Sometimes our physical or emotional reactions to the world around us just don’t make sense. And there’s a reason for that! We have these expectations that our bodies just know what to do and then we do them, but it doesn’t necessarily work that way. I’m mostly going to be talking to neurodivergent* folks here, but, know this, what I am talking about can affect any individual and it doesn’t have to be something that has been there since birth. Many - many - things can affect the harmony of our bodies and minds.
Here’s the deal. In recent years, studies have been done to understand neurodivergent* folks and, although there is not a medical diagnosis in the DSM or ICD coding system, noted that there are specific ways that many of us experience the world through our senses. Even more, they have specified 3 senses above the typical taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight that we generally consider when discussing the senses. This understanding has led to treatments outside of - not necessarily in place of - medication and talk therapy that work! Isn’t that fantastic?
Let’s back up for a minute for those who are just seeing the phrase “sensory integration” for the first time. Sensory integration was introduced in the 1970s by A. Jean Ayres, PhD who said that our senses develop over time. When the sensory system is well-organized, we are able to “integrate input from multiple sources.” But sometimes something happens and the system is disorganized. When this happens you become sensitive or defensive to some sensations and/or seeking of others. Yes, it can be both. It is in my case. This is something that is experienced by up to 30% of “normal functioning adults” and it is unique for everyone, so don’t feel like you have to put yourself in a box to meet one criteria or another.
Let’s look at a quick example. You tell me that you are averse to touch, that you don’t like it and are jumpy anytime someone touches you. You later mention that your best friend “gives the best bear hugs.” What if you aren’t averse to touch and are actually seeking a certain kind of touch (deep pressure for instance) while feeling defensive to another type (say, a light brushing feeling)? Couldn’t that make a difference? I promise you, it can. So let’s take a peek at what sensory defensiveness and seeking looks like.
Sensory defensiveness can look like:
-staying away from large crowds
-feeling annoyed or startled by certain sounds
-feeling sick or getting irritated around strong smells that others often don’t even notice
-bright lights making you feel out of sorts or easily fatigued
-feeling anxious about fast movement, leaning back, or swinging
-anxious or stressed feeling when getting wet, may avoid showering and going to the pool or beach
-being overwhelmed by emotions and not being able to respond to them "appropriately"
-trouble figuring out and doing a sequence of actions
Sensory seeking can look like:
-enjoying deep pressure when hugged, massaged, having sex, etc.
-feeling exhilarated when driving fast, on roller coasters, and other “thrill-seeking” activities
-craving crunchy, chewy, or excessively spicy foods
-fidgeting, constantly chewing on things, or popping your knuckles
-having a “high pain threshold”
-enjoying loud music, games, or TV
-having poor handwriting or a “heavy hand” when writing
-difficulty with reading or writing
Understanding our senses and tuning into our sensory needs can make a world of difference to us in our lives at home, work, in the bedroom, and in a variety of relationships.
So, what ARE the 8 senses?
Let's start with the ones everyone thinks about:
-Taste (gustatory): This system detects sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory. The smell system as well as touch can affect how we process taste as well. This tells you what foods/drinks you like and don’t like as well as what is dangerous and should be avoided.
-Touch (tactile): We have touch receptors all over our body because of our skin. The tactile system helps us interpret pressure, temperature, textures and other things that we touch in our environment. We gauge our safety in our environment through this interpretation of touch.
-Smell (olfactory): Smell is somewhat different from the other senses. It is sent to a different part of the brain than other senses initially. It goes to the prefrontal cortex which plays a key role in regulating our emotions. One scent can trigger positive emotions of your partner baking you cookies, while another can elicit a traumatic memory. But, that’s not all. Smells can also trigger instant physical responses as well. You salivate when you smell your favorite food, for instance.
-Sound (auditory): We take in the many sounds we hear to both identify danger as well as make sense of the environment while understanding and connecting with those in it. When we discuss auditory processing, we are talking about how the brain is processing the information, not specifically how the ear works. It is about the amount of information coming in and then how that information is understood and categorized.
-Sight (visual): With this sense, we interpret what we see: words, numbers, colors, light, nonverbal cues, movement around us, etc. We use visual processing to navigate our environment, to read and understand information, to identify and/or locate objects, to recognize people, places, and objects, etc.
And now the ones that you may not be familiar with. These 3 senses play an important role in interacting with your environment.
-Sense of movement (vestibular): This system affects our security with movement and is important for developing balance and coordination. It affects eye control and attention as well. It helps us know that we are physically grounded in our environment. When this system is not functioning well, you might feel anxious, have an upset stomach, lose balance easily, be called “clumsy,” experience academic struggles, or have abnormalities in muscle tone.
-Sense of space (proprioception): Whereas the vestibular system communicates movement, proprioception is about space. Your brain sends out signals to your muscles and joints for you to move and achieve balance. When the brain isn’t able to “feel” what the body is doing, one has to consciously think about and purposefully create the movement, step by step, or use another sense, such as vision, to compensate.
-Sense of time & inside your body (interoception): Just like proprioception sends information about our joints and muscles, interoception sends information about our organs. With this information, we regulate body temperature, digestion, hunger, thirst, the need to use the restroom, and interpret body sensations (muscle tension, changes in breathing, increased heart rate, sensual feelings) to identify and respond to emotions.
Whew…that was a lot, I know. But here’s the deal. This is something that is not really being discussed in healthcare or wellness circles unless they are speaking of autistic individuals and, even more specifically, autistic children. But, as I mentioned earlier, sensory integration matters to all of us and if you are experiencing frustration at home or work, with emotional regulation, or in relationships , it is a good idea to look at the possibility that your sensory system may be unorganized. There are specialists who work with this specifically who can help!
I am one of those people, whether you are feeling overwhelmed and burnt out and want to explore how your environment plays into that or if you want to understand how sensory integration plays into your relationships at home, work, and play. Together we can identify your individual needs and come up with an action plan to make sure those needs are met.
I can’t wait to meet you and talk about this! Other professionals who can support you include occupational therapists who will give you an official assessment and develop a sensory diet that meets your individual needs.
*A neurodivergent (ND) person is someone who has one or more co-occurring neurological conditions that may cause disability when interacting with or moving through their environment or in relationship to other people.
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