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.