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What is stimming? Chances are you’ve heard of it before in relation to Autism Spectrum Disorder. But did you know this self regulatory behavior is something everyone participates in?
Yep, that’s right – everybody stims!
But just what is stimming and why am I writing about it in a mental health blog post?
Keep reading to find out!
What Is Stimming?
Stimming, or more formally self stimulating behavior, is any repetitive (stereotypic) action an individual takes to regulate their inner equilibrium. Stims take many, many forms and serve a variety of purposes from self soothing to self expression to pain reduction.
As I said before, everyone has a stim (or stims) they participate in whether that’s chewing on pen tops when you’re overstimulated or doodling in class to keep yourself from being understimulated. Stims help with focus and emotional regulation when the world is too intense, both internally and externally.
What Does Stimming Have To Do With Mental Health?
What is stimming in relation to mental health?
Well, if you deal with a mental health disorder, sensory processing disorder, and/or chronic illness or pain, chances are you’ve developed physical stims to help yourself cope. For instance, I have anxiety and ADHD. Having something to chew on like gum helps me focus when I’m working. When I’m in a new place, doodling or drawing is a great way to bring down my social anxiety to a manageable level.
Stimming is also generally considered a neurodivergent trait, even though everyone has a stim they do in one way or another*. How much a person’s neurodivergency is managed and accepted by those around them has a lot to do with their mental health. Having to hide your neurodivergent behaviors (known as “masking”) can have a hugely negative affect on your mental wellbeing. That’s where we get back to my doodling stim. Not only did it help me as a child with my social anxiety, it also helped me focus in class. BUT teachers really took a dislike to this and I got detention so much that eventually I stopped drawing and had to find more “mainstream” ways of coping. Because of this, I ended up with a lot of anxiety and depression associated with school.
On the flip side stimming can improve your mental health. It’s a great tool to self regulate difficult emotions and handle challenging, potentially traumatic experiences. Hitting a punching bag when I’m emotionally overwhelmed helps me release my emotions safely so I don’t turn them inwards or on my family members. This helps my mental health by reducing shame and helps me positively deal with my emotions.
*Important note -the difference between regular stimming and ND stimming is that we rely on it as a coping mechanism to survive overwhelming sensory inputs while neurotypicals may only need to stim situationally (such as been under a great amount of stress).
Is Stimming Bad?
We’ve all been there. You’re focusing hard on something, maybe a test or puzzle, happily in the zone while unconsciously bouncing your leg or tapping your pen. Someone taps you on the shoulder and asks you to stop because your stim is distracting them. You feel bad because your behavior has inconvenienced others, which makes you more anxious, which makes you stim more until everyone is capital A annoyed with you.
Or your parent has yelled at you to just STOP picking your fingernails or repeating them (Echolalia – a behavior that helps Nuerodivergent people regulate and also communicate when they might not have the capacity to verbalize their thoughts). Both instances likely make you feel terrible and can lead to the belief that your stims are bad or worse, that something is inherently wrong with you.
I’m here to tell you stimming is NOT bad. You are not bad.
Yes, stimming might annoy other people or be disruptive in an environment that requires calm and quiet. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t do it. Actually, you can’t stop stimming as much as you can tell yourself to stop breathing. It’s an unconscious and vital function of the body.
And while there are some stims that are more harmful and distracting than others (like head banging or skin picking), even those can’t just be stopped. Why? Because that would lead to a sensory overload for you or even a meltdown, which is a bad time for everyone.
The key in those cases is a tool called redirection.
What Is Redirection?
Redirection is the process of diverting a “harmful” stim into one that still has the same stimulating effect but doesn’t hurt you. (This PDF from CIGNA gives a great overview of when and how to redirect harmful stims). For example instead of picking your lips when you’re anxious, you can snap a rubber band gently on your wrist to mimic the effect. If you head bang or hit yourself (which is a stim I do) to relieve stress or pain elsewhere in the body, try redirecting to hit your head or hand against a soft pillow or surface. Rocking chairs or swings are super handy when you feel the need to rock (which is a stim to regain equilibrium during stressful/high emotion times) but don’t want others to know what you’re doing.
My Take On Stimming and Redirection
Stimming shouldn’t be shamed, changed, or stopped to make those around you comfortable. If a stim needs to be redirected then it should only be in cases where the participant is disadvantaged or harmed by the stim or they are a physical danger to others. Or if the participant themselves decides they want to redirect a stim for whatever reason. (Great Wiki How on all of this here).
While some stims have the chance of being harmful, the majority of stims are benign and totally useful to those who participate in them. There’s a lot of literature online asking “how do I stop my kid from stimming” or “how to redirect stims that might get my child bullied.” Personally, while I understand why people ask those questions, I abhor that line of thinking.
Because, while there are a zillion of the above articles, there are very few articles out there that tell neurotypical people how to understand and tolerate stims. The responsibility is always on us NDs to change our behavior so it makes others comfortable. Which is total BS. Bullying should not be the consequence of being different so we should work to change the bullying rather than the stim.
Now, I agree that we have some responsibility to adjust behaviors to get along with others and give ourselves the best shot to be successful in the world. BUT not all of it. In the greater public consciousness, there should be way more understanding of neurodivergent thinking because after all, 1 in 8 people are considered neurodivergent. And modern research is trending towards also including those with mental health disorders as neurodivergent as well; which adds even more to that number.
But even if we didn’t make up such a big part of the world’s populations, inclusivity and understanding should still be the norm instead of the exception.
Normalizing stims, meltdowns, discussion of mental illness and sensory processing differences is one key to making the world a safer, more understanding place for everyone, not just neurodivergents.
I know I felt a huge sense of relief when I realized that my occasional sensory meltdowns weren’t because I wasn’t trying hard enough but because they JUST HAPPEN sometimes because of the way my brain is wired. I can’t tell you the amount of shame that took off me which benefits everyone around me and makes my overall mental health so much better.
So keep talking about things like stims! Casually educate your friends on neurodiversity when you get a chance. And by all means share this article and graphics with your internet peeps. Because that, my friends, is how we change the world.
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