Image of Lyric, in a grey and red top with grey pants and bare feet, reaching down into their reflection on a black surface as a bright glare overwhelms the abstract looking image.

Autistic People and “Huge Emotions” or “Big Feelings” – When Emotions are “Too Big” and Overwhelming

When I first learned about my NeuroDivergence (when I was diagnosed as Autistic at 29), I was searching for a connection with others like me, so I (like many NeuroDivergent People) turned to the internet in hopes of finding the community I was looking for.

Over the years since my identification, I struggled to find any one community that felt truly safe and inclusive for me as a trans-nonbinary Autistic Person.

Because of this struggle to join other online spaces, I stopped trying to enter other people’s communities and started sticking to myself, trying to be the resource/space I needed when I was first diagnosed.

Most Autism spaces do a poor job of being genuinely intersectional (even my spaces have room for improvement in certain areas – as ALL spaces do).

Social media and its limited (and often majority-favored) content moderation can be hostile and unsafe for communities that include multiple marginalized people.

Creators don’t have enough control over their platforms or distribution on social media. It is hard (impossible) to keep communities safe on large unrestricted public platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, which is why I’ve recently started writing on Substack (so my readers are not at the mercy of the social media algorithms that selectively share content).

I’m creating a new community outside of social media on Substack (where I can have more control over my space), and I hope you’ll join me as a free member (but I also have paid subscriptions if you want access to bonus content).

My Substack community members are helping shape the community’s content by requesting different topics they want to learn about.

This week two readers have asked me to share advice on how to deal with “huge emotions” or “when emotions are just too big and overwhelming” – huge thanks to my readers for this fantastic topic suggestion.

Something that many Autistic People and I struggle with is having a more intense experience of the world around us – a world that can be hostile and unforgiving for sensitive souls who feel things deeply.

My sensory experience is more intense than many people I know. Things most people find minor annoyances (if noteworthy), like fluorescent lighting, can be physically painful to me (and can make me sick).

In addition to a more intense sensory experience, I experience my emotions intensely and fight with ” Big Feelings” frequently.

When I didn’t know I was Autistic, I didn’t know WHY I had these “Big Feelings” I felt a great deal of shame over them. Knowing I’m Autistic has helped me understand where these “Big Feelings” come from and how to manage them when they arise.

Because I always hope there will be non-Autistics and other NeuroTypicals reading, I want to share what it’s like living with these “Big Feelings” and an intense emotional experience.

Please note: The experience below may not reflect EVERY Autistic Person, as it is based on my personal experiences as ONE Autistic human, and every Autistic will experience their world differently.

The first thing I wish people not inside my head could understand is that I never cry or express my “upset” with a situation to “be dramatic.”

I’m NOT being dramatic. I’m NOT putting on a show. I’m ashamed, and I want to hide. I WISH I could calmly compose myself and speak at emotional times without “ugly crying” (snot running down my face) when I’m overwhelmed, but I CAN’T!

I can’t “tone it down” as people expect me to, so I shut down or run and hide (because if I’m cornered, I may lash out or explode).

The only thing that can help me when emotions run high is time, to be made to feel safe, or if the emotional trigger is removed or corrected. Time is the primary need. How much time can depend on various factors: the latter two (safety and removal of the trigger) influence how much time I need to recover.

Compassionate, understanding people can be helpful in difficult times, but it’s hard to know who will think lesser of an adult for crying uncontrollably and “freaking out.”

I’ve learned, through painful mistakes, that being overwhelmed around people can result in harsh judgments from others, and additionally, actions and words I may regret (and wouldn’t normally engage in when I’m “at my best,” to put it nicely).

If people respond poorly (as they often do), the situation can become exacerbated, so I try to remove myself from the presence of other people when I notice big feelings coming on (so that I may take the time and space to properly process and digest those feelings before sharing them with other people). It isn’t easy, as these feelings often sneak up on me. I can go from zero to sixty VERY quickly. The big feelings can come out of nowhere, catching me off guard.

My Autistic brain, combined with how the world can be very uncomfortable for me (and how many times I’ve been encouraged to ignore my own needs and discomfort), means I struggle to know how I’m feeling from moment to moment.

Sometimes I experience an emotion, and I may not know what that emotion is at that moment. I may not figure that emotion out until minutes, hours, days, and even years later when I process it (because I often process things, including my feelings) on a delay (ESPECIALLY if those emotions are overwhelming and cause me to shut down).

Additionally, my external emotional reactions are proportional to my internal emotional experience. Suppose I’m excited and jumping for joy about something other people find trivial or inconsequential. In that case, I’m genuinely happy and excited about something (so excited, I just can’t hide it), and that joy flows out of me as a visible outlet for that rise in emotional energy.

The alternative for expressing those big feelings is disconnecting from them and shutting down (something I do automatically when the emotions are too much or if I feel unsafe).

These shutdowns can make me appear “emotionless” when in reality, I’ve experienced so many emotions I’ve overloaded and disassociated from the overwhelm of those feelings. Initially, I may seem blank, cold, detached, and emotionless, but I will likely crash, and collapse in a gooey puddle of overwhelming emotions, melting down later (when I process those feelings).

I may appear fine in the moment, only to fall apart for days, weeks, or months after the fact, OR I may fall apart instantly over something nobody else is getting emotional about.

My emotional reaction often seems too much or too little for the situation.

I’m not trying to be difficult. I’m trying to express myself authentically, but I need time, space, and compassion from those around me – otherwise, I will have to keep removing myself instead of seeking support when I need help.

Read more on the NeuroDivergent Rebel Substack!

2 thoughts on “Autistic People and “Huge Emotions” or “Big Feelings” – When Emotions are “Too Big” and Overwhelming

  1. Thank you for writing this Lyric. I also struggle with a lot of the “big emotions” you describe. Whether positive or negative, they can be “too much” for neurotypicals and can lead to a meltdown or shutdown if I don’t have adequate support.

    Out of curiosity, what is Substack exactly? I’ve heard it talked about a lot lately but I don’t really understand how it works. Is it like an RSS feed or a social media platform?

  2. Thanks so much Lyric for sharing this. I’m 52 years old and have always felt different from everyone even though I was popular in school, played sports, went to college, gainfully employed. Anyway, I had recently watched a program on Netflix called… Dating on the Spectrum and was OMG that is me on so many things. So, anyway going in next week finally after spending weeks trying to find a way to be tested and diagnosed and believing I’m on the spectrum has been a HUGE relief for me. I get those BIG EMOTIONS all the time and at work have broken down and cried which is probably weird for people to see a 6’2″ 260lb man do that over things that most people probably wouldn’t flinch over but I can be extremely sensitive and in the past was able to take out my emotions physically on people when playing sports as a release. Haven’t been able to do that now for 30 years so I bottle things up and sometimes cry. Anyway, thanks for sharing what you did as I’m just starting to learn and I connected with what you shared big time. Like, I lose my mind when I hear our neighbors talk outside as we live in the country. I turn my stereo on so I don’t have to hear them and they don’t hear me. I’m super sensitive to noise that I’m not making myself. Had wondered what the heck is wrong with me and why do I act so childish whenever I hear the neighbors outside, well now I think i know that I’m Austisic and I’m super sensitive to it. Like, I don’t want to hear them talk as I feel like I’m part of their conversation and at times feel like I want to talk to them thru the trees which I know would be very alarming to them plus on the other side of it, if I hear them outside I turn my stereo on as well even if they aren’t talking as I don’t want them hearing me talk to my family or talk to my animals or even talk to myself or sing to myself.

    Is that something an Autisic person would experience and do?

    Best Wishes Always….

    Neal

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