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The Mood & Mind Centre

Psychology Clinic

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Anxiety and Stimming

Posted on 10 September, 2020 at 6:50

Written by Colette Dekker (August 2020)

We have all seen people tapping feet or moving legs or even tapping fingers when thinking or being stressed. What about shouting and clapping hands, jumping up and down when they are happy? These are all know as stimming or “self-stimulatory behaviour”. Everyone of us stims from time to time, however stimming is most commonly associated with autism.


One of my young ASD clients explained to me that when he realises that he cannot deal with the situation he is in; he uses his stimming to let the people around him know that he is not ok.


Stimming can be healthy. These healthy stimming helps ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) people to deal with sensory overload and anxiety in a positive way. The repetitive behaviours feel good and may counteract an overwhelming sensory environment or may alleviate high levels of internal anxiety even in people without ASD. Next time look around when watching a game of football – you will see people pacing, standing, moving legs, slapping hands on legs ect. just before the match-winning kick.


On the other side, there are the uncontrollable stims. These stims occur overly in inappropriate settings, and may prevent a person from socially acceptable interaction and needs intervention.


Far more serious are unhealthy stims like self-injurious behaviours such as hair pulling, biting, hitting oneself, hitting the head against something in a harmful way, or picking/nail biting to the point of injury. People whom engage in self-injurious stimulation probably do so because their overload or source of anxiety is so overwhelming, it requires a much more serious stimulation to block it out.


There are ways to help people whom engage in harmful stims, these include:


1. Removing the cause: remove the stimulus that is causing the overload. The ideal is to recognise the triggers/stressors and remove them BEFORE the overload happens and harmful stimming starts. This comes back to where my client explained that his stimming is to inform others that he is not dealing with the situation. It can remain as just rocking backwards and forwards, however, should the stressor not be removed, this could escalate into unhealthy or harmful stimming such as hair pulling or hitting self.


2. Redirect to something less harmful: should it be impossible to remove the overload stressor or if you cannot figure out what it is, then redirecting the behaviour whilst still addressing the need for stimulation is key. These can be as simple as rocking on a chair or jumping. If the stimming is harmful behaviour, then choosing other painful but safe coping stims like holding an ice cube or listening to loud music, even drawing on a piece of paper until it is totally black, might be good options. The key here is knowing the person in order to find something that works which isn’t harmful.

Categories: Autism, Anxiety