We bring in information from the world through our senses. This includes taking in info from the external world (vision, hearing, etc), from the internal world of our own body (proprioception, vestibular, etc), and from the physics and quantum physics energetic field around us (sunshine, electronics, intuition, etc). And we use that sensory information to understand, engage with and adapt to the world around us.
But what if someone has sensory challenges? What if something interferes with normal sensory perception and sensation is blocked, dampened, scrambled or exaggerated? Do you think they would be experiencing the world as it truly is? Do you think this misalignment of personal experience versus what others experience might be a cause of stress?
An activated stress response to the challenges of coping with a sensory laden world is the common denominator with sensory challenges:
- Sensory disability: One or more of the senses is not working correctly because there is a problem with the sensory organ i.e. eyes/blindness, ear/deafness, body tissue/neuropathy, etc. Fitting in and coping with the pain and/or disability creates a stress response.
- Sensory pathway problems: Sensory information is blocked or distorted because the neural pathway has been damaged or severed i.e. spinal cord injury, brain injury, amputation, traumatic injuries. Adjusting and adapting is stressful.
- Sensory processing disorder: The sense organs are normal but the nerves from those sensory organs that lead into the cortical levels have some sort of scrambling at lower processing areas of the brain (brain stem, cerebellum, thalamus). An accurate “picture” of understanding the world is distorted and creates a stress response to normal life.
- Sensory sensitivity or the Highly Sensitive Personality: Taking in sensory information is neurologically normal but there is something different in the higher frontal lobe cortical level processing where many details and connections are noted. The pure amount of information can become overwhelming and elicit a stress response.
- Autism sensitivity: The sensory organs are normal but the part of the brain that creates the “volume” of the sensation has a problem and sensation is magnified in one or more areas and dampened in other areas. This can give the ability to hear a faucet dripping in a neighbors house and sounds can be so overwhelming (giving the same effect as someone screaming in your ear) that the result is extreme stress and severe flight/fight behavior.
- Energetic or Intuitive Sensitive: This is not about the physical organs but about the awareness of the energetic world that surrounds us. Because increased awareness of others energy and electromagnetic fields can be overwhelming, it can initiate the stress response.
- Post-trauma sensitive: This is where a sensory stimulus happened at the same time as an emotional trauma or abuse and encoded with the traumatic memory. That sensory stimulus thus becomes a cue initiating a traumatic stress response.
You may never have heard of some of those terms before and that’s because I had to create names to help identify the reality of what I’ve observed in the clients I’ve treated in Occupational Therapy over the past 30 years. This is the first time I’m publicly sharing this list of seven identifiable sensory challenges and I hope it will spur further reflection and conversation.
The connection between sensory challenges and the stress response must be acknowledged by traditional medicine so we can implement a whole-person, mind-body approach to healing, coping, adapting, and understanding that will make a meaningful impact on a person’s life.
I’ve found animals, particularly horses, to be great teachers for sensory and stress issues. Calming the stress response at the nervous system level is the first thing that needs to happen before the body will allocate the adaptive resources needed to lead to problem solving and healing. Horses are flight animals that can react instantly with fear to sudden noise or a bag flapping in the wind. But they can also learn to respond calmly to those same situations. If a thousand pound animal can learn to control its natural urges, so can you. It’s intriguing for people to learn about the stress response and building stress resilience through the eyes of a horse. But that’s a topic for another blog post.
I’d love to hear your thoughts or a’ha’s on sensory challenges and sensory sensitivities!