“Shutdown” — what it is and what it isn’t.

When I shut down, it is like I am becoming ill with the flu. I feel achy, extremely tired, I need to be in a quiet dark room immediately, my executive functioning stops, my body becomes frozen/very still, and communication becomes difficult or non-existent. If this happens when I am out of the house (which is the usual way of things), then I need to get a taxi home immediately and actually need somebody else to call that taxi for me and pay for it if I don’t have any money on me. Shutdown completely disables me.

There are stages leading up to shutdown where my movements become slow, I struggle making basic decisions, and I sit and stare at inanimate objects as I try to muster up the energy to get myself into a safe space.

When I shutdown it usually relates to one of three things: too much sensory input; too much continuous social input with no breaks/stressful social input (conflict, confusion, miscommunication); or a change in routine/change in general (new places, people, lots of new information). I also relate to ‘the spoon theory’ with regards this– sometimes overload can accumulate and carry over to the next day.

When I shutdown (because input for the week/day/hour/minute has been too high) it is my body’s way of being resilient. Shutdown is physiological and innate. It is not chosen. It is not a reaction to stress which can go away with the right ‘tools’. I know this because nowadays I feel lots more confident in my ability to think through problems and find solutions to common mental health problems and stress, but, nevertheless, ‘shutdown’ occurs a few times a month.

What shutdown isn’t:

  • a sign that I have had an easy life – I have had lots of big stresses in my life (dealing with homelessness, abuse, and losing my entire family, for starters)– my shutdowns do not make me ‘sheltered’
  • a sign that I need to learn more ‘techniques’ or ‘cant handle stress’– a suggestion I often find quite offensive as I am one of the most skilled people I know at using the tools, techniques and resources at my disposal. My life is stressful not because I ‘can’t handle it’ but because I was born with a sensitive system into an period of history and location where sensory and social input are extremely noisy and demanding. I am probably better at handling stress than most people without my neurology, because I do it every single day to a very high standard.
  • Post-traumatic dissociation – this happens to me too, but is different in quality (is often accompanied by self-harming thoughts, and is more of a panic-stricken freeze than an exhausted shut down)

What shutdown is:

  • a sign that I am autistic, and that life is sometimes just overwhelming and difficult for me. When I shutdown, this is my brain enforcing a break, catching me up, giving me time out, or whatever. It also signals that I might need help from others.
  • a coping technique in itself. If I didn’t shut down my body would continue being hyper-stimulated and the results would not be good. It is a natural coping technique. In the past, when I have tried to over-ride nature, these shut downs have insisted so hard that I have become mentally unwell – I have ended up locking myself in, talking rubbish, pissing myself, not washing, getting paranoid, confused (in short, going completely bonkers). Shutdowns can prevent these episodes.
  • a sign that I am connected to my body enough to know that enough is enough (a connection that I have worked hard for as a survivor of abuse) – especially when I am able to predict a shutdown coming on before it has hit by taking notice of the bodily signs (this is a skill I am building and means I am more often able to get into a safe place — but it doesn’t stop it actually happening).

In conclusion, when things become too much and I shut down it is because my body is demanding well deserved and necessary rest. It doesn’t make me weak, it doesn’t make me in need of a ‘mindfulness course’, or resilience training, it doesn’t mean I must be sheltered or vulnerable, it means I’m autistic. Realising this has changed my life forever: it has been the best anti-depressant and anti-psychotic a person could wish for. Knowing my limits and allowing my natural lock-down to take its course has been all I needed to mediate some horrendous mental health difficulties that I was facing. Shutdown is resilience for me.

8 thoughts on ““Shutdown” — what it is and what it isn’t.”

    1. Then it is not safe, basically. What happens would depend on each individual situation. All you can really do is make sure you have ensured safety as much as possible, and this manly relies on you being in a generally safe environment. This is not always possible, of course. I think that having trusted people who know that it might happen is important, and I am currently in the process of myself a card which explains to strangers who they can contact and what they can do to help, and also what would not help. I think there are measures you can take to ensure your safety as much as possible, but this never accounts for every situation or for the randomness that can be other people. Hope that helps?


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