Sense and Sensitivity
Are you bothered by the sound of chalk on a scratchboard? What if you feel much the same way when touched from behind or unexpectedly — only then do you feel like losing it? You’re exasperated over the volume of music other household members insist on and tense up by the sounds and smells of your coworker having her lunch. Your weekly schedule is planned to perfection, and you feel thrown when things come up that get in the way of that.
Anxiety, control, and overwhelm are some terms tossed about over time. Still, with your tolerance level being more than just a tad below average, you wonder, what if there was another explanation altogether?
Whether you are a parent attempting to navigate parenting a sensitive child or an adult trying to make sense of your feelings of sensitivity, this blog will dive into the why, the how, and important coping strategies with the help of BLOOM courses and resources.
You may have always been that way — or you may not, or don’t remember — but suddenly, as an adult, it matters. It matters because no longer are you the child who people forgave for her quirkiness; it matters because when you snap at your toddler for what you’d barely considered a kiddie crime, like reaching out on impulse to stroke mom’s face, or when you react to your spouse’s early homecoming with frustration because you just weren’t ready for him, not yet, you cannot deal with so many unexpected things at once, you know it’s stopping you from being the person you want to be. You’re frustrated, and so are the people around you. Barely anybody can sense your reactions, your intense need for things to be a certain way — least of all yourself.
If any of that sounds familiar to you, you’re probably just as well acquainted with terms like panic, anxiety, OCD, depression, and others along the same lines. But somewhere, something bothers you; you know that can’t be the whole long and short of it.
How does it sufficiently explain why you hate noise and bright lights and recoil at the slightest form of touch? You feel dizzy often, avoid heights at all costs, and get nauseous each time you travel — why?
Similar questions followed a girl named Rachel Schneider over the years as she grappled with finding an explanation that would satisfyingly tie together the whole gamut of her frustrating experiences. And then, in 2010, at the age of 27, she stumbled upon some interesting research and finally had her lightbulb moment: she wasn’t crazy, or impatient, or obsessed; she had Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a neurological condition that impacts the way one processes information that enters the nervous system through any of the senses.
Understanding Sensory Processes
Sensory processing–sometimes also called sensory integration–is a neurological process that organizes sensation from one’s own body and the environment. It makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment.
When a sensory stimulus entering the system — a bright light or a soft touch — is not adequately processed, the body cannot respond appropriately; hence the terms sensory processing disorder or sensory integration dysfunction. Stimuli can come from any of the senses — sight, hearing, taste, touch, or smell — as well as from proprioception (the body’s sense of position, orientation, and location in physical space), interoception (the internal feeling that tells us what our body needs to function), and vestibular (the balance sense) systems.
When there is no reflexive response, as it should be in a safe situation, the information has enough time to go to the brain and process it. That’s why SPD is a nervous system disorder that affects neurological function. All sensory information is a connection to emotions because, in the brain, they are wired together, specifically in the amygdala, where sensory and emotional nerves fire together.
When the systems work at a healthy level, responses are either negative or positive but appropriate, given the input. For example, snatching one’s finger away from a hot iron or feeling excited upon entering a wedding hall where the music has just begun— and for the most part, performance and function is optimal.
When the system goes awry, or in sensory lingo, lacks organization, and the brain perceives specific inputs as a threat to the system, responses become disproportionate in relation to the input. An example of this might be an emotional response like a sudden intense need to yell, cry, or run away and hide. In this instance, the sensory system is not taking in the information correctly, and therefore, the output is not an adaptable response.
Cause and Effect of Sensory Processing
What exactly goes wrong in people who struggle with sensory processing?
That’s what researchers have been trying to uncover for years — what explains the development of SPD, or inadequate sensory processing, and if and how it presents in the brain’s physical matter.
There are three main possibilities, but they don’t explain all cases: genetics; allergies or illness, exposure to environmental toxins; and trauma. Trauma can include prenatal insult; birth complications; head trauma; physical, psychological, chemical, or any other types of abuse; or post-traumatic stress disorder.
The trauma need not be major; in fact, anything that lodges in the brain as a threat, like persistently hearing a negative comment from a close family member, for example, can fall under the “trauma” banner.
It’s important to understand that there are small traumas and big traumas. What happens is that the nervous system stops differentiating between real or perceived threats, which then causes an exaggerated protective response to bodily harm.
When sensory issues appear for the first time in adolescence or adulthood, they are usually due to some trauma — or the issues would have surfaced much sooner. Knowing that trauma is likely involved helps determine the course of treatment.
Sensory Solutions: Bloom
What happens to longtime sufferers, like Rachel, who struggle for years until a diagnosis finally resonates?
What is it about being “sensory” that leads to assumptions of other issues at play, usually either mental or emotional?
Even psychologists and medical professionals often misdiagnose hyperactivity, anxiety, depression, or stress relating to sensory processing difficulties as psychological rather than sensory in origin.
Whether symptoms are discovered in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood, BLOOM offers valuable resources to meet you and your family at your point of need. At Bloom, we offer more than behavioral therapy and do more than treat symptoms: we support families & children everywhere, providing unique resources and courses to address specific challenges.
Discover BLOOM’s course on sensory processing disorder today.