Disclaimer: I kept my description of sensory and emotional overload – and my illustration above – as non-triggering as possible. I give NO advice in this post about medical or herbal remedies, as I’m not a doctor and you might be allergic to the calming teas I drink. I suggest that you look up authoritative medical, autism and high sensitivity websites for more information. This post is about my own experience with sensory and emotional overload and it might be different for other people.
Have you ever felt your whole body exploding like a minefield, and your head become a big soup-shake?
Then the world stops making sense for you: you can’t articulate speech, you can hardly bear the slightest touch, smell, light and noise.
As a writer, you stop being able to type (the typing sound becomes painful, too) and stare at the computer screen, and you can’t read your drafts out loud to edit.
As a writer, you lose your voice, none of your thoughts make sense anymore, you stop being able to stitch two sentences together that make sense with one another. You shut down.
That’s how sensory and emotional overload feels for me. It can last for several hours, and when it does, it screws up my social skills, my ability to work, my life.
Currently, I don’t know if I’m on the autism spectrum or if I am a highly sensitive person – I could be the latter, but I have yet to be diagnosed.
[Updated 2019] In 2018 was diagnosed with High Sensitivity (HSP) which causes frequent emotional and sensory overloads (I have no filters) as well as PCOS and hypothyroidism, which include hormonal imbalance, depression, and anxiety in the package. However, because neuropathy is involved, sensory challenges are almost certain to have a neurological cause in addition to brain-chemical. I will update this post after I see my neurologist and start therapy with CBD oil and see how it goes.
Freelance writing with sensory processing challenges can be hell
Sometimes I can anticipate the crisis – noise canceling earplugs, meditation and a quiet place are good hacks… most of the time.
But when the ‘bomb’ explodes, and it combines with my other health issues and anxiety attacks, there’s no much I can do but putting myself in survival mode.
It’s agony. Keeping up with deadlines becomes impossible, and I live in the constant fear of losing clients due to the unpredictability of my condition.
But I’m still here – I’m still a freelance writer. Here are my 6 coping methods
If you are like me, a freelance writer struggling with sensory and emotional challenges (and mental instability in general) you may have been on the lookout for practical advice to deal with your condition without having it ruin your career.
Alas, I found the Web to be lacking specific advice for writers like us. But we can create that advice, right?
So here’s a bit from my own experience.
But as a first thing, please read this:
No matter how challenged you are, no matter the condition you were born with or developed in your life, remember that you are a precious, irreplaceable professional, and that nobody works the writing craft like you.
Yes, you are precious indeed.
And you are very much needed.
Get that? 🙂 Nice; we’re good to go now.
Here are my 6 ways to cope with sensory/emotional overload and live the freelance writing life:
1. Talk to Clients and Be Honest About Your Condition
Clients are human beings like you: they may not go through the same hurdles, but they sure understand pain.
As difficult as it sounds in practice, please don’t let fear take over: speak to your clients about your condition, let them know what you go through every day of your life and why you really need the flexibility you’re asking for – and stress how you need that flexibility to be that brilliant, efficient writer that’s going to make their business reach for the stars.
When you are honest about your health condition, it’s unlikely that clients will accuse you of not taking deadlines seriously and looking for an excuse to not be accountable. They may actually try to accommodate your needs as best as possible.
(That’s what happens to me – and yes, I made sure my clients know I love them more for it :))
If you are still in the prospecting phase, do the same and let prospects know. You don’t have to be specific about the details of your issues, but definitely, make it clear that due to health conditions you can only work on flexible terms. They might choose to not hire you if they can’t afford that flexibility for business reasons, but they will still understand (remember, they’re human, too!) and appreciate your honesty, professionalism, and concern for their business.
2. Try to Prevent and Anticipate Overloads
Listen to your body and mind, be aware of the early signs.
Those could be a headache, the typing sound growing increasingly discomforting to your ears as you work, feeling overwhelmed by the sentences you’re thinking as you type.
When that happens, stay calm, leave your desk and go someplace where you can relax and ‘reset’.
See #3 below.
3. Stop Writing and Reset Your Senses and Emotions
These are my techniques to get rid of the overload and reset your body and mind to ‘normalcy’:
- Proprioception and Vision – lay down in the dark and breath slowly: it helps remove stress from your body. The darkness helps your vision reset
- Hearing – quiet down auditory stimulus, wear noise canceling earplugs or headphones
- Touch – hold something very tightly and imagine energy channeling through your hand into the object; also, wear comfortable clothing that makes you feel safe and contained within boundaries (overload can make you forget those)
- Smell – use a soothing fragrance if you have one (it’s lavender soap for me), or aim for an odor-free environment (open the windows to aerate the room you’re in or your bedroom, breath in fresh air). If the smells of nature help you reset, go to your local park and just breath in/breath out until you ‘zen’ yourself
Music is an essential companion to my healing systems, too. These two pieces from the Soothing Relaxation YouTube channel are almost a daily for me:
Also – cry.
Cry it all out if you need to. It helps to release the excess emotional burden and it eases sensory overload
4. Forget Other People – Until You Feel Better, It’s Only About YOU
This is not about developing a selfish and narcissistic attitude – this is about healing.
When you are overloaded, your body and mind have reached (and crossed) their limits, so you can’t afford to think about others and what they’ll think about your work, let alone feel guilty because right now you are unable to work.
If you try (and I’ve done this myself too many times) your symptoms may worsen and then you might end up living in agony for days instead of hours.
Until you’re back to your normal sensory and emotional stability, your only focus must be your body and your mind, and putting things in action to ease the symptoms until the overload is over.
After that, you can think about other people (and your clients) and get back to work.
Avoid watching, reading or listening to the news until you’re done with your work. This type of content puts you at high risk triggering another emotional overload.
Also, ask your family or people living or working with you to avoid sharing feelings or venting on you while you work.
5. Combat Anxiety, Not Stimming
If stimming actions like squishing things, rocking back and forth, humming sounds and shake your body help you combat overload and anxiety, by all means do let yourself and push away any negative thoughts about.
Go to your bedroom or another quiet place if stimming in front of others makes you uncomfortable.
Anxiety can make sensory and emotional overload a lot worse and the exhaustion could incapacitate you for days. Take it from someone who deals with it multiple times a week: today overload and anxiety turn my life into a strong effort to stay alive, tomorrow I may feel better but I’m so exhausted that I’ll sleep all day instead of working.
Sometimes you can’t avoid anxiety, but do everything in your powers to combat it as soon as it fills your body and mind.
Here is my coping strategy:
- Breathe slowly, deeply and regularly. Visualize a cloud or something else in your mind that collects all the anxiety and pain and pushes it out when you breathe out
- Stim when you breathe out and imagine that, through it, more pain, anxiety and overload get out of your body and mind
- To reactivate your body and mind in a gentle way when your body and mind have calmed down considerably, go in a darkened room and gently hug yourself like a mother would her child, and do a little, slow dance.
Be careful that anxiety-turned-into-panic and despair don’t turn your stimming into self-injurious actions. It has happened to me, it still happens from time to time, and it’s a tough one when you lose the perception of yourself and boundaries.
I found it helpful to keep self-love and self-care mantras around my desk, as post-its.
6. When Everything Fails, Ask for a Deadline Extension
It can be as little as 12 to 24 hours, not so much that it will put your clients in trouble (even though it’s up to them to decide whether to grant the extension or not), but it will be enough to allow you to wind down, de-stress and even sleep if your body and mind are exhausted and barely functioning.
If your clients already know about your health condition and they appreciate your writing skills, they will understand and help.
Last but not least,
Please, Stop Comparing Yourself to ‘Normal’ Writers
I’m not saying this to be harsh, nor because I think that writers with mental instability deserve a privilege (ugh, no).
I’m saying this because to continually compare yourself to ‘normal’ writers can be damaging to multiple levels, from your own self-worth to the way you contract with clients and undercharging on the assumption that you’re a less reliable writer than others.
(I’ve done that, and I know how much I hurt myself when I did.)
You are a human being, and every human being has demons, ghosts and daily hurdles to face. Your hurdles may be more difficult to cope with, but you are not a less efficient, less reliable writer because of them.
You only have to be realistic and seek the clients whose business well matches your flexibility and how much you can give to a project.
We all narrow down our niches to fit interests and lifestyle – this is no different.
To your success and self-love, fellow writer. 🙂