Blog: #HoldOntoTheLight – Strategies for Surviving Conventions

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Strategies for Surviving Conventions

Conventions are a big thing to writers, providing them opportunity to interact with fans while also being intimidating to those with social interaction issues, including shyness, extreme introvertness, and social anxiety. And like most writers, I am no exception to social interaction being a challenge where I go through mental spoons like a middle school cafeteria on ice-cream day.

I fall somewhere on the spectrum in the Asperger area (not formally diagnosed). The plus side means I focus well and am very detailed-oriented – great for bookkeeping and editing. My particular out-of-standard wiring doesn’t adversely affect my life, aside from sucking at job interviews and falling so far into the introvert spectrum it takes me about three years to warm up to a person. I can’t hold down retail or fast food jobs because that type of stress makes me curl into a ball and go into total ennui withdrawal from society for about two months.

Fortunately, I am close enough to “normal” to integrate well at conventions IF I USE A SLEW OF COPING MECHANISMS.

I thought I would share some of them here as the summer convention season takes off as they can be useful to the terminally shy and the socially anxious as well as others with my particular neurology tendencies. For me, the Strategy for Survival is removing as much normal and abnormal stressors as possible, knowing I am immersing myself in a maximum stress environment. My triggers include excessive noise, especially in the high pitch range; too many people close by so I can’t pick out what I should be paying attention to (environmental processing); and feeling crowded (not necessarily being crowded).

Removing stressors is the key to Surviving Conventions. Everyone has a certain level of stress they can absorb. By removing some of the normal, and reducing as much of the abnormal as possible, the Survivor can create a situation where they can function where they would normally not be able to. And not only function, but thrive because they get exposed to one of the things humans need – human interaction.

A final note before we dive into these strategies: You don’t have to use them all. These are particular to me and my needs. And yes, I use them all – every single convention, every single holiday party, and nearly every day I am in public.

But you are you. Do you.

And if you have Strategies for Surviving Conventions of your own, feel free to share them below in the comments.



Remove All Physical Stressors – These are things that you normally can let slide, but with the added stress of the Convention, must be removed.

  1. Sleep on your regular schedule, and get enough sleep – Don’t go to the bar or room parties. I know you want to see your friends, but sleep is essential for controlling stress and the sleep process also lets the brain process what happened during the day. You need this quiet time, otherwise you won’t make it for the full three days. If you are feeling okay Saturday night, you MIGHT be able to push it; do not attempt Friday night, otherwise Saturday will be a loss.
  2. Eat regular – Do not skip meals. And try to have them close to the normal size and time as you can – avoid overeating and undereating. Pack a snack – trail mix, not candy – for those times when the meal is skipped accidentally. If you normally have cereal for breakfast, pack it and buy some milk rather than eat a load of pancakes.
  3. Avoid stimulants/depressants – This is not a time to play with your brain chemistry. Have only as much stimulants as you would have on a normal day (drink the one cup of coffee and have a soda for lunch, if that is your normal). If you don’t normally drink but want to participate, limit yourself to one beer or glass of wine. Remember sugar and chocolate are also stimulants; I know everyone has candy on their tables – don’t eat it, at least any more than normal. Sugar crashes are not your friend.
  4. Stay warm/cool – Either the panel rooms are going to be arctic or tropical. Usually Neptune Arctic in the morning and the Surface of Venus Tropics in the afternoon. Pack a jacket in the car for backup and wear normal shoes, not sandals. Drink water if hot.
  5. Hydration – The first physical stressor, which most people don’t even notice, is thirst. Drug-laced liquids like coffee and beer don’t help with it. Drink water. Most conventions have water stations setup in rooms – drink a glass every other panel. If you are starting to feel stress and haven’t drunk water in a while, see if that will get you back on track.
  6. Bathroom – Go regularly, so you don’t feel stress during a long panel, especially if you are a panelist. I always try to go right before if I am behind the table instead of the audience.
  7. Pack you Binky – Being in a strange environment is a stress, and hotels are definitely not home. If you have a special pillow or blanket, you might want to bring it. Smelling home when your head hits the pillow may balance out the strange noises outside the door (and at a convention, the noises can be really strange). Have a white noise generator at home, bring it. For me, a heavy blanket really helps. The hotel ones just have the wrong weight. Skin pressure is a primary sensory input for me.

Make Decisions in Advance – This reduces mental stress. Each decision adds to the mental weight, so pop them out of the way before the function. Yeah, it is going to mean a lot of advance planning. This works fine for detail-oriented me, but again, you do you.

  1. Make a List – Create a packing list of what you need for a convention (and update it regularly). Things like clothes, an extra landyard for convention badges, snacks, medicines, deodorant.
  2. Clothes – Pick out your day’s clothes and pack them by group. Roll them up as “Friday”, “Saturday” and “Sunday. Include top, bottom, underwear, socks, etc. This way you just pull them out at the beginning of the day. For me, Friday is laid out Thursday night, to save even that decision even through I am still at home. To reduce physical stressors, make sure the clothes are comfortable, shoes broken in, etc.
  3. Bring a Project – Bring something which allows you to escape the stress feeling. This should be decided in advance and packed. Examples include knitting during panels and reading alone to the side. Having the option available might mean you won’t need it at all. Forgive yourself if you don’t get to the project; and also forgive yourself if finish a Dr. Who scarf during panels to escape the stress feeling instead of paying attention to every word the panelists say. Remember this is a coping mechanism – activating if needed or not activating it if not needed are BOTH okay.
  4. Schedule – I arrive with a matrix. Nearly all cons provide panel schedules in advance (subject to change). Print it out. At the top of each day, write down when you need to get up before dealing with people – I need about an hour before I will step outside the room. Write when you will do your meals. Highlight the things you WILL-NOT-MISS (the two or three panels you are attending the convention for), the things that are Nice To Go To (like panels where your friends are speaking), and mark your preferences for everything else (say, there are three panels, just pick the one you might enjoy the most). It usually takes me about two hours to get my matrix made – but I don’t missing my main choices because I’m curled in a ball when I crossed my stress quotient. I already “paid” the decision-making stress-spoons the week before.
  • Spontaneous Times – Those areas of “marked preferences” maybe could be marked “Spontaneous Times”. Times for just hanging out and talking with someone instead of going to a panel. A time to walk the dealer room, go to a meal with friends, etc. Those non-prime choice times are your spontaneous times. It is okay to plan for spontaneity.
  • Forgive Yourself – Sometimes you are going to missing things, even the WILL-NOT-MISS. It’s okay. You have put yourself into the equivalent of a warzone for your brain. Being there is a win in-and-of itself. If you lose a battle with your issues, all your spoons are gone, and your skin is crawling and another person touching you will make you cry, retreat to your room or a quiet area and do whatever ritual will provide healing. For me, it is reading a book. Once the corpsman of my head declares me okay, I return to the war. But I refuse to accept the stress from not meeting everything on a pre-made schedule. Generals say “no battle plan survives engagement with the enemy”. The schedule was this. Change and modify it as needed. The point of it, remember, is to reduce the decision-making stress, not add to your stress.

Avoid Crowds, or at least the feeling of crowds – Yes, you are in the middle of a huge crowded function. But it is possible to avoid the worst of it. Let the extroverts and the “normal-level” introverts walk down the middle of the hall, rubbing elbows.

  1. Arrive Early – If at all possible, arrive at the convention just as it is opening. Get the lay of the land. A huge stressor in crowds is not knowing where things are; getting anchor points in your head – where you want to go, how to get there, let you see the path through the crowd instead of the crowd. Knowing where the bathroom is, where your panels are, where your room is, location of the stairs; all these things mean you don’t have to search the crowd for things, you already know where they are. 
  2. Recon Quiet Areas. Is there a small alcove just beyond the main function area? Are there outside areas where all you will see is the beach or mountains? These are areas you can retreat to later if things get too much, or to take someone for a quiet talk.
  3. No Rush – Most people will stand up as soon as a panel is over and walk quickly out the door to get to the next panel, creating a crush of bodies. You can just sit there until the worst of it is dispersed. I do this on planes all the time; everyone has to leave the plane at some point, and the baggage won’t be regurgitated on the conveyor belt for some time, so I just wait until the line has retreated past the point I am sitting before joining it. Rushing steals stress-spoons and being in crowds doesn’t help. Wait for the room to empty, then join the crowd you can’t avoid out in the hall.
  4. Don’t Stand in Line – This one is particular to my stressors. Asperger has a hard time distinguishing what sounds are important for processing – someone I am talking to directly is being processed in my head at the same level as the conversation on the other side of the room (making me interrupt a lot of conversations with side-comments because I am hearing some part of everything around me; I work hard to control interrupting others, but I know I do it a LOT more than is “socially acceptable”). So I avoid lines. Everyone always talks in them and you have to figure out when to step forward, and pay attention to so many different things. Like rushing to leave a plane or a room, I just sit in my seat and wait for the line to go down. I don’t get the best food at church and office buffets when I wait to get in line until it is only one or two people deep – but I still get plenty of food. For most things, waiting for the line to go down works just fine and I often end up talking to an older person on the side who just can’t stand up for very long. And you can learn the darnest things talking to older folks, plus you can make new friends. Downside, I can’t attend the big media stars at Dragoncon and I am never going to get an autograph picture. It is a price I have to pay to be able to attend the full event and enjoy it; as tradeoffs go, it isn’t bad.
  5. Schedule Your Dealer Room Time – Dealer rooms are setup to feel crowded deliberately. The feeling of fullness give the appearance of an incredible amount of choice; the crowded feeling raises the adrenaline making people more willing to risk money, and therefore spend more. Things feel more exciting so a pretty rock on a stick becomes a must-have wizard wand. A book that would have just caught the corner of your eye as you rushed through, grabs and drags you to the table during the slow progress through the room. Asperger, for me (all spectrum stuff varies between person to person and my triggers are not necessarily someone else’s) means that level of excitement and adrenaline rush normal people feel is reached in the colorful, multi-item room when it is still empty; walking into one during the height of a shopping rush between panels is equivalent to using a Titian Four booster rocket to power a roller coaster ride through Las Vegas. (Note: I can do it as a vendor, from the other side of the table, with limited crowd interaction and nobody at my back. A controlled environment cuts down on the processing requirements.) I shop during panel time, when the amount of people drops. It does mean missing a panel, but the plus side is many merchants are bored and you have time to linger and talk.
  6. Sit in the Best Seat – Choose your seat wisely for panels. For me, having two rows between me and the panelists means the electronic speaker don’t hum with (high pitch) feedback. But if I am more than four or five rows back, I start processing how many people are in the room. Seeing all those people makes me feel crowded. I like to be near the edge of the row, so I feel like I can escape if things get too much. Feeling like you have the ability to escape reduces stress. Or I want to be at the edge of the row against a wall, to reduce the arc of what I need to pay attention to. For some people being against the back wall near a door is essential. For other people, being in the very front row keeps them from seeing all the extra people and helps them read lips – giving their brains additional input on what is being said. Figure out where you can sit to reduce your feeling of “crowded” and “stress”.
  7. Avoid Crowded Functions – Functions which fill the room for me are pretty much a no-go. Opening and closing ceremonies are uncomfortable. I don’t go to the concerts – especially with the electronic feedback created in the poor musical acoustics most con rooms have. The exception is when the concerts are outdoors; removing walls makes things feel bigger. I hover on the outside of the crowd and rock the music.

Additional Hints

  1. Feel useful – Trick your brain into not noticing the crowd. Have something to do. Become friends with a vendor and help them load and unload, maybe sit the table with them. Volunteer at the convention. I find being a panelist is a lot less stressful for me than being a general attendee – yes, talking to a crowd is easier than being in a crowd (I know that is way different from most people, but, like I said, I’m wired differently.) And being a moderator even better than being a panelist; maximizing my prep-work, and minimizes my on-site decisions.
  2. Go with Friends – They can act as your buffer. This can be essential for the first convention. Let them know of your problems; if they are your friends, they might already know.
  3. Let People Know – This one is harder. If your friends don’t know your triggers or coping mechanisms, tell them some. If they are work associates attending a working convention, I know telling them is tough. But if you were traveling, you would let your companions know of food allergies, things that would make you sick – right? This is no different, except that it is. I’m not broke – Asperger is a proper mind-function, just not a normal mind-function. In a world where everyone rides a horse, I have a llama.
  4. Don’t Touch without Warning, but Do Touch – This is for everyone. Hug from the front, giving warning by asking permission. Touch an arm by first, a split second, hovering the hand. Touch for most people is a stressor AND a de-stressor. Humans need touch: long firm hugs, holding hands, someone to lean against at a room party. It’s not knowing the touch is coming and not being able to say “no” when it does that makes it a stressor (especially when already feeling too crowded) rather than a destressor. And remember, the feeling of too crowded can linger for hours or even days after a major stress-spoon occasion – so someone saying “don’t touch me” just might mean, don’t touch me right now – rather than I don’t want you ever touching me. After ConCarolinas, my “Don’t Touch Me” is two days.
  5. Plan to Be Non-Functional After the event – After every convention, I need two week of recovery; Pennsic, a two-week convention, I need two months. My social engagement drops, and those I do attend have virtually no stress-spoons available. Instead of the normal two-to-four hours hanging out, I max at a single hour until I finish my recovery time. Writing dries up, but I read forever. I spent everything I had to be there. I usually get a little depressed, beat myself up because I am not writing and not being my normal not-very-social level but still-a-friend. But this is normal for me, and I have to forgive myself for being normal; this particular coping mechanism is still a work-in-progress.


About the campaign:
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Hope for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, go to and join us on Facebook

One thought to “Blog: #HoldOntoTheLight – Strategies for Surviving Conventions”

Comments are closed.