxiety is a factor then you should certainly do whatever you can to get it under control. But at most it’s a factor.

Overload is about a brain not having enough resources to process all the information it’s dealing with. Shutdown is about a brain doing the equivalent of a computer killing off processes that make the computer run too slow. They are not the same as anxiety and dissociation. Treating them (and other cognitive, sensory, or perceptual experiences) as if they are, doesn’t help.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

25 responses »

  1. Interpretations can help, sometimes, but if the person interpreting insists on their version despite your own physical and intellectual experience/self-knowledge, then you have to wonder what exactly they have invested in their vision of you.

  2. Whoa, thanks for describing this so concisely, this anxiety assumption is one of my all-time pet peeves.
    No matter how often I tell people that speech requires a lot of cognitive effort, I get these patronizing responses like “No need to be nervous!” (I’m not.) It’s even worse when this kind of condescension blends into presumptuous male chauvinism, as in “You don’t need to be scared of me” Grrr…

    sorry this bit is completely off-topic, but is there a way to add a “Notify me of follow-up comments via email.” feature? It would make it so much easier to keep track of responses.

  3. We were talking about processing pain and how that relates to SPD stuff in an ADHD community today, and I gave a fairly long explanation of how you can be hypersensitive or hyposensitive, and you can be hypersensitive to some things and hyposensitive to other things, and the amount of stress you are under can affect how sensitive you are to certain things.

    I generally do not think of either overload or shutdown in terms of anxiety. I’m fairly certain that the anxiety attacks I have had are nothing like the overload reactions I’ve seen in autistic individuals over the years – they’re similar, but not actually the same, if that makes sense. Rather, I consider overload and shutdown to be a response to stress, which is decidedly different from anxiety (anxiety being another response to stress).

  4. Pueblogirl: With that friend I just don’t know. My passivity seemed to attract certain kinds of people. And one of those kinds were people who would gleefully (as in, really, I’m not being snarky, they were gleeful) point out attributes of mine and then explain my own motivations to me. I have no idea what they got out of it but I don’t get enough good out if them to want to spend any time with them. Once the phone call reminded me of all that I was astonished how long I put up with similar things.

  5. Thanks for this explanation. Just one point: emotional reactions happen to autistics. I have anxiety which I know is not overload, sinc eit is caused by emotional triggers and there may or may not be sensory stimuli that could overload me. I do have a huge problem when autistics’ sensory aversions are called “anxieties”, too, but that doesn’t mean anxiety can’t be real anxiety for an autistic. I’m sure the same would go for dissociation for some autistics, but I’m not sure about that.

    By the way, I’ve also had shutdowns attributed to trauma incorrectly, but then again I’ve had a hell of a lot of symptoms attributed to trauma that wasn’t there by those people. Thank goodness that was not my current staff. My current staff have never blamed a shutdown (that is, what I myself recognize as a shutdown) on anything other than overload.

  6. I was in therapy for trauma-related issues for about 25 years before I got an autism diagnosis. During that time, I assumed that all of my difficulties were emotional and psychological, and that I just had to keep working harder at my therapy. While certain things were getting straightened out (like finding and nurturing good relationships), other things wouldn’t budge (like my aversion to being in crowded places, my inability to carry on a typical conversation, etc.) The harder I worked, the more I beat myself up, because I actually thought I wasn’t working hard enough. Talk about a vicious cycle.

    It was such an immense relief to get properly diagnosed and to see things from a sensory and cognitive perspective. It completely changed my view of myself and my life. It then became very important to find a therapist who knows the difference between overload/shutdown and anxiety/dissociation. I seem to have found one, because when I tell him about my experience of autism, he doesn’t try to rewrite it as an emotional and psychological narrative. There are places in which my sensory/cognitive issues and trauma issues intersect, and he will point those out if he thinks I’m missing the connection, but he doesn’t usually need to point it out. I know what each of these experiences feels like, so I usually know when they’re playing off each other.

  7. Hmm I thought I had said a bunch of times that autistics do have emotional reactions. Maybe it wasn’t clear enough. (I never know whether to say such things in huge capital letters marked DISCLAIMER, or whether to justsay them a few times throughtout like I did here.)

  8. Amanda, I thought you were being very clear that most of the time overload and shutdown are not occurring due to anxiety or other emotions. That they are more related to processing capacity than to emotions.

    And in fact, your third sentence says that emotions can be involved but usually aren’t the focus/cause/what-have-you.

  9. hmm.

    I feel weird because I think of shutdown and dissociation as being sort of the same thing for me, so I don’t know if I agree (I mean it’s obviously true for you, but I don’t know if it’s true for me). I think because I have ASD that certain state, when it’s impossible to wait for things, when it’s really difficult to think and talk and recognize things, and I feel like screaming in crowded places, happens more easily, because as an ASD person I’m under more stress. And I think my shutdown/dissociation/overload may be different from a non-ASD person’s, in form. So I think of it is as being an ASD thing. But I imagine that the process is the same, stress—->impaired functioning and impaired tolerance, as it is for non-ASD people.

    I’m writing this to devalue your experience but just because I thought of it while reading your post, I hope that’s okay and doesn’t come off as disrespectful because I was interested to read about your situation too.

  10. Yeah, I did not get the impression you were discounting the fact that autistics can have emotional reactions. More like just pointing out the problems with (a) mis-attributing overload-generated stuff to anxiety/trauma/etc., and (b) when people think it’s somehow appropriate (or fun!) to tell others how they MUST be experiencing things internally, where their motivations come from, etc.

    (Which is especially problematic when the person being told who they are/what motivates them has language difficulties to begin with, as we often learn to refer to ourselves ONLY in various inaccurate/damaging ways because we don’t have a means to generate more accurate descriptions internally.)

    All that aside…this post reminds me of how, when I was growing up, all kinds of developmental stuff got either missed, or mis-attributed, because everyone wanted to interpret everything about me according to the fact that I’d been sexually abused by a relative. I mean, yes, that kind of abuse is awful, but it’s not like I was “normal” before that happened and just randomly started developing atypically after the fact. I remember even being kind of ashamed of some of the stuff I LIKED because people variously tried to tell me “oh you only like [X] because you’re using it to try and communicate that you need help to deal with what [relative] did to you”. I know some of the counseling, etc., I had was useful, and I am glad it was drilled into me over and over again that what happened was not my fault, but still…it was VERY annoying to have every single therapist I saw go straight to the sex-abuse thing and ignore everything else that might have been going on.

  11. Pingback: Autism, Anxiety, and Overload « Astrid's Journal

  12. Hmm. I think it’s possible for overload to not be stressful, though, too.

    What interested me at one point was a time when I went into an environment with lots of stimulation. My pain was well treated and I felt totally calm with no sign of anxiety, stress, or anything else. But nonetheless, I became slowly less competent at the things I was doing, and eventually ground to a complete halt.

    So while most of the time overload feels stressful, my suspicion is that the root cause is simply too many elements of cognitive or sensory stimulation. When it becomes too many things to handle, things start falling away. Sort of like a computer that has processes that use too much memory — you can’t say the computer is experiencing stress, but it’s certainly becoming overloaded.

    So I think the stress thing is a red herring — it sounds like it makes sense, but take out the stress and the overload is still there. I expect this can be hard to understand if you’ve never experienced overload without stress. But it can and does happen. The stress may add one more component to the overload but it’s not the source of the overload. The source is similar to trying to fit too many objects into a hole that can’t hold them all. After the hole becomes full, things can’t pass through it, and this is caused by all the things that are blocking the way, not caused by whether or not the hole is being stretched (stressed) in the process.

    I have had to learn whole new signals for overload. I have to watch for when I quit being able to do something. Because when I can feel no pain, anxiety, or stress, the only signal I am overloaded is when I go to do something and the ability is not there.

    So as far as I can tell, shutdown is because there is no more space left to do a certain thing, because it’s all taken up by all those thoughts and sensations.

  13. Oh boy can we relate to this. Sometimes we have no clue how overloaded we are until we try to do our homework…..(well that was true when we were in school)…..we’d open up the textbook, and BLAM……..our mind went haywire……didn’t know until later that all the noise and movement of bodies through a hallway makes us feel really muddled and overloads the brain……

    I’ve been stressed BECAUSE of overload and knowing that I need to do certain things but being unable to do them at the time, worrying about consequences for not doing those things…..etc.

    Athena for all of us

  14. As a person with PTSD and Autism, I can say it’s nice to see the words there that may help explain why this is different. I recently overloaded AND had a PTSD response at the same time, which lead to a shut down. The combatting forces for each are so dissimilar inside me, I don’t understand why on the outside they are the same to others. Ah well, as I am still learning what is and isn’t Autism with in my personal structure this was enlightening as always.

    Thank you so much for writing this.

  15. For me overload often happens when there is a lot of stress as well, but it can happen without any stress too. It does seem like a reaction to sensory stuff or needing to pay attention and react to too many things at once.

    One time we had to go to the bank to cancel two of my accounts. The bank interior was of a certain kind which is very sensory unfriendly to me. I wasn’t stressed though. It wasn’t until we had to go talk to some guy that I noticed I had gone some way into shutdown, because I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. It was good my partner was there, or I’d have ended up with gods know what, and walked under a bus on the way home (because my body also seems to operate on its own according to basic scripts as far as I can tell, when shutdown progresses to a certain point. They do not seem to be the best scripts ever :S. I am safer on a bicycle).

    I also don’t always shut down due to overload, there are various reactions to what I suspect are slightly different types of situations. Some of them lead to outbursts, others to me not shutting down but having no resources left to do anything but things that come very very easy to me, while yet others lead to shutdown (which does indeed feel like a shutting down of functions or systems or something, I know which ones tend to go first for me, and if the situation is more intense then more stuff seems to get shut down to deal with it. It’s always the understanding of words that goes first, though I can then still usually do speech patterns, which is not good actually because I have landed in trouble before by throwing out answers I think would fit, and using ‘yes’ as the default answer to a certain pattern because I found it ends the situation fastest.)

    Outbursts happen when what happens doesn’t fit the model of it that was in my head, this also goes for when objects are not where my head says they should be. It has to be fairly intense though, or a last drop kind of thing.

    Problem: having a model of how I think things will go, helps me get through situations and such more easily, with less overload and lower chances of shutdown. However, when they don’t match up, things are even worse than when I didn’t make a model/expectations at all (I can be sure that after that, I won’t be able to function at all the rest of the day), and the outbursts are very unpleasant for me and for others around me. When I don’t make a model/expectations, I can be sure I won’t bother anyone else, but I can be fairly sure I will experience much more overload and chances of shutdown are much higher (though functioning will be more evenly divided over time this way), which may not be as burdensome on others, but are just as unpleasant for me as an outburst.

    So I’ve figured out when outbursts happen, but I’m not sure what makes the difference between overload-with-shutdown and overload-without-shutdown for me.

  16. Oh, thanks for this! I’m still coming to terms with this kind of thing… actually my last message on here was how “lower functioning” people must be at a higher level of anxiety than me more and that they must be in such a state fairly consistently, and you explaining to me how that wasn’t necessarily true. Thanks for that. I didn’t respond (I don’t always, even when I mean to) but I did read it. The source of my confusion is that I was frequently told I had all kinds of anxiety related problems when I was younger. I had social anxiety. I had “extreme” panic attacks. Etc etc. (This was in addition to the whispering about psychosis and schizophrenia that went on, but that I wasn’t supposed to know about) And when people repeatedly say “You are doing X” and I have no explanation, I’m likely to to accept the explanation every keeps giving me. People told me that stimming behaviors like pacing would get my “nervous energy” up, so I wasn’t allowed to do them. If I started to do them they would make me stop, and eventually I convinced myself that they were making things worse and tried to stop them myself. My problems got worse and worse, and they eventually started placing me in a short term “crisis” institution against my will for 2-4 weeks whenever they thought I went too far with my panic attacks. Eventually I learned how avoid upsetting people, and I was thus considered cured of my panic attacks.

    The funny thing is that my first “panic attack” was not like most of my later panic attacks, many of which probably WERE legitimate panic attacks resulting from a state of extreme fear combined with overload. What actually happened that first time was that I lost the ability to speak coherently, I had trouble understanding people’s words, and I kept stimming. I wasn’t really nervous at all as much as I was in a state of mental disarray, there was too much going on for me. I had gone to a restaurant with a relatively large amount of people and gotten a new dish, which was actually pretty good, but I was kind of disconcerted too. I was brought to the hospital, and my father suggested that someone must have slipped something in my drink, although nothing came up on my blood test. Now when I have these kinds of problems, I do have extreme anxiety, but I think for me this is based around the fear that I won’t be able to act the way people want, and they will do harmful things to me as a result. As I’m starting to learn more, I don’t think this is actually social anxiety either. This isn’t a “What will people think of me” thing as much as it’s a “Don’t hurt me” thing. And yeah, that’s scary, it’s scary not being able to stand up for myself and not knowing how other people will act. I’m having a thing now were certain abilities (like speech) seem to be dropping off as I start to take on more than I can handle, although I eventually regain them once things are more under control. This is kind of scary although I read that it’s much harder to institutionalize a non-homeless adult than an adolescent, especially in the states that will give you a court hearing before doing that for more than a day or two.

  17. I didn’t mean “stress” as in “I’m stressed out” but as the general term. If your ability to process stimuli has been maxed out, then even if you don’t “feel stressed” your system is still in a state of stress. As health professionals often point out, there is good stress and there is bad stress, and both can result in undesirable things, like heart disease and stuff. (I have no references for this information, sorry. It’s just something I remember reading at some point in the past.)

    Pretty much everything we do puts stress on us in some way. Walking puts stress on our feet, legs, and joints. Typing puts stress on our fingers, wrists, arms, and so on.

    I’ll stop now, but I hope I made some sense?

  18. This matches my experience. I’ve had seizures and speech is usually the first thing to ‘drop out’ as the seizure happens and it’s the last thing to come back – usually 5-10 minutes after I ‘wake up’.

    There is anxiety associated with the seizure, but usually not too much. The worst of it is behind me, after all. But in that aftermath, speech is just too much work for my brain to cope with.

    The whole explanation is a good analogy.

  19. Yes. Just, yes. Thank you for describing some of the distinctions there.

    As I’ve blogged about, I spent lots of years on hefty doses of benzos (and then neuroleptics as well) for “anxiety” that wasn’t anxiety at all. Not that I haven’t developed some of the real deal too, mind.

    Distinguishing between what’s really anxiety/PTSD and what is neurological is important, and there just isn’t the common knowledge which would help people.

    I’m starting to be able to sort out what is overload and what is really anxiety–and to work on decoupling the two. Overload does not always have to be further anxiety-producing. In some cases, it looks like another of those self-fulfilling prophecies, when people keep going on about your “anxiety”.

  20. Oh and a good example, for me, of the distinction between overload and anxiety is how sometimes I very much WANT to go somewhere that entails being around a lot of people (like, say, to a museum) or where there’s liable to be some amount of noise/chaos. I am not nervous about going to these sorts of things, nor am I anxious *at all* while attending them.

    Rather, what tends to happen is, no matter how happy/fun-having I am, eventually everything will start to seem all sped-up and my visual field will start to resolve itself into specific objects less and less. I do not consider this a horrible thing, but it was definitely annoying growing up to have this going on and not know what it was and have everyone tell me repeatedly that I needed to “work on my social phobias” and whatnot.

  21. Last night, for the first time in years, I had a migraine that wouldn’t respond to medication. It was so bad that I started hitting myself in the head with my fist, and finally went into shutdown for a while. Except for a few words, language went away and all my systems closed down, until it was just me and the pain. I was not dissociating–and I know this because I tried like crazy to dissociate and couldn’t do it. (I lived many years of my early life dissociating, so I thought I could get there pretty easily, but I seem to have lost my touch.) The shutdown ended fairly quickly, and then I just stimmed for about 2 hours until the pain went away.

    Just as the shutdown was not an episode of dissociation, an episode of overload is not an episode of anxiety. However, I have massive anxiety about going into overload, because it usually entails physical pain for me, and once I’m in overload, I have massive anxiety about how long the pain will last. So I live with a lot of fear about overload, and I’m still trying to figure out how to work with that.

  22. I agree with you AnneC, I got a lot of the “You need to work on your social skills”, which I interpreted as I need to behave like the other students, who were talking about meaningless nonsense or bullying me. I wasn’t the one with poor social skills, the other students were.

    I also was told my sensory sensitivity to sudden loud sounds, was a phobia, and I need to get over that phobia. Unbelivable, but I guess in Special Ed it was “Make your problems go away, so it’s easier for NTs to be around you.” right?

    Oh I also was told not to shutdown, I don’t want to go into what I did instead because it might be triggering to some people. I mean it was super bad, but still. So great job schools, telling a person to exchange a rather harmless way of coping, with one that’s harmful.

    This on top of the Phoebe Prince story, I’m starting to wonder why people would send their children to public school at all unless they had to. It’s becoming more of a unsupervised warehouse of children, then a place of learning.

  23. For me, every time I have an extreme emotional reaction, I become overloaded, but I can also be overloaded when I’m not having an extreme emotional reaction.

    I’ve sort of had several distinct kinds of things happen:

    meltdowns – I feel extremely upset and start behaving in a compulsive, unpleasant sort of way as a result

    dissociation – I get extremely scared and freeze up, and then find that I can’t move, my vision gets strange and I feel numb emotionally

    overload – I have too much noise, mental effort, disturbing sensations, etc and start feeling extremely tired, freezing up, and not processing or reacting to things

    Actually, overload and dissociation feel similar, but the way to deal with it is totally different. Dissociation and meltdowns look and feel different from each other but are solved the exact same way. Overload is solved by just ‘stopping whatever is going on and taking a break’ while the other two are solved by my parents convincing me that they haven’t stopped loving me.

  24. Oh, this makes massive amounts of sense. I’ve had REAL panic attacks (extreme emotion) and it feels quite different from overload. In addition, shutdown and dissociation don’t feel the same beforehand or after- shutdown is simply feeling overwhelmed past overload, and dissociation is feeling horribly upset and depressed. They really are different.

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