Lessons in Beating Stress
It's time to tell the truth, time to stop hiding behind strong cups of coffee and the rush of deadlines. Here it is: I've been addicted to stress, and it's time to break the cycle. So, as of January 3, I'm in a gradual process of caffeine withdrawal. Let me tell you, there is a reason that caffeine withdrawal is classified as a mental disorder in the "DSM-5" … quitting is not easy.
Yet as I work to lower my stress levels, I find that—to my surprise and delight—I'm taking lessons from my younger brother. Here are just a few of the techniques I've learned from Willie, as well as the scientifically supported reasons to try them yourself:
When your stress starts to mount, take 10 deep breaths.
When Willie starts becoming agitated, he takes 10 deep breaths, counting aloud. In the article, “6 Breathing Exercises to Relax in 10 Minutes or Less ,” Jordan Shakeshaft writes, “Controlled breathing not only keeps the mind and body functioning at their best, it can also lower blood pressure, promote feelings of calm and relaxation, and help us de-stress.”
When you're desperate for relief, stop, drop, and roll.
For Willie, this looks like rolling himself into a rug, burrito-style. For me, it looks like using a foam roller to massage the knots in my back and shoulders. In any case, stop, drop, and roll means recognizing escalating stress and taking action to mitigate it. As Ange DiBenedetto writes in, “Stop, Drop and Roll is Good Advice ,” “Stress … is like fire: it moves fast, devours resources and causes lasting damage …. This simple mantra is the ideal emergency response.”
When you crave consistency and structure, create a routine that works for you.
Each day, Willie writes out a list of tasks on his regular routine, and enjoys making check marks next to each completed item. As Amy Griswold, family life educator, writes in "Reduce Stress with Family Routines and Rituals ," “Whatever the cause of stress … predictable routines and meaningful rituals are related to healthier outcomes.”
When everything gets to be too much, it's okay to escape into a fantasy world for a little while.
I used to feel guilty about unwinding with a TV show (or two!) at the end of a workday. After all, shouldn't I be relaxing in a “healthier” way? Maybe not. As Martha Beck writes in "Martha Beck's 5 Best Pieces of Advice ," “I think TV is like a vitamin: toxic if taken in large quantities, but also essential for social and personal well-being.” Temporarily entering a fictional world can better equip you to deal with difficulties in the real world. And if you can find a show that makes you laugh, that's even better. Willie sings (and laughs) along with Youtube videos; “Beautiful Kittenfish ” is a favorite. Now, I recognize this as a health-promoting activity.
Spend time with your favorite animal.
Part of Willie's daily routine includes walking, feeding, and practicing obedience skills with Chevy, the family dog. Willie loves dogs, and caring for Chevy has had benefits beyond stress reduction. Connecting with pets can help individuals with autism with socialization, encouraging them to make connections. Lisa Fields quotes researcher Alan Beck in “6 Ways Pets Can Improve Your Health ”: “‘Animals change the classroom environment and help integrate those [with autism] …. Once the children get involved with animals, they view each other more positively and work together better.'”
Find someone you love and trust, then lean in.
I've written  about my brother's habit of ducking his head and leaning on my shoulder—his version of a hug—and I've been touched to hear from readers that their loved one with autism does likewise. As Michael Ravensthorpe writes in, “Hugging loved ones can reduce stress and lower blood pressure ,” “According to a new study by scientists at the University of Vienna … hugs also have a positive effect on our long-term health.” The article goes on to note that hugging someone you don't know well to be “polite” can be detrimental to your health. I love that science has discovered something that my (hug-selective) brother seems to have known all along.