Hello folks. Let me start off by saying that I know this post will be a little controversial, as I know how strongly some people feel about the topic we are talking about today. The topic? Mindfulness. Before I say anything, I want to acknowledge all the benefits it brings to so many people, and how many feel it has had a huge, positive impact upon their life. If this works for you then I am genuinely very happy for you, and I have nothing but well wishes for you and your mental health journey. That being said, if one more person tells me I should try mindfulness, I might punch them. (Joking, violence is never the answer. Instead, I would just walk away so as to seethe in isolation.)
There’s no point in beating around the foliage, so let me get straight to the crux of the issue. Mindfulness centres around the idea of focusing on your surroundings and actively noticing all that is happening in that present moment. The problem is, if you are autistic, and especially if you have high sensitivity to external stimuli, you are already painfully aware of what’s going on around you. Focusing on my surroundings is exactly what causes me to get overwhelmed and upset, because I can’t ever stop “being in the moment”. In fact, I am so in tune with every sensation I feel that one could argue I, and my fellow autists, are the most mindful people on the planet. Not only am I constantly aware of how my clothes feel against my skin and how the ground feels beneath my feet, but I am even conscious of how the air feels in my throat as I breathe in and out. My mind is so full, that asking me to specifically focus on those things is an impossible task, as I am unable to not focus on them.
Again, I know that mindfulness is a brilliant tool for a lot of people, especially as general rates of anxiety are only rising as the world descends deeper and deeper into chaos. For many (mostly neurotypical) people, mindfulness is a great way for them to keep fear and panic at bay, as well as providing a well backed-up therapeutic technique, without having to pay for therapy. If this is you, then I am so glad that you gain such insight and calmness from mindfulness, but I can promise you that I won’t achieve the same outcome.
Humour me for a moment and close your eyes, imagining yourself walking through a field. Now open them because otherwise you can’t read what I am writing. (Unless of course you’re listening to the recording, in which case feel free to keep your eyes closed.) With your eyelids in whatever position suits you best, imagine you are walking through a field and suddenly there is a bear in front of you. Now imagine that bear is attacking you. Now imagine there are people around you telling you that in order to calm the rising panic inside you —resulting from being mauled by a bear— all you need to do is focus on how it feels to be attacked by the bear. Would you find that helpful? I would be incredibly surprised if you answered yes. For me and many other autistic people, sensory stimuli such as sounds, tastes, noises, feelings, lights etc. feel as though they are attacking us. It hurts. Just as telling yourself to focus on the bear ripping off your arm does not serve to make you feel calmer, telling me to focus on my surroundings also does nothing to help me. I’m aware that the bear metaphor may have been slightly hard to follow, but my point is that asking me to focus on what is causing my pain and discomfort does not help my mental health. At best it has no effect, and at worst it makes it more painful.
I am also aware that some people will argue with this point. Perhaps they will say that sometimes, acknowledging pain makes it easier to stomach. To that I say: well yes, sometimes it helps, but it depends on the pain. For example, I have 2 tattoos. When I got them, I had to actively acknowledge that it was painful and feel it in order to manage my reaction to the pain. However, I have also been punched in the gut. (Martial arts training, not my local crime syndicate.) When I was punched, the best way for me to deal with that was to take a couple of deep breaths, ignore the feeling, and try and punch them back. There is no one way to deal with pain or distress, and so it is not surprising to me that mindfulness does not work for everyone. I find repeatedly throwing myself onto my bed a helpful way for me to deal with stress, but I do not think everyone would feel the same way.
The next argument that I anticipate would be that some may say, “well, what about practising mindfulness at home when there aren’t lots of stimuli”? It’s a good point, but it still doesn’t work for me. Even though it may not feel as though I am being attacked by a bear, it does still feel as though I am being attacked by a particularly persistent squirrel. Much easier to deal with, but still ruddy annoying. Besides, even though the stimuli aren’t explicitly causing me pain in that moment, it is still the number 1 cause of meltdowns, and so I don’t enjoy focussing on it any more than I enjoy thinking about university work during my holidays. When I have time to myself, and that time does not involve anything hurting me, I prefer to relax and distract myself with activities that I find enjoyable. For example, I have a set of wooden blocks which I use to build various structures. I lie on the floor and stack them, no music, no screens, no other people. I am perfectly aware that they were designed for small children to practise motor control, but I find the repetitive stacking motion calming, and it allows my thoughts to wander whilst engaging my hands. I suppose it has a similar effect to mindfulness, in that it helps calm me down and focus on one particular thing, but it doesn’t require me to notice my surrounding. It actually does the opposite. I concentrate on aligning these tiny wooden blocks perfectly, and thus can “block out” everything else going on around me.
Stimming is a common way that autistic people maintain a sense of calm and manage situations in which they will get stressed. I have every intention of writing a more detailed post on this, but essentially, the repetitive motions help soothe me when I am getting overwhelmed. I keep a wooden bowl of various stim toys in my room, and a few of my favourites are in a drawer on my desk. Fidget spinners are a good example of a stim toy. Before the craze, fidget spinners were originally designed for neurodiverse people, providing a small gadget to stim with, that could be slipped into a pocket. I have a metal one myself and I love it. I can feel the slight vibration on my fingertips as it spins, and watching it puts me in a trance-adjacent state. Watching anything spin draws my attention away from whatever I’m doing, and as such, the fidget spinner is perfect. A couple of my friends have been with me when a coin has fallen and spun in place for a couple of seconds, and much to their amusement, I immediately began to falter in my speech and struggled to remember what I was saying. Spinning tops are brilliant for the same reason, and the rubber ring that my dog, Riley, has seems to provide me with more amusement than it does her. I will roll it across the floor or spin it in place. 10 minutes later I will realise she is just lying down with her head on my lap, watching me spin the ring over and over again.
Okay, so what have we learnt? The first thing is that if I write about fidget spinners, I will then start playing with mine and end up taking an accidental break from writing. The second thing is that while mindfulness works wonders for some, suggesting it as a magical “cure all” for everyone is annoying and, quite frankly, a little silly. No two people have the same brain, and so no coping skill is going to work for everyone. Moreover, if someone tells you that mindfulness doesn’t work for them, please don’t insist that they “just need to stick with it”, or that they “probably didn’t do it right”. I’ve had a therapist tell me repeatedly that I should try out the new mindfulness course they are offering, and despite my increasingly curt responses of “no”, pressed a leaflet into my hand at the end of a session, and told me that she “looked forward to seeing me”. Suffice it to say, I am no longer seeing her. I have my own ways of coping with life, the vast majority of which are healthy. (And yes, I’m working on them ALL being healthy.) While I won’t pretend that I don’t roll my eyes when I walk past the huge section of mindfulness books in the bookstores, it doesn’t really bother me that it is being pushed so hard. Ultimately, whatever helps other people is great, and I can take people telling me that mindfulness will “change my life” every so often. Usually, I just smile at them broadly, let out a small chuckle and reply, “no it won’t!”
I would like to reiterate that if mindfulness works for you then fantastic. But if it doesn’t, join the club! I like to joke that my mind is already at capacity, and that I prefer to practise mind-empty-ness, but I understand that my jokes often earn a playful jab on the arm from my best friend. Whatever works for you is okay, just please don’t insist that I try whatever you claim has revolutionised your life. The more insistent you are, the less likely I am to try it. Instead, leave me to rock in place, happy in the knowledge that you respect me enough as an individual to not attempt to foist your new found skills onto me.