Stress in Neurodiversity


(C) Psychology Today. Stressful with your laptop?

Stress… everybody’s favorite (lol) word. Of course it makes us sick, confused, even wish just to go to sleep instead of dealing with it. We dread everyday stressors like heavy traffic, unruly bosses (and even quarrelsome lovers) but what if you have ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia or other learning disabilities or neurodevelopmental conditions? Chances are stress is much more complicated. You already have a difficult condition and double it up with stress, that’ll drive you nuts!

But first let’s define what stress is:

Stress is simply a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium. In other words, it’s an omnipresent part of life.[1] This is usually our response to any action or reaction life has to offer.  Stress is a body’s method of reacting to a challenge. According to the stressful event, the body’s way to respond to stress is by sympathetic nervous system activation which results in the fight-or-flight response. Because the body cannot keep this state for long periods of time, the parasympathetic system returns the body’s physiological conditions to normal (homeostasis).[2]

Stress can be positive or negative (sounds like a magnet though) depending on human life circumstance that can alter a person’s lifestyle. The positive kind of stress is called eustress – this is when euphoric or very happy life events happen to you like graduation from school, job promotion, first kiss (or sex), birth of a child, etc. People thought that stress is a negative feeling, which is called distress – the negative kind of stress. This is the tragic events that happen in a person’s life ie divorce, death of a relative/loved one, war, having a disease, etc.

Stress, if handled properly, can produce positive results like becoming more motivated or inspired like when you failed a test you try it again until you pass by studying harder. Otherwise, stress can make you frustrated and sick and even can cause death if not handled properly.


Image courtesy of Lots of homework? Thesis? Hmm.. a classic example of stress.

How is stress handled?

When stressed out, we usually tend to find ways to divert our attention from the stressful event like binge drinking/eating, compulsive shopping and hooking up or talk with people. Sometimes we run away from the stressful event or we just keep quiet and withdraw into our caves and hide. Actually there are three kinds of stress coping mechanisms[3]:

For the emotionally mature or calm person, he calmly confronts stress by communicating with another person and find ways to handle conflict calmly without becoming angry or aggressive. This kind of stress management is called social engagement.[3] Other people become defensive or run away from the stressor ie walking away from your nagging spouse. This is what we call mobilization [3] Still others just freeze and become stuck in their own heads, making the brain stop thinking, frozen in time. This stress management is called immobilization[3] and it is said to be the least evolved response to stress and used by the body only when social engagement and mobilization have failed.[3]

Neurologically typically developing humans usually do mobilization technique when facing stress (daily stressors ie traffic jam, bossy teachers). Calmer people can do social engagement. But all of us become immobilized by life-threatening events like disasters. Nevertheless people in neurodiversity (learning disabilities, ADHD, autism spectrum etc) experience stress in a more difficult way be it a daily stressor or life-threatening event. Neurodiverse people are more prone to hard dealing stress than the neurotypical people.

Why people in neurodiversity experience more stress with difficulty?

If a person has a different brain presentation like having a learning disability, ADHD or autism or even giftedness, stress is experienced in a different light. Imagine, a neurodiverse person already has struggles in learning how to deal with the world ie learning to socialize to neurotypical people or control hyperactivity doubled up by various life stressors and poof it’s a stressful world.

One explanation why neurodiverse people experience more stress than neurotypical people is through hormones (body chemicals that regulate body functions). It is said the the hormone cortisol (its the hormone used during stress) are much higher in people with autism[4] and the severity of a child’s autism may be directly linked with the level of stress or anxiety they experience on a day-to-day basis.[4] This means that the more severe the autism is, the higher the cortisol level, and it is very hard for very high cortisol levels to lower down.

stress level conceptual meter indicating maximum

Image courtesy of Stress levels among neurodiverse people are exceedingly in the maximum range

Aside from hormones, neurotransmitters (brain chemicals that send signals to the brain to command what to do, similar to hormones) also can contribute to the stress level a neurodiverse person has and also how they are carried out to. It also depends on how the learning disability is presented. Let’s have an example: ADHD. As we know ADHD has three types: inattentive, hyperactive, and the combined type. Different neurotransmitters are affected in the three types of ADHD which contribute to high stress levels aside from the ADHD itself.

For example, patients with predominantly inattentive ADHD had changes to their norepinephrine transporter gene, which affects norepinephrine (a chemical released from the sympathetic nervous system in response to stress[5]) levels in their brains. Patients with predominantly hyperactivity-impulsive ADHD had changes to their dopamine (neurotransmitter that helps control the brain‘s reward and pleasure centers, regulate movement and emotional responses[6]) transport gene, thus affecting dopamine levels in the brain.[7]


Okay. Now how these neurotransmitters affect stress level of a person with ADHD? Since there is lack of certain neurotransmitters in the brain stress can be more difficult than from a neurotypical person. In a person with inattentive ADHD, since he has a very short attention span, he can become more stressed up because he becomes more easily distracted, thereby having “information overload” which can bring too much stress. It’s like you have too many academic subjects to memorize in a very short period of time. Isn’t it that stress?

For people with hyperactive ADHD, since they have less dopamine to control their gratification, they can be more stressful because they cannot control their cravings ie food or danger like illicit drugs. They can be easily bored in one activity they’re not interested with that’s why they just walk away from that activity and can be more prone to risk their lives. They can be more prone to unwanted fights as well because they have difficulty controlling emotions, which can of course can add stress to them.

Why is this? Because people with ADHD are actually understimulated thanks to the lack of neurotransmitters to control their feelings and cravings and they need to fill in the neurtransmitters in order to get relaxed. This is why it’s common for someone with ADHD who has either tried all sorts of medications, participated in extreme or deadly activities, or become sexually promiscuous just to fill in their lacking relaxing hormones.

For people with learning disabilities such as dyslexia and dyscalculia, school is a big, big trouble for them because school involves a lot of letters and numbers which can be a great deal for them to learn. Not only at school but when it comes to work/career, learning difficulties can add to stress levels which is of course not good for their mental health.

For dyspraxia, being clumsy and having repetitive errors in skills can make them particularly stressful because of the mistakes they cause. Surely they don’t want a failed work.

Not only people with ADHD, autism spectrum disorders and learning disabilities do suffer from more stress, but also with people with other neurodevelopmental disorders like Tourette syndrome and cerebral palsy, and people who are extremes in intelligence (giftedness or disability) can have more stress too than the average person.

There’s another reason neurodiverse people are more stressed than anybody else. It’s their very nature. Being neurodiverse. Yes life is difficult and we can have problems all the time but if you are a person wired differently, it’s another story. Unless you or people around you are informed enough of neurodiversity and understand your wiring, either you or them or both can be stressful because they or you cannot understand yourself and people may think of you as crazy. Ouch!

Now, how neurodiverse people relax themselves?

Neurotypical people relax themselves by going out with people, play sports, have compulsive eating, drinking or shopping, have one night stands or take illicit drugs or gamble. Although neurodiverse people can do these things too, the majority of them relax by doing unconventional things most people do. And these make them look like crazy.

Let’s give Asperger syndrome (AS) as an example. Usually AS people relax by either twisting hair, stimming fingers or rocking legs, or talk about their favorite topic (which is relatively uncommon like astronomy). Now because these techniques are not practiced by most people AS people are usually labeled as crazy which can of course can add more stress and even anxiety and depression because they were discriminated.

People with sensory processing disorder can be stressed with too much stimuli (things that elicit our senses of sight, hearing and touch, etc). This means they can be burned out by loud sounds at clubs and bars, too much lighting at bars too and some malls, and so they withdraw inside their houses and relax by either sleeping or reading a book.


Image courtesy of My Asperger’s Child. Nailbiting is also common relaxation technique in neurodiversity. For most people this can be alarming but actually it’s not.

Although by doing things that enable neurodiverse people to relax, they can still be stressed out because people judge or discriminate them by forcing them to have relaxation techniques like all people do. This is a recipe for disaster because it’s like forcing them to be someone else! This causes them to have mental problems like anxiety and depression.

What to do then for the neurodiverse to relax like us?

You cannot change how a neurodiverse person’s brain wiring. This means that you cannot force him or her to relax himself or herself just like the way we do (umm… actually it’s what you do if you’re neurotypical because I might be neurodiverse as well). People in neurodiversity have differently wired brains so they experience stress in a different (and sometimes difficult) light. This means they have to be relaxed in a different manner as well. This is why it’s important that neurodiverse conditions should be made to be more known as well as being able to understand and accept how neurodiverse people become stressed and how they relax and most of all being aware of the risks that they face in order to prevent more chaos or accident to them when stressed.

That’s why you shouldn’t force them to relax like you. For example, in sensory processing disorder (SPD), if your friend prefers to relax at home over coming with you to a bar, don’t force her to come with you because she doesn’t become relaxed there. This doesn’t necessarily mean she’s a wierdo but that’s how she’s relaxed. Maybe she can’t take loud noises. If you do force her, you may risk your friendship because you’re forcing your friend to be like you in relaxation, which is a kinda bad. You will also make her more prone to anxiety because she can’t stand being with loud sounds which is a major stressor to her. Not good right? What if you’re in her place and your friend forces you to come to a place where you’ll be more stressed out?

That’s how stress in neurodiversity is presented.

More neurodiverse = more stress

More stress = more and more relaxation technique intensity

This means neurodiverse people need more extreme form of relaxation like what I wrote above.

What if you’re neurodiverse and stressed out?

Don’t worry. It’s not too late for you to become more relaxed. First of all, accept who you are and your condition you’re having as part of you. This is usually done by referral to a mental health professional who’ll assess you the right way. Or you can observe yourself and search about a neurodiverse condition (usually a learning disability or neurodevelopmental disorder) that is nearest to your symptoms. Then you can be seek also help from a psychologist in order to deal with your stresses and emotional issues to help you realize that you are really stressed, meaning you recognize your own stresses and your own emotions as well. This way, you can develop your own strategies of relaxation without hurting yourself or other people. Also with the right recognition of your condition and who you are, you can also develop your own strategies in managing and living as a neurodiverse person.

Want more tips for relaxation techniques?

The Adult Aspergers Chat website gives some tips for relaxation techniques in Asperger syndrome. I think this may also apply to other neurodiverse conditions like ADHD and dyspraxia. Click here for tips[8].

Okay, some more tips from me:

Breathe in, breathe out –  a classic technique. If you feel you’re about to explode in your stress, breathe deeply and focus on your breathing. You can be more relaxed that way.

Count 1,2,3 to infinity – another classic tip. When you’re feeling stressed, count as much as you like until you feel relaxed or calm.

Walk away from the stressor – if breathing and counting don’t work, walk away from the source of your stress. If that is a person, say politely excuse me or may I just leave for a while to cool down (this applies to working and personal relationships) before you explode. And please as much as possible don’t throw things at them. When you’re away from the stressor it’s more relaxing.

Throw soft things only – I’m guilty of throwing objects and breaking them or scare people away. Yes we’re neurodiverse but that’s not a license for breaking property or hurt yourself or other people. But if you really can’t help yourself throw things (it’s quite common to autism spectrum and speech and communication difficulties because they find it hard to express themselves verbally) throw a soft object like a pillow or a small stress ball. At least it’s soft and doesn’t cause damage to property or injury to a person.

Do your favorite activity – afraid you’d be ridiculed by peers? They’re not real friends actually if they do. So don’t be afraid of doing your favorite activity regardless if that’s unpopular ie staying at home (hey that’s actually quite common but media made it unpopular), playing your favorite classical instrument or singer or reading The Grand Design[9], do it. This relaxes you.

Find some peace and quiet – for neurodiverse people, peace and quiet is the real heaven. Because they have less hormones to calm them or too sensitive senses which makes everything exaggerated, peace and quiet is needed to feel relaxed. It’s usually at beaches (not the commercialized one), parks, churches/temples/synagogues or even at your own home where it’s quieter than most places. It’s relaxing to be peaceful, right even with neurotypical people.

Seek professional help – if these don’t work at all, maybe you’ll need a little help from the mental health experts. Don’t be afraid to seek help especially if you can’t deal with your stress. This can really help you relaxed as there is someone to support you. Also read stress management articles and books too.

Find solace in your family/friends/lover who accepts you as who you are – the most important thing at all is acceptance. Your loved ones must be a helping hand in supporting your stress (except if they’re burned out by you). When surrounded by them, more relaxation as you never felt any burden. You’ll be more relaxed then.


Image courtesy of Meditation is a sure way of relaxation.


Stress is everyday part of life. It is the way of us responding to any stimuli or change. But stress is presented differently in neurodiversity as it poses different challenges for them and also different strategies of relaxation. Anyway, stress, whether neurodiverse or not, is still stress. Phew!



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