Self-Care Advice From a Woman on the Autism SpectrumFeatured

I am an adult on the autism spectrum and if I am too uncomfortable for too long, my nervous system will short-circuit.

Since I still want to live a full and adventurous life, I have to make it a point to remove unnecessary or avoidable stressors and add things that make me feel comfortable, grounded and happy. If I do that conscientiously, I am very able and productive.

Since I like being able and productive, it’s become my lifestyle to make everything as “cozy” as possible.

While “cozy” might sound like a luxury to some people, it’s pretty existential to me. It can determine whether I love everything and love living, or if the world is an overwhelming, aggressive, confusing, stinky, loud, and horrible place.

But although “cozy” is especially important to me, this story is not about me. I have to be cozy to cope well. But I see countless people around me who would benefit as much from just being a bit more cozy on a regular basis. From prioritizing how they feel from the inside over how they seem from the outside. It would benefit their energy levels, their health, their relationships, and their career.

If you prioritize how you seem, you will always suppress some amount of your emotional and physical needs. This may be different for everybody. It may come in the form of showing up at work on a day that desperately needs a lie-in; Wearing something uncomfortable but elegant; Holding your pee for a super long time because it seemed like a bad moment; Staying on a friendly basis with people who are aggressive, unfair, abusive, needy or clingy; Keeping your mouth shut about something that upsets you; Or, spending time on platforms where you can seem awesome but that make you feel terrible.

While in Traditional Chinese medicine, the human body is seen as a highly resilient masterpiece, which can endure a lot of stress, it is also acknowledged that every process of combatting stress leaves behind byproducts in the body. In short, even small stressors create a form of “trash” in the body. Everyone has a certain amount of this “trash” in their system. If it’s a manageable amount, and the self-repairing systems have some free time on their hands, it’ll be removed in no time. If not, it will hang around. Like sand in a technical machine, this trash can cause trouble right away, or it can be left undetected for a long time and then suddenly cause problems, or you’ll notice this burden on your organism subliminally as low energy, brain fog, or a slow metabolism.

The idea of stress affecting your health is of course very much known in Western medicine - Chinese medicine just focuses more on the nuances of small, chronic stressors such as a sleep schedule that doesn’t match you, too high or low body temperature or a slightly misaligned spine. In TCM, the “trash” accumulated in the body is measured before what Western doctors would call “symptoms” appear, by observing energy levels, stool, quality of your pulse and the appearance of the body.

Making your own comfort in your body just a bit more important also means tapping into an incredible intelligence within you that might have been neglected so far. If your boss actually gives you the creeps, but you just “get over it” every time, you might work for a narcissistic jerk for two and a half years too long. If you secretly hate your running group and everything about running, but don’t want to seem like a quitter, you might end up wasting 60min x 5 x 52 = 260 hours of your life hating that very life, while you could have found after half a year’s search that Badminton is your sport and you could end up in the Champion’s league. (Or just enjoy every minute of it so much more.)

A lot of people have to experience intense suffering or drastic experiences to finally realize: It’s not worth censoring myself to be a “good” person in other people's eyes. Why don’t we stop making choices that make us feel worse in our body, but we do out of this weird sense that we “have to”?

For people who are somatically sensitive, being more cozy could mean wearing fabrics that feel really good on your body (removing the stressor “unpleasant fabric”). For someone else it might mean getting mobile data on their tablet so they can work on passion projects during a long commute (removing the stressor “boredom”). Using a very expensive but awesome pillow (adding the cozy: extra comfort during sleep). Always having makeup with them to provide for any unexpected smudging events (removing the stressor: embarrassment and insecurity during meeting).

But also, cozy can mean other things like:

Telling people “no”.

Making a fuss when treated badly.

Canceling events for no other reason than that you just don’t feel like going.

Scheduling more hangout-time with friends.

One thing is sure: for everyone it will mean a series of small things rather than “the one thing”. In some way, we adults are like large small kids. We have very complex stressors and relievers that you can learn if you observe patiently.

But should we start acting like little spoiled toddlers, bending to every little need of ours and acting out every impulse? Probably not.

Being able to suppress emotions is a very important skill. We need to be able to put them aside and just “do the job” sometimes. If I am on stage as a dancer, I don’t want to be thinking and whining about the nuances in my relationship with my flatmate. If your child is ill, if someone needs help, or if you’re just really convinced to get your mind off of things and get some work done - all these are super legit use cases to engage our feelings-suppression-techniques.

We might swallow the feelings and just silently digest them until they’re gone, or set them aside to deal with them later.

It’s important, though, to notice whether you’re doing this deliberately or automatically. If it becomes a default thing and you can’t even really feel them in your every-day life, then someone or something has taken away a very large piece of you, a massive intelligence that helps you intuit, be yourself and be healthy and in power.

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Everyone decides for themselves to what extent and in which moments they listen for, react to or suppress the emotional and physical signs of their body. Every situation requires a new kind of reaction - it would be wrong to say that you should never suppress emotions, as it would be to say you should never listen to them.

Again, it’s everyone’s personal decision and there is no right or wrong. But a lot of clues in Western as well as Traditional Chinese Medicine show how toxic stress is, it makes sense to examine if being more cozy might mean being more awake, more clear-minded, more fast-thinking, more assertive, more productive, more relatable, more relaxed, happier, more creative and more ourselves. And more unique, because all of our styles of being cozy in life are unique. Our ways of adapting to societal expectations are way more similar.

If you don’t believe it’s possible, because your job or childcare is too demanding, think of the many super small ways to help yourself out.

Why don’t you examine your emotional state a bit more closely in the next weeks and identify moments where you definitely feel “uncozy”. Maybe even make a list. Do you deliberately want to put your needs to the side? Or could there be a small fix, such as leaving early, changing outfits, bringing more food? A medium fix, such as a confronting conversation? Or maybe there’s a need for a bigger change, like changing workplace, ending a friendship or moving houses?

In any of these moments, just take a second, breathe and ask yourself:

“What would make you more cozy right now?”

You’ll be surprised at how good you are at designing a life in which you might seem unconventional at times, but feel great in your body and in power. In some ways, it’s extremely simple!

winonawixson's profile thumbnail
Thank you! I really appreciate this and several of your examples really resonated with me. I definitely struggle worrying so much about how others are feeling in situations that I often forget to prioritize my own feelings. This was a great reminder for me today to consider myself and be willing to make changes just for me to help myself feel more cozy.
lari's profile thumbnail
That's so nice to hear! Thanks :)
MohimaChaudhuri's profile thumbnail
I could really relate to this. I do have certain stressors like feel of a fabric or jewellery on my skin can really irritate me and spoil my day. Same goes for a noisy workplace or certain perfumes. I have never been tested for being on the spectrum but maybe I should get tested.
lari's profile thumbnail
You can definitely do that! This website https://embrace-autism.com/ also has really good resources and self-tests. Unfortunately, women often get a false negative result since the early tests were designed to detect autism in men, and the different ways it shows up in women are still often overlooked in these tests. So if you decide to get tested, it would be best to look for someone who's experienced with autism in women. 🙂
PatriciaGestoso's profile thumbnail
Thanks @lari for sharing those pearls of wisdom.I'm neurotypical and definitively my upbringing has conditioned me to prioritize others' needs over mine. Of course, I can not compare it to the intensity of your experiences, mine it's more like a death by one-thousands cuts... So it's great to read your perspective and advice. Thanks again for sharing!
lari's profile thumbnail
Hey Patricia - thank you for your perspective! I would argue that you actually can compare and those things are not to be looked at separately. My upbringing also taught me to prioritize other's so learning to design my life to fit me was extra hard. There are various things that can keep us from doing that. We need to understand, who we are, what we need and how to make us comfortable... But we also need to learn to allow ourselves to prioritize that way! One without the other doesn't help.And that's why is can happen so easily that women are like a dolphin on land: The environment doesn't serve the power and beauty of the being and doesn't allow it to unfold and use its strengths.
PatriciaGestoso's profile thumbnail
Thanks for the feedback @lariMy comment was geared to make sure that you didn't think I was minimizing your experience. That's why I said "intensity of experiences". As I mentioned, I loved your insights and definitively are relevant to me.
This is brilliant. I think it also intersects interestingly (to say the least) with what it means to be a woman in the world. In a world that is physically built for men on so many levels (think “standard” heights and measurements), it can often be that much harder for a woman to ensure she is “cozy” or whatever comfortable means for her. Once I worked in a small startup office that had the misfortune of having the bathroom smack in the middle of the office. Not an issue for the dudes who also didn’t mind leaving pee on the toilet seat and pubic hairs around the toilet (🤮) but I literally would avoid using the bathroom at work because everyone could hear everything. This made it incredibly difficult to focus and be present at work. I am certain a woman would never have signed the lease on that place.
lari's profile thumbnail
Hey Jacqueline - YES, I fully agree!! Women often tend to be more sensitive than men, so in places designed for / by men (many places) they won't flourish as well... It's often nuances that sum up. Like your thing with the bathroom, standard of talking to each other, standards of (not) expressing emotions, the expectation to work a certain amount of hours every day, every week without fluctuations in your performance,...We are not less powerful, we're more powerful in other ways. We just often lack the right environment to be in our strength, to feel it and show it.
Yep, yep, and yep.
ellen1's profile thumbnail
I love how you explain this, especially the distinction between controlling how you seem verses how you feel. I've definitely spent much of my life trying to suppress how I feel, to try to fit in, and it always ends up in depression, anxiety, insomnia and other illnesses. I have the Highly Sensitive Person trait / Sensory Processing Sensitivity https://hsperson.com/ (different from autism but with some similarities). The world has often seemed like an overwhelming, aggressive, confusing, stinky, loud, and horrible place to me too. Since learning to look at my sensitivity as a character trait rather than a character flaw I've been able to start giving myself a bit more of what I need. But this is surely relevent for so many different kinds of people.I now have long covid and this podcast episode https://www.buzzsprout.com/1835170/10950818 made a lot of sense to me about there being a 'tipping point' which I think ties in with what you're saying about chronic minor stresses building up in the body.In my handbag I carry a little bag with earplugs, floss, lip balm and tissues... I'll now think of them as my "cozy essentials" ;-)
lari's profile thumbnail
Cozy essentials - amazing 😍🫶🏽And yes, there's definitely a tipping point when it comes to stress. I am sure that's the case for everyone, just at a different threshold. For autistic people, the percentages of chronic psychosomatic illnesses is are shocking as well as for mental health issues such as anorexia. Because the stress experienced is often extreme and will express in some ways. And in the same way, there's different tipping points for neurotypical people and people with heightened sensory processing sensitivity - and noone can learn to understand your nervous system, your body, your health, your ideal environment better than yourself!
ellen1's profile thumbnail
Wise words!
rebeccasnyder's profile thumbnail
Thank you for sharing this! I have a neurological disorder and am neurodivergent even before that, so these things are paramount to my daily life as well. You’ve articulated well what the struggle to assimilate into a world not made for us can be like. Sometimes prioritizing “cozy”, which I 100% do as well, can feel indulgent, but over the past years I’ve come to understand why it’s actually a need rather than a want for me. I’m also generally much more pleasant to be around when I’m not horribly overstimulated. 😂
lari's profile thumbnail
Haha I can definitely relate to that!"A world not made for us" - that's what it feels like so often, right? Time to design our own lives to make them "made for us"...