Note: The annual Autism Positivity flashblog is being held again this April 30th. Visit the website to find out how you can participate.
For the past few weeks I’ve been getting ready to move. That’s meant making lots of phone calls to change over utilities and insurance and such. And packing. Lots of packing. Of course packing also means deciding what to keep and what to toss and what to donate, plus a good amount of organizing and reorganizing. Because, you know, it’s important that my entire file cabinet go into the box in the best possible order, with not a single scrap of unnecessary paper cluttering up my system.
I’m happy to say that nearly everything on my list is done. Which is good, because the moving truck arrives in less than forty-eight hours. I’d also like to say it all got done smoothly and according to plan, but that would be a lie.
You see, I have this thing that happens when an anxiety-inducing event is imminent: I suddenly feel very very sleepy. I don’t just mean that I feel a little tired–I mean I feel 2 AM tired.
Mostly it happens before social events. The Scientist will be busily showering and shaving and choosing an outfit and I’ll be calculating down to the minute how late I can start getting ready.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take me long to make myself presentable. That means I can safely put off getting ready until the last ten minutes before we need to get out the door. Any sooner and I’ll be all ready to go while simultaneously wanting to lie down on the couch and take a quick nap.
The strange thing is, even when it’s happening, I know the tired feeling is an illusion. It’s my brain trying to get my body to play enabler, to somehow avoid the anxiety-inducing event. Some people get butterflies in their stomach or a need to pace. I get a sudden urge to hibernate in a blanket fort for a week or two.
So in addition to all of the usual chaos of getting ready to move, I’ve been trying to outsmart the sleepy feeling. Not surprisingly, actually sleeping doesn’t work. In most cases, it isn’t even an option because the thing I need to do is both imminent and time sensitive. But even with most of the moving tasks, where I could grab a nap and then do them later, there is no actual sleeping to be had. Because if I lie down, all I’m thinking about is the task I should be doing. So then I’m both sleepy and annoyed with myself for procrastinating.
It helps a bit to think of the feeling as something other than sleepy–to call what it really is, which is some sort of defensive withdrawal. When I look at it that way, I understand intellectually that I don’t need or want to sleep. I also know from experience that the best “cure” is to do the anxiety-producing thing. Often, I simply need to get started and the feeling clears.
To get the stuff on my moving list done, I used a lot of the same tricks I use to manage my executive function deficits: lists, rewards, schedules, telling myself that I just have to call one insurance company instead of all three or pack up a box of clothes, which is easy, rather a box of dishes, which is harder. Once I get on the phone or haul out the packing materials and tape and boxes, it’s much easier to just keep going. It’s the getting started–getting past that initial wall of do not want–that’s the real trick.
When I told The Scientist that I planned to write about this topic, he suggested that I also write about, “the way you yawn when you’re bored during a conversation.” My yawning habit (for lack of a better description) has long been a source of annoyance for both of us. The Scientist assumed I was bored but not telling him; I was flummoxed whenever he brought it up because I usually wasn’t feeling bored when it happened.
Coincidentally, a New Yorker article about the science of yawning popped up on my Tumblr dashboard within hours of the The Scientist’s suggestion. Buried beneath a lot of other more complicated theories is the suggestion that in addition to yawning when we’re bored, tired or hungry, we sometimes yawn when we’re anxious. That makes sense to me. Yawning definitely helps me clear my head and it gives my nervous system a poke, both of which help me stay focused. Coincidentally, that’s a pretty accurate description of the effects of stimming too.
These days I mostly catch myself before I yawn during important conversations. When that familiar feeling creeps up, I get up to pace or intentionally engage in a stim that has the same effect as yawning. But it was interesting to learn that there are all sorts of theories about yawning and they aren’t all centered around boredom or fatigue.
Addendum to the Addendum
The article I linked to above also mentions that autistic people are less likely to be contagious yawners. I’m curious whether autistic readers think this is true? I’m very susceptible to contagious yawning, to the point that I yawn when my dog yawns. In fact, I’ve been yawning pretty much constantly while researching, writing and proofreading the last two sections of this post.