The pandemic has thrown us all for a loop. But, if you’re neurodiverse, this new normal may have caused you stress and anxiety. Zoom calls and virtual learning are the new normal when it comes to academics, group meetings, social engagements, and even job interviews! Managing anxiety for in-person requires one set of learned skills but managing anxiety during a virtual meeting can require a completely different approach. On one hand, you may appreciate being at home and not needing to worry about social skills like making small talk. But, now you have to cope with trying to read other’s emotions and pick up on social nuances over the internet. And, that can feel downright impossible sometimes.
So you may be wondering, Lauren, what can I do? I feel overwhelmed by anxiety whenever I have to log in to my computer. First off, let me tell you that you’re not alone. This change has not come easy for many people. Regardless of rather they are on the autism spectrum or not.
5 Tips for Coping with Virtual Learning or Work When You're on the Autism Spectrum
Let me reassure you that managing your social anxiety when being forced to interact with others online is doable. While on Zoom you can use alternative means of coping that you may not be able to do while sitting face to face with a peer or professor. Ultimately, learning to manage your anxiety during virtual learning or coworking will continue to strengthen your coping abilities for when we return to in-person academics, work, or socialization.
Today I would like to share with you some tips for managing your anxiety while learning or working on the computer.
1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Start by scrunching and tightening your toes in your shoes, squeeze them tight. Hold for 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and release. Now, squeeze/tighten all of the muscles in your foot. Hold for a count of 5 and release. Squeeze all of the muscles in your calves for 5 seconds and release. Next, try to tighten all of the muscles in your thighs, hold for 5 seconds, and release. Tighten your abs and stomach muscles for 5 seconds then release. Since you are on a zoom call and can be seen from the torso up, lets skip the neck and shoulders and go right to your fingers and hands. Make a fist, squeeze all the of the muscles in your hands (keeping them below the desk so your tight fists are not visible to the camera!) Hold tight for 5, 4, 3, 2,1, and release. Repeat as needed until you feel the muscles in your body start to relax. This simple exercise allows you to relax and bring your focus back to your virtual lesson or meeting.
2. Square Breathing
This is an easy breathing exercise with a simple visual. You can choose to trace an existing square object such as a Rubix cube. Or, you can have a small drawing of a square taped to your desk by your keyboard. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or tense trace the square with your finger (out of sight of the camera). Start at the top left side of the square tracing right, as you trace, breath in for a count of 4 (this is easy to remember since a square has 4 sides). Next trace down the right edge, holding your breath for a count of 4. Next, trace the bottom edge and breathe out for a count of 4. Trace your finger up the left side and hold your breath for a count of 4. Repeat this 4 times. This technique slows your breathing to a pace that tells your brain “ok, we are safe, we can relax and focus.”
3. Finger Tracing Breathing
This is a personal favorite of mine because this visual support comes with us everywhere… because it’s our hands! When you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or even tired during virtual learning practice your finger tracing breath to decrease your anxiety, and refocus your brain. Since you are on camera, hold your hand under your desk or below camera view. Spread your fingers wide, making a hand that looks ready for a high five. Start at the inside of your wrist and trace your finger up along the outside edge of the thumb. As you trace up breathe in slowly to the count of 5. Trace your finger down the inside of your thumb, again to the count of 5 (try and exhale longer than you inhale for maximum calming). Continue to trace each finger, slowly breathing in on the upward motions and slowly exhaling on the downward motions. Trace one hand and then the other.
4. Deep Pressure
Hand or arm squeezes can be beneficial if feeling anxious, lacking focus, or feeling like you can’t sit still. Start by squeezing your hand with the other hand. Apply pressure to the palm in comfortable but firm pulses. Move around and massage all of the muscles in your hands and fingers. Switch hands. Apply pressure to your arms by gently squeezing the muscles in your forearms. Deep pressure provides input to the body and can assist the nervous system in decreasing its state of arousal, slowing respiration and heart rate, and allowing us to focus on learning. Again, practice these skills below the camera. That way, no one will know you are feeling stressed!
5. Stress Ball
Another quick coping tool to use while during virtual learning is using a stress ball! It is a great fidget if you are feeling antsy (just don’t let it become a distraction). Use the stress ball in a similar way as progressive muscle relaxation. Tighten and release your grip on the stress ball. Then, incorporate some slow deep breaths. After doing this a few times you will be on your way back to feeling relaxed, calm, and ready to learn.
Autism therapy for stress, worry, and anxiety
If you’re a neurodiverse individual living in California and are struggling with anxiety and needing help coping with the stress of virtual learning or work, I would love to speak with you. I recently joined the Open Doors autism therapy team and am excited to help my clients with autism overcome their challenges so they can thrive, even amidst the chaos of COVID-19.
I am a licensed marriage and family therapist who has experience working with neurodiverse clients of all ages, and I also offer autism family therapy. Additionally, I am a certified trauma specialist. So, if you’ve experienced trauma as a neurodiverse person, perhaps in the form of bullying or microaggressions, I can help you cope with that as well.
Begin Online Autism Therapy in California with Lauren Perez or one of Open Doors’ Talented Autism Therapists:
If you would live in California and are interested in autism therapy, please reach out to our Autism therapy clinic based in Palo Alto, CA. We have a talented team of therapists and many different therapy options to help. Follow these steps to begin neurodiverse therapy in California:
- Schedule a free 30-minute consultation with this link. During your call, you will meet with one of our therapists and can discuss the issues you’re having and how we can help.
- Like Open Doors Therapy on Facebook. On our page, we post useful information that will allow you to stay up-to-date on Open Doors Therapy and our autism services.
- Sign up to receive our newsletter.
Autism Therapy Services offered at Open Doors Therapy:
At Open Doors Therapy, based in Palo Alto, CA, we help high functioning individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed autism traits, etc. and their families. Right now we are providing all our autism therapy services online. Our team of autism therapists provides several kinds of autism counseling services including individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, and group therapy. Also, we run a variety of social skills groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, autistic adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college, teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. Please contact our autism counseling office for more information on our services or to schedule a consultation.
About the Author: Lauren Perez, LMFT
Lauren is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California. She works with teens with autism and their families. Lauren is also a certified trauma therapist who has experience helping individuals with autism overcome any trauma they may have experienced. She offers individual, group, and family therapy at Open Doors Therapy based in Palo Alto, CA.