Autistic anxiety on new hobby projects
November 7, 2019 8:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm after some rational solutions to reduce a newly-recognised but long-term trigger for anxiety.

Despite or because of my neurodiversity, I find that I can work out how to do a lot of things by myslf (or with the help of the internet). But when I start learning a new skill (like sewing, for example), during the planning process, I become so anxious, that I have to resort to extra medication.

But it's a hobby! It doesn't matter if it doesn't work. I'm using cheap or recycled fabrics that cost very little. Nobody is going to care but me. It's for fun! It's not rational that I become so nervous and stuck. So I run through cognitive distortions (nope, nothing obvious there), do some mindfulness (temporary relief), put the  materials away to work out/work on some other time. Still anxious at about level 7 out of 10 (which means I can't sit still, socialising or leaving the house is hugely stressful, concentration is shot).

So what now? Desensitisation by continuing with the project is ineffective - it tends to cause an intensification of the anxiety. I don't want to give up this new creativity, and I have been working to understand the geometry and calculations so I can make exactly what I have in mind.

I'm so frustrated! And anxiously unable to be productive at anything.

In terms of therapy, thank you, but I think I've had enough of that to last a lifetime and have learned valuable tools over the years. I'm on multiple medications for my mental health. I don't want to double-down on the anxiety by going to classes, as my social anxiety is severe in general, and I'm tired of new people in my life looking at me like I'm an alien, or explaining things really slowly to me, so slowly that I lose focus and don't hear the most useful things they are saying, or using lots of jargon so that every sentence I have to take them on a detour to explain terms and forget the big picture.
posted by b33j to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried doing things badly on purpose? Sometimes doing something badly and actually experiencing the total lack of negative consequences (not the same as just knowing there will be no negative consequences) can help reduce anxiety. So maybe "learning to sew" becomes "badly sewing stupid stuff I don't need as practice" rather than "trying to complete something I want."
posted by lazuli at 8:22 PM on November 7, 2019 [24 favorites]

Do you ever participate in groups focused on your hobby? Things like joining a message board or chat server for that hobby so you can post pictures of your attempts and talk about what you're learning? Or even in person talking to interested friends? You say that "nobody is going to care but me" but maybe it would be good to have someone else care - and approve?

Because some things have come really easy to me (spectrum high fives) I have a huge amount of anxiety about doing new things imperfectly. But of course when someone else brings an imperfect or in-progress new thing to me I respond with encouragement and approval, so why am I so hard on myself? I think you're probably very familiar with this type of thing in your own life, yeah? Over time with new hobbies I have figured out that what I need is often not feedback but just a feeling of community or group effort; someone saying "I see that you're trying a thing! I am also trying a thing/I once tried a thing and was bad at it/here's what I did when I tried a thing." Without that, the anxiety of the unknown is a huge weight on me. If I keep myself closed off to comparisons it can feel like self care but what I'm really doing is not allowing myself to see the struggle of others trying similar things or to feed off the enthusiasm others have for the hobby.

Have you tried making things that aren't quite what your end goal is as "studies"? Think of them like sketches or tests. Then you'll have something to work on to trail along your creativity, and some objects to show to yourself (and maybe others) to help reinforce what you're learning while making them. And if something is just a total bust it's just a study or experiment and you learn from the failure, not a screwed up draft of a final piece.
posted by Mizu at 8:29 PM on November 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

Is it possible to break these topics into smaller, more specific skills? "Sewing" for example is an enormous category. Even at the top of my game I would give myself an anxiety attack trying to take that on. Can it be enough to say "Today I will learn this small specific skill", knowing that in the long run a lot of small skills will add up to something larger?

The best thing about that approach is that it is very YouTube friendly. For people who find live classes unhelpful, YouTube is an amazing treasury of 10-15 minute tutorials on every little skill out there.

Effectively I'm suggesting focusing on the trees so the forest isn't so overwhelming. It's not a bad strategy sometimes.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:29 PM on November 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Is this an anxiety reaction you've had to other non-hobby-related things? Like doing school work or chores around the house. Even though this is an activity that you are looking forward to, is it possible that it's still triggering the same anxiety response you have to activities that you are not looking forward to? Do you have additional tools to the ones you've already listed that you've acquired to help you to complete those activities that you can try using for the fun hobby?
posted by acidnova at 8:32 PM on November 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I struggle a lot with anxiety and executive dysfunction around my crafty hobbies. There's a big project in pieces behind me that I really really want to finish, so I'm going to write this to myself as much as to you.

- feel the fear/anxiety and do it anyway.
- invite a friend over for a crafternoon so you have the accountability to keep plugging forward for a couple hours.
- find a buddy who is also learning a new skill to commiserate about "we suck at this (right now)".
- think of something bigger to "look" at than your anxiety (ie: doesn't matter if I'm "scared", I'm on deadline)
- set the goalposts very close to your current state (ie: just one seam, then I can put things away)
- narrow the goalposts: only care about making (for example) pillow cases until you've mastered them.
- make it about quantity rather than quality
- make it bad on purpose.
- doodle (cut pieces of fabric and sew them together at random)
- (re)define success. Why do you think this is going to be fun? What's broken in that equation? how can you fix it?

And feel free to MeMail me if you want to to chat about this as you talk yourself into giving things another shot. :o)
posted by itesser at 10:35 PM on November 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ok so when I’m super excited and I have a bunch of ideas and it feels like I have more to do that time or skill - I can get myself anxiety stuck. In that case, what works is coming sideways at it. Sitting down to do the thing but like sneaking up on it like a skittish animal. If I think to hard about it, it’ll scamper back into the forest. So I just idly touch the things to do with Craft. I’m not gonna make something, no siree. Just gonna touch this thing. Oh! What’s that! Scissors in my hand. Guess I could just cut this piece of cloth I was holding with a ruler conveniently at hand....

Trick the executive function into not noticing that you are starting. Sit at the table with the stuff deliberately not using it.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:59 PM on November 7, 2019 [8 favorites]

What works for me when anxiety blocks me on a project, is to break the project down into tiny steps and then do one tiny step at a time. I take breaks as needed when I get anxious/tired. So maybe something like this:

- get out materials
(for me this would have to be further broken down, like get out scissors, get out machine, plug machine in)
(even just writing this out I feel anxious. So I know I wouldn't be able to do all of these at once. But I can do any one of these steps and then take a break before doing the next one.)
- get out fabric
- set up fabric to iron
- iron fabric
- set up fabric for pattern
- open up pattern
- cut out pattern

Breaking it down to tiny tasks really helps me get started and keep going. If I don't know all the steps then I start with the steps that I know and add more steps later (during a rest break) as I figure them out.

Sometimes I get anxiety blocks when I don't really know what I need to do. It helps me to write out what my question is, what some possible solutions would be, and then think about those for awhile and decide which one I will try.

Also I drink juice or have a snack when working through this process. Sometimes some juice helps with the anxiety.
posted by halehale at 5:02 AM on November 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm not on the spectrum but I'm one of those folks who had a hard time learning to work on skills because a lot of things came easily to me in school. I haaaaate being new and bad at things and I have general anxiety. One of the things I get stuck on is that I don't like the idea of "wasting" materials. Clearly it isn't really waste because you have to practice to get good at things, but in my brain, if it isn't good enough to be proud of then I wasted the paper/fabric/paint etc. So when I start a new hobby I strictly limit what I let myself buy/use. Sort of playing off lazuli's idea - I don't try to let it be bad, but I use things that I won't be upset about if I have to scrap the whole thing. For sewing this meant getting free fabric from people who didn't want it, or practicing by altering pieces I already owned that were either already messed up (paint, holes, etc) or that I was going to get rid of anyway.
posted by brilliantine at 5:34 AM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is less a practical thing and more of a mindset change, and I will caveat it by saying that I never had anywhere near the anxiety level you have, but:

One day in a job interview, we were talking about hobbies and things we do outside of work, and I mentioned, somewhat jokingly, that I'm actually quite terrible at most of my hobbies. Then I went on to explain that I think everyone should have a couple of hobbies that they're bad at, because it builds resilience and teaches problem solving skills. It was very on point for the interview, but it also represented a kind of watershed moment in my thinking about hobbies in general and sewing specifically.

I no longer look at sewing patterns and think 'god, I will fuck that up so bad' and don't do them. Now I look at them and think 'Ha, this is ridiculously too hard for me, I'm gonna fuck it up a lot' and then do it anyway. Because now the mistakes are the thing that I value moreso even than the finished whatever it is. And at this point, my warddrobe is approximately 50% things I have sewn myself. And I've made and thrown away some things that I fucked up so badly that I couldn't fix them, and that's okay, too.

So, maybe if you can shift your thinking in that direction, it would help.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:16 AM on November 8, 2019 [11 favorites]

when I start learning a new skill (like sewing, for example), during the planning process, I become so anxious, that I have to resort to extra medication ... do some mindfulness (temporary relief)

What happens if rather than "doing mindfulness" as an activity in and of itself, you apply the same kind of technique as you'd use inside a meditation session to the task at hand?

So when you're planning out the next phase of some new activity, deliberately make working on the plan your point of focus, and whenever you notice that your attention has drifted away from working on the plan to having some thought that's not directly contributive to that work - like say, omg I suck at this so much, fuck, my stomach is all in knots! - just note the fact of that thought without dwelling on its content, and gently return your attention to the task at hand as if you were returning it to your breath or your mantra or whatever your preferred meditative practice would normally have you focusing on inside a formal mindfulness session.

I have found this technique to be a generally useful method for keeping a lid on anxiety. Perhaps it will work for you as well.

Something else that might be useful is to do your planning in smaller, more adaptive chunks. Trying to make an extensive plan on the basis of insufficient experience is a pretty reliable recipe for inducing anxiety. If your plan is to learn to sew, for example, start by getting a needle and thread and a scrap of fabric in your hands and just practice making stitches until you start getting consistent results and can feel confident that your hands will now do what you ask of them. Only then move on to working out what you want to apply that newly acquired physical skill to.

In other words, put more of your focus on process and skill acquisition than on your desired end result, and let experience teach you that you can trust in practice, when governed by that attitude, to get you just about anywhere you might care to go if you only put enough time into it.
posted by flabdablet at 6:23 AM on November 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

Beyond planning/ expecting that I will make a bad X, I look at being bad at something as a useful skill to develop in and of itself. It is really useful to have experience just totally sucking at something, not everything is going to come naturally. Making lists of things to try to help me learn and working through them can help, too, with the expectation that not all of them will actually be helpful.

As Jake the Dog says, sucking at something is the first step to being kinda good at something.
posted by momus_window at 6:29 AM on November 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

sucking at something is the first step to being kinda good at something

Learning to be willing to suck at stuff and do it anyway is a skill in its own right, and like any skill, you're going to suck at it when you first start to learn it. But don't let that put you off. Be bad at being bad at stuff and be bad at it anyway.

You would not credit the amount of difficulty I had with this, and still have with it to some extent if I'm honest, every time I sit down behind the drum kit. Sucking at something is one thing; wantonly inflicting that suck on everybody else within a half-kilometre radius for hours on end is quite another.

Until you've become somewhat adept at sucking at things, your easiest option is to start off by sucking at something quiet :-)
posted by flabdablet at 10:02 AM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this is a reframing that will help you, but in case it does:

Even people who were very adept at a particular skill, if they didn't keep it up and didn't do that activity for a long time, can be rusty and have to go through a period of suck before they can get back to their previous skill level. Granted, they don't have to relearn from scratch, but that can be frustrating.

And that's not usually the mental aspect of the skill but simply the muscle memory of it. I've let my piano playing lapse and I definitely can't play like I used to. But it's not that I've forgotten how, but that the muscle memory of my body is out of practice. This is also true for handicrafts. I'm not a swere but I am a knitter and I've gone through periods of not knitting for several years and it takes a bit to get the hands working the way they used to. Often, I will do a simple nothing pattern for practice that I unravel. And whenever I'm trying something new, such as a complicated lace pattern, I do it on junk yarn for a few iterations of the pattern to make sure I understand it.

So sucking it a part of learning and skill development and it's not that you are in any way incapable. Because even those who are already skilled can get rusty and have to suck all over again. It's not just teaching the brain but we have to teach the body as well.
posted by acidnova at 10:32 AM on November 8, 2019

It's not just teaching the brain

It's not even mainly teaching the brain. Or at least not those bits of the brain that have jobs other than working our muscles. Actually knowing how to do a thing comes from practising doing it, not the other way around, and the main thing we need to teach the bits of our brain responsible for most of our conscious experience is how to stay the hell out of the way while the rest of us gets on with doing that practice.
posted by flabdablet at 10:52 AM on November 8, 2019

Thank you all for your thoughtful and caring answers. There's a lot to process here, and definitely heaps that rings true. You are a wonderful community, and I so appreciate being part of it.
posted by b33j at 5:14 PM on November 8, 2019

Oh and for anyone interested, I have so far made a shirt from a pattern that I wear to work, a self-drafted wrap skirt ditto, 5 cushion covers that by the last two, I completed in half an hour max, a maxi dress that is unwearable but has plenty of fabric for reuse, a self-drafted Kimono that I put a successful dart in the back and it's pretty but with too much sleeve in the armpit, a deskcover, that works, but sheds because it was an early attempt and I didn't realise such a loose weave would require more attention to seams.

What I'm currently fretting about is the PERFECT backpack/handbag that will have a pocket for everything I need, when my fabric is a pair of old but very thick jeans that will apparently need a different kind of needle and thread. I have designed two versions, one a sling cross-body version, and the other, a squarish bag, but with rings on four corners, and top middle, so the strap with caribiners can be adapted from backpack, to crossbody, to handbag, and internally, individual kits for every eventuality, and multiple pockets on the outside to contain my most used items.

I had the idea that if I didnt cut the legs of at the crotch, but folded them inside themselves, and sewing across the base, I would automatically have 6 internal spaces, but also, I would be sewing across 4 layers of denim at once, including seams, to neaten the bottom on the outside, and that seems unworkable.
posted by b33j at 5:29 PM on November 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

And lastly, while great for other people, Youtube doesn't work for me, it doesn't go at the right pace. I do research a lot online. I have friends who sew, but I never invite anyone home so I just can't imagine that. But the big truth is, that is has brought home to me, I'm not very used to sucking at things. After (quite) a while of sucking, I quit (playing guitar, driving, singing, sports, buying gifts that the reciever likes, hosting parties, cooking, makeup, understanding physics) and this has been a very valuable lesson you have shown me. Thank you.
posted by b33j at 5:40 PM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would be sewing across 4 layers of denim at once, including seams, to neaten the bottom on the outside, and that seems unworkable

And at your present level of skill and possibly with your present equipment, it quite probably is. So in order to make it workable, your options are: (a) acquire the skill of reliably being able to sew across 4 layers of denim, including seams, before starting the bag project; this may well also involve acquiring sturdier equipment (b) do enough redesign to sidestep this difficulty.

Option (a) is definitely doable but strikes me as kind of slow and possibly expensive; brutal industrial-strength sewing machines don't come cheap.

I have very little sewing experience, so take my advice on option (b) with a large helping of salt, but four layers of denim is well within the capability of the fairly ordinary sewing machine I do have; the only dubious part is going through the seams, each of which could easily amount to four layers of tightly packed denim in and of itself, especially since it seems likely that you'd end up going through a pair of seams at least once.

So if I were going the option (b) route, I'd be looking at careful unpicking and cutting out of such small parts of the seams as lay in the track of the new seam I was going to stitch across the bottom. Remove the boulders from the train track before trying to drive the train along it.

If perfectionism is generally a blockage for you, you might benefit from reading Fred Brooks's seminal work on managing large IT projects, The Mythical Man-Month. One principle explained in that excellent and influential book that's long stuck with me is: plan to throw one away. You will anyway, and deliberately planning for that in advance makes the doing of it feel like it's all part of the plan rather than some hideous variety of failure.
posted by flabdablet at 10:09 PM on November 8, 2019

So what I did was remove the leg seams, which makes a nice (but probably temporary) closure for the top. I folded the remains of the legs inside but from the side, not the front, and i pinned things to see if it would work.

My strap plan is excellent - my bag is convertible from backback to cross-body to hand bag. I want to round the bottom a bit more. Each side (fromt & back) has one front pocket (which will carry a water bottle) and one back pocket. I want to round the bottom of the bag a bit more than it currently is, but I also talked ro a friend who sews who gave me ideas that I won't be using, but also confidence in using my machine gor what I intend. I'm leaving the current pinned style to marinate for a bit but getting to the point I did today made me very happy and confident that my project is workable, even though it's changed radically from my initial design. Thank you all for your ideas and support. I guess, sometimes, YOU are the friends I need to consult to lose anxiety and regain my confidence. Thank you. <3
posted by b33j at 1:03 AM on November 16, 2019

getting to the point I did today made me very happy and confident that my project is workable, even though it's changed radically from my initial design

There's a principle that perfectionists prone to planning anxiety can usefully generalize from that experience, and it's this: when you're driving a train, you don't need to wait until all the signals ahead of you are green, just the one for the section of track you're about to enter. Because it might well turn out that the track whose signals you're spending all that time waiting for isn't the one you end up switching onto.

Planning is a fine thing in moderation :-)

And that bag design you've invented sounds awesome.
posted by flabdablet at 8:43 AM on November 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm struggling a little to visualize it properly. If you can post a picture of your project, I would love to see it! From what I can gather, it sounds amazing!
posted by acidnova at 1:51 PM on November 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'll post when I'm done, but its going to take a few more weekends. Thanks for your support and encouragement, everyone.
posted by b33j at 8:33 PM on November 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

« Older Indoor Workout Level 1   |   iPhone and iPad neophyte. I now own both. Need... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments