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  • Writer's pictureYvette E. McDonald, LCSW-QS

Navigating Stress in the Workplace: A Neurodiverse Approach

12 tips to navigate the stress that comes from work


Today concluded the second and final day of a workshop I was contracted to lead for leaders. It was a challenging topic, and I'm confident they left with what I'd call a "workshop hangover" – the content was heavy, covering a lot of ground as we pulled stress out of the closet and explored ways to manage it. Managing stress is no easy feat; it requires patience and intentionality. However, after the workshop and delving into my newly arrived book, "Self-Care for Autistic People" by Dr. Megan Anna Neff, I found myself contemplating the neurodiverse experience and workplace stress. While I couldn't address it during the workshop due to time constraints, I'm eager to dive into the topic in this article and offer some tips on navigating workplace stress through a neurodivergent lens.



In the bustling landscape of the modern workplace, stress is an ever-present companion, lurking in the shadows of deadlines, intermingling with the pressures of productivity, and casting a shadow over the pursuit of professional success. For neurodiverse individuals, navigating this intricate maze of stressors can be particularly challenging, as they grapple with unique pain points and barriers in their daily work lives. From sensory sensitivities and social communication challenges to the relentless pursuit of perfection in an unforgiving environment, the stresses faced by neurodiverse individuals in the workplace are profound and multifaceted.


As neurodiverse individuals navigate the complexities of the workplace, they often encounter unique stressors that can significantly impact their well-being and productivity. One such challenge stems from sensory sensitivities, which can be heightened in environments filled with noise, bright lights, and other sensory stimuli. For individuals with conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or sensory processing disorder (SPD), and even Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) these sensory inputs can be overwhelming, leading to increased stress and anxiety.


Moreover, neurodiverse individuals may face social communication challenges that can exacerbate feelings of stress and isolation in the workplace. Difficulty understanding social cues, navigating office politics, or engaging in small talk can create barriers to forming meaningful connections with colleagues and supervisors, further intensifying feelings of stress and alienation.


In addition to these external stressors, neurodiverse individuals may also grapple with internal pressures, such as the pursuit of perfection and fear of failure. Many neurodiverse individuals possess keen attention to detail and a strong desire for accuracy, traits that can serve them well in certain professional roles. However, these same traits can also contribute to heightened anxiety and stress when combined with the high expectations and fast-paced nature of the modern workplace.


Despite the challenges they face, neurodiverse individuals possess unique strengths and perspectives that can enrich the workplace and contribute to overall organizational success. By fostering an inclusive and supportive work environment that recognizes and accommodates the needs of neurodiverse employees, organizations can create a culture of diversity, equity, that benefits everyone.


So how can individuals effectively navigate stress in their professional lives.


First, we must understand stress. Stress isn't just an abstract concept—it's a physiological and psychological experience that affects us all differently. We delve into the nuances of stress, exploring both its positive (eustress) and negative (distress) manifestations. By recognizing common workplace stressors, individuals can better understand and address their own stress triggers.


Secondly, we must recognize stress symptoms. Stress manifests not only in our minds but also in our bodies and behaviors. From headaches and muscle tension to changes in eating habits and social withdrawal, we explore the myriad ways stress can manifest. By recognizing these symptoms, individuals can take proactive steps to manage their stress effectively.


Lastly, identifying personal stressors. Each of us has unique stress triggers, influenced by our individual neurodiversity. By reflecting on personal stressors and understanding how work-related factors contribute to stress, individuals can tailor their stress management strategies to suit their needs.


Check out these two videos discussing the affects of stress on both your brain and body.





Did you grasp the full scope of that? Did you listen to how they dissected the effects of stress on our brain and subsequently on our physical well-being? Personally, I found it incredibly enlightening to delve into the intricate ways stress impacts us.


All right, so now that you have some background on the effects of stress, let's go over some ways to manage stress in order to avoid and/or mitigate all the negative consequences of stress. Here are a variety of strategies neurodiverse individuals can employ to manage workplace stress effectively.


  1. Self-Awareness: This concept emphasizes the importance of acknowledging your stress and understanding its triggers to effectively navigate through it. Self-awareness plays a significant role here. If you can identify and accept that there's a challenge, you're better equipped to address it. After all, how can you begin to tackle a problem if you're not willing to acknowledge its existence?

  2. Self-Advocacy: Communicate with supervisors or HR about specific needs or accommodations that can alleviate stress, such as flexible work hours, noise-canceling headphones, or written instructions instead of verbal ones.

  3. Routine and Structure: Establishing a consistent daily routine and organizing tasks can help manage stress for neurodiverse individuals. Breaking down larger projects into smaller, manageable tasks can make them feel less overwhelming.

  4. Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Practice mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation to reduce stress levels. Taking short breaks throughout the day to engage in these techniques can provide relief from workplace stressors.

  5. Social Support: Seek out supportive colleagues or join employee resource groups (ERGs) for neurodiverse individuals if available. Having a supportive network can provide validation, encouragement, and practical advice for managing stress in the workplace.

  6. Clear Communication: Clearly communicate boundaries, preferences, and concerns with coworkers and supervisors. Being transparent about needs and expectations can help reduce misunderstandings and alleviate stress related to social interactions.

  7. Time Management Strategies: Utilize time management techniques such as creating to-do lists, setting priorities, and using time-blocking methods to allocate dedicated time for tasks. Avoiding procrastination and staying organized can prevent feelings of overwhelm and stress.

  8. Physical Wellness: Prioritize physical health by incorporating regular exercise, healthy eating habits, and adequate sleep into daily routines. Engaging in physical activity can help reduce stress levels and improve overall well-being.

  9. Embrace Change: Navigating change can present unique challenges, especially for neurodiverse individuals who may experience heightened sensitivity to transitions. It's crucial to acknowledge the spectrum of emotions that accompany change and give ourselves permission to feel them fully. Once we've identified and labeled our emotions, we can employ cognitive reframing techniques to shift our perspective from focusing on the negatives to embracing the potential positives of the change. Viewing change as an opportunity for growth and adaptation can empower us to navigate transitions more effectively. Additionally, it's important to recognize when we need support in navigating change. Neurodiverse individuals may encounter difficulties in processing and adapting to significant changes independently. Seeking support from trusted friends, family members, colleagues, or professional therapists can provide valuable guidance and assistance during times of transition. Remember, asking for help is not a sign of weakness but rather a proactive step towards managing change in a healthy and productive manner.

  10. Challenge Negative Thoughts: Ah, those pesky negative thoughts. They have a way of hijacking our minds, spiraling into worst-case scenarios, and magnifying even the smallest of concerns. Negative thinking can sometimes serve as a protective mechanism, but our neurodiverse brains are wired to default to this mode. It takes practice and self-awareness to recognize when negative thoughts arise and then to counter them. It's important to clarify that countering negative thoughts doesn't mean diving into toxic positivity. Instead, it involves various strategies, such as sitting with the stress of the negative thought, questioning its realism, and seeking evidence to challenge it. Additionally, practicing self-compassion and finding moments to pause and reflect can help interrupt negative thought patterns. Being mindful of external influences, such as the news and social media, is crucial, as they can contribute to stress and negativity. Finally, cultivating an attitude of gratitude can shift our focus from what's going wrong to what's going right, fostering resilience and well-being in the face of adversity.

  11. Elevate Your Wellness Routine: This is a pivotal aspect for me personally. If you're only able to incorporate one of these suggestions, make it this one. Wellness encompasses the conscious choices we make toward a healthy and fulfilling life. It's the foundation where equilibrium is cultivated, and it extends beyond mere exercise and diet. As we've previously discussed, stress infiltrates various facets of our lives, underscoring the importance of nurturing all aspects of our well-being. When I refer to all aspects of our lives, I'm encompassing our social connections, physical health, cognitive functioning, emotional resilience, occupational pursuits, environmental surroundings, and spiritual alignment. Some examples of nurturing these dimensions include engaging in yoga and meditation, seeking purpose, participating in community activities, prioritizing quality sleep, maintaining regular exercise and nutrition habits, indulging in literature and writing, immersing oneself in podcasts, setting achievable goals, preserving whitespace in your schedule for relaxation, spending time in nature, connecting with the earth, receiving massage therapy, and more. In a recent episode of my business podcast, I had the privilege of hearing from an individual whose words resonated deeply with me. Intrigued by his insights, I embarked on a deeper exploration and discovered that he was the author of a book titled "The Miracle Morning." Eager to learn more, I visited the website and found a treasure trove of resources on the concept of the Miracle Morning. After watching the accompanying documentary, I've begun incorporating these proven methods into my morning routine. I encourage you to explore this transformative approach for yourself. Here's a link. Miracle Morning: https://miraclemorning.com.

  12. Seeking Professional Support: If workplace stress becomes overwhelming, consider seeking support from a therapist, counselor, or mental health professional. Therapy can provide coping strategies, stress management techniques, and a safe space to process emotions related to workplace stressors.


Endurance Leads to Improvement

Embracing stress management techniques is a journey—an ongoing process of strength training for the mind and soul. It's essential to recognize that managing stress is a skill that develops over time with deliberate practice and effort. There are no shortcuts, quick fixes or one-size fits all; it requires dedication and persistence. Yet, each step taken towards mastering these techniques brings you closer to resilience and well-being. While the road may be challenging, the rewards at the end are immeasurable, making every effort worthwhile. By implementing these strategies and advocating for your needs, neurodiverse individuals can effectively manage workplace stress and create a more positive and supportive work environment for yourself and your colleagues.


"Stress is the trash of modern life. We all generate it, but if you don’t dispose of it properly, it will pile up and overtake your life." — Danzae Pace

One Last Thing

Finding the right job fit that aligns with one's neurodiversity is not just about securing employment—it's about honoring your unique cognitive styles and innate strengths. Attempting to work against your divine design only serves to exacerbate workplace stress and diminishes your potential for success (unfortunately something I have seen countless of times). Instead, let us embrace our neurodiversity, seek out environments that accommodate our unique needs, and celebrate the contributions we can make when we are empowered to be our authentic selves. By championing neurodiversity in the workplace, you pave the way for a more inclusive, innovative, and empathetic future for all.


Additional Tools for your toolbox.


Podcasts:


Books:


Last thoughts


As you create your toolbox for navigating stress, please be mindful of your coping strategies and recognize the difference between those that are healthy, and those that are harmful. I've seen too many people that choose unhealthy as a quick fix all the while they create a monster.





It's your turn


Different strategies works for different people. The purpose of this post is to start a discussion regarding a topic that isn't discussed enough, because of either mental health stigmas and fear. Learn and determine what strategies work for you. Create your plan and be patient with yourself. Lean in to it, plan and grow!


 

As an individual with Autism and ADHD, as well as a counselor and writer, I navigate the intricacies of neurodiversity firsthand, championing diverse perspectives. In counseling, I foster a safe, inclusive environment that celebrates neurodiversity. Through my writing, I aim to enhance understanding and appreciation for the complexity of human cognition. By advocating for the rights and strengths of neurodivergent individuals, I am dedicated to fostering a world that embraces diverse experiences.

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