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Stim smarter

Updated: Jun 18

How my go-to stim dysregulated my nervous system (and that was half the problem)

Blue thin light in 4 repeated circles symbolizing how I stim

When I was trying to figure out whether my quirks, anxieties and aversion to social situations could be autism, I would return to the question of stimming as a reason why I couldn’t be autistic. I didn’t stim. Sure, I played with my earrings sometimes, touched my hair when I was nervous and little things like that – but doesn’t everyone?

Like most major revelations, my realization about stimming came all at once and landed with a thud. I was sitting at my desk, pondering the question for the hundredth time when I suddenly felt the urge to get up and pace.

Just. Like. I. Always. Do.

I gasped. There was perhaps no stim more obvious than my pacing, a practice that started almost the instant I learned to walk and continues to this day. I walk circles, compulsively, always counterclockwise, often squeezing my hands into fists then flaring them back out. I never notice my hands – the only reason I know I flare them is because my parents used to tease me about it.

Honestly, the teasing hurt. My dad told me I’d wear a circular hole in the carpet before I left for college and joked that one of my legs would grow shorter than the other, given the consistency of my counterclockwise motion. As an adult, I hide my pacing rather than risk ridicule. I seek out time alone or tucked-away spaces to make it happen. As desperately as I don’t want to be mocked, I also can’t stop the urge to keep pacing.

What does pacing do for me?

  • It offloads energy: If I am excited or nervous about something, I can literally walk it off… to a point.

  • It gets me unstuck: If my mind is problem-solving or ruminating, I can pace through the sensations and arrive at some level of resolution or relief.

But there’s a razor-thin line between the point at which pacing soothes me and the point at which it increases my anxiety. If I go too long, I start to worry about larger and larger issues. I feel my heart rate increase. My breathing gets very shallow. My chest tightens. And I dissociate, leaving my body first and then leaving my external awareness too, living in a neither-here-nor-anywhere-else state that is hard to describe.

No matter how anxiety-provoking my pacing can be, I didn’t have a better way to process big emotions – until now. Studying applied neurology has introduced me to dozens of simple but intentional movements that speak directly to my nervous system:

  • Some of them induce calm on-command.

  • Others help offload excess energy, much like my pacing does.

  • And some I use to train parts of my nervous system from which I’ve long been too dissociated to leverage.

I call it “stimming smarter.” Sure, I still pace, but I am much better able to notice when the pacing tips from benefiting me to dysregulating me. Equally powerful is knowing I have options when pacing isn’t possible. But most impactful of all is how neuro-drills not only self-soothe, as stimming does, but also start a conversation with my nervous system and train it for safety.

If you’re interested in stimming smarter, we should definitely talk. Nervous system training is the most transformational work I’ve ever done, and it can change your life too.

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