Autism: Intense Outbursts of Rage, Anger, Frustration and Stress over the Smallest Things

One reader recently asked me why he always gets intense outbursts of rage, anger, frustration and stress over the smallest things.  I will attempt to answer this question here.

Understanding Our Emotions

One of the less talked about negatives of autism is the difficulties in understanding our emotions.  This is a tricky topic to cover as I’m autistic/Aspie and have major issues around understanding my own emotions.  But I believe I can help in some way.

During the Covid pandemic my emotions have been all over the place.  Especially over this past year.  I often realise I don’t feel normal, but can’t put my finger on why.  I find I ask myself the question: what am I feeling? Sometimes I work it out, sometimes I don’t.  Most of the time it’s probably sadness creeping in under the radar and, when I realise, it overwhelms me and I let my emotions ‘escape’, and cry.  Then of course feel much better, as everyone’s body is programmed to feel better after crying.

Types of Emotions

The seven basic emotions are: sadness, contempt, anger, enjoyment, fear, surprise and disgust (Paul Eckman Group).

But there are many others such as: amusement, awe, boredom, confusion, contentment, coyness, desire, embarrassment, interest, pain, pride, relief, shame, sympathy and triumph (Cordaro et al (2018)).

It is worth looking at each type of emotion on these lists and think about a time when you felt this way (especially recently).  By doing this simple exercise you will probably identify emotions you felt in the past, that you didn’t realise you were experiencing at that moment in time.

Believe it or not, it’s entirely possible to feel more than one emotion at once (Hill).  This fact certainly blows my mind.  For example jealousy can be a mixture of emotions such as: fear, sadness, anger and resentment (GoodTherapy).

How Non Autistics Deal With Emotions 

Sometimes it’s easier to draw comparisons by looking at the other side of the coin.  Most of society, who are neuro typical, instantly and without ambiguity understand their emotions.  Because of this they can react appropriately to these emotions.  They also have better methods of dealing with them.  For example:

  • They can cry if they feel sad.  
  • Offload to their social group if they feel emotions such as being scared.  Often getting support and guidance in doing so.
  • Tackle any feelings such as sadness or anger by confronting the people who may be involved in the way they’re feeling.  Then amicably and skilfully resolve the conflict.
  • Tactfully gaining peer group support if they feel emotions such as disgust. By gauging if their close group of trusted friends feel the same way.  
  • Sharing moments of joy with others around them.

We, unfortunately, lack in these higher social skills to be able to do this in the same way.  But over time we can build strong social bonds and friendships.  But admittedly on a smaller scale.  We can learn to trust other people with things exceptionally private, such as our emotions and get the right support that we deserve.  Taking a risk by talking to and trusting family members is usually a good place to start. 

Bottling Up Emotions and Meltdowns

The reader that prompted me to write this post is a teenager.  From the information he provided, he’s figuring out if he’s autistic /Aspie and why he feels the way he does.

The reason we have this rage, anger, frustration and stress, over the smallest things, is because we don’t deal with our emotions at the right time.

People often use the phrase that ‘we bottle things up.’ Which basically means at times when we should let our emotions go, we do nothing.  We may not even realise when we’re experiencing the most intense emotions.  Non autistics would deal with them instantly but we do nothing, oblivious.

Our bodies, in one way or another, need to eventually deal with these emotions.  It may take days, it may even be weeks. But eventually we need to release these feelings to feel better and normal again. It’s natural.

But because we often, and unknowingly, hold on to our emotions for so long.  Because we can’t gauge that internally things are building up and becoming too much.  We can’t control what causes our emotions to explode.  Most of the time it’s something incredibly small and insignificant that tips us over the edge.  Where our body say ‘I cannot cope with this anymore’.  ‘It’s too much’.  

Then we have an outburst of emotion, or what is often termed a meltdown.  Us on the higher end of the autistic spectrum still tend to have a degree of control.  We know not to hurt others for example.  But we may still have extreme reactions to our emotions. Such as smashing up things in our bedrooms, slamming doors, throwing something at a wall or storming off in a rage.  I’ve also known some autistics to punch walls (although I really don’t recommend this).  Younger children often scream, flail their arms and legs and cry intensively.  They cannot be calmed or consoled.  Which can last until they’re totally exhausted.

The does become less frequent as we get older, and learn more about dealing with our emotions through experience.

How to Deal with our Emotions

A good website describing the steps to take to overcome our negative emotions is Teen’s Health.  Some of these ideas are adapted and added to below.

Step One
Identify the emotion (or emotions) that you’re feeling.  Which is quite difficult when your autistic/aspie.  But can be improved by taking the time to realise when you’re not feeling right.  Then trying to think about which emotion it is you’re feeling.  Writing a diary/journal can help with targeting the emotion you’re feeling too.
Admit how you are feeling to yourself.
Identify what caused this emotion.  Such as something that a friend/colleague said, that made you feel this way.
Don’t blame someone or something for how you feel.  Emotions are there to help us to make sense of what is going on.
Don’t blame yourself – emotions are completely natural and normal, and help you to move on from a problem.  Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Step 2 – Taking Action
Think about how you will deal with your emotion.  Such as: exercise, talking to a friend, or having a friendly conversation with the person that made you feel the emotion.
Try to change your mood.  Do something that will make you feel happy or take your mind off it, such as spending time with family or exercise.
Use NLP techniques to help you to control your emotions.
Write in a diary/journal listing all the positives in your life and all the negatives.  So you can visually see that life is better than you perceive it to be.
Seek Support.  From trusted family or a trusted friend.  They will give you a new perspective on how you’re feeling and often offer advice that you did not even consider beforehand.

If you still feel really bad, and your emotions are too strong, it is worth seeking help from a medical professional.  Such as a counsellor, therapist or GP.  Who can also help in many ways that you may not realise. The key to dealing with emotions when you’re autistic/Aspie is to spot your emotions early, so you can deal with them before they become too much to handle.

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