A Mindful Experiment: Using Meditation to Regulate Intense Emotions

I have always had volatile emotions. One popular (though deeply unkind) description of Autistic people is as “emotionless robots” — a description that doesn’t even start to approach the emotional mess of me. If I hadn’t met so many other Autistics with intense, messy emotions, lots of grief and rage, difficulty suppressing emotional impulses, I might continue to question my diagnosis. But there are plenty of us out there with hair-trigger emotions.

And so many Autistics are like me in that strong emotions, even our own strong emotions, are completely overwhelming to us. Emotions are like being drowned at the beach and before I can get up from being knocked down by a giant wave of emotion, I get knocked down by a wave of overwhelm from having too much emotion. It’s easy to get stuck there, battered by waves coming from within. I once watched a short video in which an Autistic pre-teen talked about typical people having a bucket for emotions (and sensory inputs) while Autistics often only have a tiny teacup (or in the case of senses that need extra input, a swimming pool.) It’s a great analogy. I have a swimming pool for proprioceptive input that’s almost impossible to fill and I have a tiny little teacup for emotions and too often I’m trying to catch ocean waves in it.

Recently, I found myself caught on the beach again. Events stirred strong emotions and follow-up events kept making things worse, not better, and I found myself in a downward spiral of too much emotion and too much overwhelm from too much emotion causing even more emotion. It drove away the partner I’d had for nearly two and a half years and I found myself alone, overwhelmed, devastated, and sinking under the waves even faster. I began to battle against self-talk, mainly centered around wishing I weren’t Autistic, believing that a neurology that didn’t come with such volatile emotions and such vulnerability to overwhelm would give me the perfect life that everyone — of any neurology — can, at times, yearn for in vain (for none of us get to have perfect lives. The secret is to make the best life we are able to and learn to love whatever life we do end up with. There’s no road map and only a portion of anything is ever really in our control.)

I have pulled out of the nosedive by returning to an old friend, meditation.

I used to meditate decades ago — so long ago that I can no longer remember if it did me any good. On the one hand, it seems it did, because I kept doing it for a long time. On the other hand, it seems it didn’t, because I stopped doing it at some point. Although that could have just been life interfering with self-discipline. Or maybe meditation made me feel so good that I forgot it was making me feel good and started thinking it must be a waste of time. I have no idea why I stopped, but I recently found myself stumbling across articles about meditation in a synchronicity that was hard to ignore.

The first thing that really caught my eye was an article about meditation and its effects on the amygdala. I had already been thinking about the amygdala a lot because it was pretty apparent that mine was over-active and over-stimulated. I had seen brain studies that indicated that many Autistics have very active amygdalas and even studies that suggested that we have more neural connections to our amygdala than non-autistic brains have.

The amygdala is a pair of neural regions deep inside the brain, in the temporal region (the sides of the brain, more or less beneath your temples.) They are complex and, like much of the brain, only partially understood. They appear to have a strong role in emotions and decision-making, among other things. While pleasant emotions do appear to correlate with amygdala activity, most studies focus on its role in stress emotions, anger, fear, anxiety, etc. If you do much reading about the brain and autism studies, you’re quite familiar with the amygdala already as it’s one of the favorite brain locations for neurology-based autism studies.

Fight-or-flight anxiety and panic are so familiar to me that I had come to believe anxiety was my normal state of being. I became unable to “see” the anxiety except during rare times when it lifted and I could see, by contrast, that I had been extremely tense. Venturing out among people was often too much to bear, generating feelings of being trapped or of venturing behind enemy lines. So when I saw a study that found indications of functional changes to the amygdala, apparently due to mindfulness mediation, I was immediately curious and interested.

I found studies that indicated that meditation can be effective in relieving panic and depression, that it can enhance cognitive abilities, and increase the density of grey matter in brain regions associated with emotional regulation and perspective taking. I found a paper, published in 2012, about using meditation, specifically mantra meditation, as a therapy for Autistic children age 3 to 14 years, that reported “relief of symptoms” that appear to be an effect of stress-reduction and increased emotional self-regulation.

Having seen these studies (and many others, too numerous to list here) indicating potential benefits of meditation, my next step was to read Meditation for Aspies: Everyday Techniques to Help People with Asperger Syndrome Take Control and Improve Their Lives, by Ulrike Domenika Bolls. Bolls’ writing style (originally in German and translated into English by Rowan Sewell) is very clear and easy to understand, although at times repetitive. If I did not already have past experience with meditation, I think I might have felt confused by her book as it explains the benefits of meditation, the ways that people with autism are especially well-suited to become meditators, the physical (and some mental) components of a wide variety of types of meditation, but never really gives a good sense of what meditation is, beyond “a practice that can help you.” In Bolls’ defense, meditation is very difficult to explain. It is the sort of thing that is almost impossible to understand without actually doing it yourself.

Bolls’ book is a good resource for learning about meditation and its benefits, but it will not teach you how to meditate. The author tells her readers to go find a teacher for that. I found that a little frustrating but I did not regret buying and reading the book. It provides a good overview and is especially helpful for describing the wide range of meditation styles that are available. By the time I finished Bolls’ book, I was pretty convinced that I needed to try meditation. I have often seen people refer to the Autistic brain/mind as being like a different operating system — there is nothing flawed or broken, but you can’t expect to run iOS software on a Windows machine or vice-versa. Within this analogy, meditation is like a disc optimization routine that defrags the hard drive and makes everything run more efficiently. Meditation can optimize any hard drive because it is a self-applied process, so our computer (self) already applies it within whatever operating system (individual neurological configuration) the system (person) happens to be running.

Since it had been so many years since I last meditated, I wanted more guidance than Bolls’ book provides. And since I have a very low income and a fear of getting involved with a group or teacher that might end up being pushy or even cult-like (I have experienced this in the past and am very careful about what sort of quasi-religious or new-age people and groups I get involved with because of it) I was pleased to find two free sources of non-intrusive guidance in mindfulness meditation, which turned out to be the meditation type I found myself most drawn to. The meditation I did in the past was mantra meditation. I cannot explain why I felt the urge to do something different this time. I chose, instead, a form of meditation that focuses on the breath. Very simple, very quiet, very peaceful. It can be done while sitting or while slowly walking and I have found that mindfulness breath meditation while laying down helps me to go to sleep more quickly and peacefully as well.

One source of guidance is a set of free recordings you can download from UCLA’s  Mindful Awareness Research Center. These are good recordings and well-produced, but I do not like them so much because the voice is a higher-pitched female voice (and there are even some bells in the recordings) and my nervous system does not respond well to higher-pitched sounds. I find it difficult to relax to the female voice and there are even points in the recording where the pitch and attack (a musical word for the quality of the start of a sound) of her voice causes me to startle and tense up. They are good recordings, though, and if you don’t have my sensory defensiveness against higher-pitched sounds, you may get great benefit from them.

The other recordings are almost perfect for me. Sam Harris has recorded two guided meditations and gives the files away for free on his website. (I feel I should give a warning about Sam Harris. He is more widely-known as an atheist political commentator and he has some political views that I find deeply disturbing. He is hawkish and has advocated torture and killing others for their beliefs. I avoid his political writing because I have gained so much benefit from his meditation teaching and I value him as a meditation resource. Too much exposure to his political views would make it impossible for me to use his voice as a meditation guide and I have so few resources at this point that I don’t want to lose one of the most valuable ones I have.)

I find Harris’ voice very soothing and relaxing and his guidance can bring me into a deeply meditative state very quickly. My goal is to continue using his guidance sometimes in my practice until I develop to a point where I am able to always meditate alone, without a sound track to help me. I already meditate much on my own, but still return to his recordings from time to time for assistance. In these early days, I appreciate the guidance as it helps keep me on track. If I had another recording that were equally effective for me, I would stop using Harris’ recordings since his political views are so repugnant to me. Still, I am grateful for what he has done to make meditation more accessible to others.

So . . . what has this experiment done for me so far?

I am definitely calmer. Before I began meditating, I cried every day. Sometimes I didn’t even know why I was crying. Now I cry infrequently and usually for obvious reasons, like a sad book or movie.

Little things that used to bug me don’t bother me any more. One example: I wear Vibram Fivefinger shoes (the “barefoot” shoe with separate pockets for each toe) and they get a LOT of attention. I wear them for my health (in regular shoes, I develop fasciitis and tendonitis so painful I can’t walk. In Vibrams, my feet stay pain-free) and not as a fashion statement or an attention-getter or conversation starter. It used to really bother me that I would carefully dress in beautiful clothes and all people wanted to talk about was my shoes. And the shoe conversation is always nearly word-for-word identical every time. It is so boring to leave the house and have the same conversation 10 times with strangers who only want to talk to me because my shoes are different.

It started to really annoy me. I felt like I was being treated like a shoe advertisement, not a human being. I hated that everything I did to be beautiful or get noticed would be ignored and my medical devices (because that’s all my shoes are to me — a choice that keeps my feet healthy and pain-free) were center stage. And because people don’t understand why I wear them, they get intrusive in rude ways that they might hesitate to do if I had crutches or a wheelchair instead of “interesting” shoes. (Yes, I know that people get rude and intrusive about crutches, canes, and wheelchairs, but sensitive people usually understand not to do that yet don’t really get it when it comes to my shoes.) And many of the routine comments people make are thoughtlessly rude even if my shoes were just a fashion statement.

But here’s the thing: for years I have felt irritated and put-upon about people’s reactions to my shoes. But after only a few days of daily meditation, I went out and got several comments about my shoes and it didn’t bother me at all. I felt totally calm, not irritated. It’s a small thing but it’s also a really huge thing.

I can tell that I’m looking at life more objectively than I was before. The sounds and smells and movements at the grocery store are still overwhelming to me, but I no longer feel so much like I am being personally attacked by them.

Meditation is not some kind of “autism miracle cure” by any stretch of the imagination, but it is clearly helping me cope with strong emotions and handle stress better. I am feeling less depressed, less anxious, less frustrated . . . and the space those unwanted feelings leave behind is giving me more capacity for clear thinking and compassion toward others.

So I will continue with the practice, as it seems to be doing me much good. And I wanted to write about it, in case it could help others. Thank you for reading and may you have peace.

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