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Why does your neurodivergent partner get so stressed?

Updated: Feb 27

Stress is an inevitable part of life. We all experience it but respond to it differently. In my work, I meet a lot of neurodiverse clients with ADHD and/or Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and I notice that some of the conflicts that keep coming up in therapy are tied to the fact that such individuals have less flexible nervous systems and more intense reactions to stress. As a result, they enter a stressed state easier than others. Also, it takes them longer to recover from the stressed state and return to a “normal” state. Research shows variations in the volume of the amygdala, a part of the brain that is responsible for perceiving threats and regulating emotions, as well as higher levels the stress hormone cortisol in neurodivergent individuals’ systems.

This explains why you or your neurodivergent partner struggle with loud or unexpected sounds, abrupt plan changes, surprising touch or strong smell, and, more generally, with chaos and unpredictability. It might be very difficult for the neurotypical partner to empathize and be patient. The partner that is sensitive to stress may feel ashamed, embarrassed or powerless.

Neurodiverse partners’ stress response is quick to be triggered and makes it difficult to recover, calm down and re-center. Many people live a large portion of their lives in a sympathetic nervous system state, basically, in survival mode. Their anxiety is often through the roof. They may have more GI problems.

While I can’t and don’t want to change anyone’s biology and wiring, I can help couples unpack what the triggers are, how to facilitate more compassionate reactions to the stressed partner, how the triggered partner can find a way to prevent overwhelm more frequently, and how to recover from a trigger in a way that is more connecting for the couple. I can offer several tools that can be useful, such as visual cards or stress intensity scales that can identify each phase or stage of stress. Ultimately, the main goal is to remain connected or reconnect during any hardship. You would be surprised how much can be accomplished when the consistent connection and compassion for both partners is the priority.

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