College and SPD: Dealing with Overwhelm

In my last “College and SPD” post, I talked about what I wish I had known about living with Sensory Processing Disorder while in college. This time, I’m going to share what I learned about self-regulation throughout my four years at a large university.

First, a Story

Let me set the scene: I was a sophomore, sitting in the largest lecture hall in the Chemistry Building at my university. The class was Organic Chemistry, and the year was 2015. It was the height of popularity for Bruno Mars’s song, “Uptown Funk”, and nobody was safe from its groovy, brass beat. My 200-some classmates and I were sitting there, trying to draw the chair conformation of alpha glucose with the same finesse as Professor N., when from the back of the hall came the sharp staccato of percussion instruments. If I could describe the look of pure bewilderment on Prof. N.’s face as a group known for interrupting lectures launched into a truly impressive rendition of “Uptown Funk”, I would. But it escapes description. As for the song: it was loud, it was exhilarating, and it left the class reeling for the remaining 30 minutes. Prof. N. was commendably patient and picked up her lecture where she left off, but my peers were distracted and buzzing with excitement.

The spike of adrenaline that I get from the sound of a dropped saucepan or a vacuum being turned on is just like the feeling of having your train of thought derailed by six thespians with trumpets, a bass, and some killer vocal cords. That day in Organic Chemistry was one of the few times I haven’t felt alone in my sensitivity. It was so jarring that you couldn’t help but react, and I wasn’t the only one!

There’s Always Something

Musical interruptions are not commonplace, at least not at my alma mater. There are, however, plenty of stimuli to put you on edge.

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Why do you have to scream? Also, how is this legal?

From the hordes of students clogging the walkways to the documentary clips played at full volume during your history class, to the inebriated bachelorette party on that weird bicycle/drinking bus that passes under your window at midnight.

I quickly found that I needed more time to recharge than I did before college. I also found that it was more difficult to find time to do so. I was swamped with assignments, study groups, and exam prep, and feeling the pressure of those expectations that I should live it up.

I Did Not “Live it Up”

My sophomore-year roommate and I went to one (1) party and spent the entire time shouting over the music to help a drunk student whose friends had lost track of her. For a while, I thought there must be something that I was missing out on. Why would so many people enthusiastically subject themselves to that? The answer is that my threshold for intense stimuli is probably much, much lower than that of someone who loves to party. Parties are loud, crowded, and messy; all things that raise my nervous system’s arousal past where it’s comfortable. While a little bit is enough to overwhelm me, it’s perfect for someone who craves that kind of input. Eventually, I accepted that the party scene just isn’t my thing, and I was much happier for it.

Find What’s Soothing

While you can simply choose not to go to parties, there are some aspects of college life that are unavoidably draining. For the general stress of being a college student, I found that establishing a routine was immensely helpful. Breakfast is my favorite meal and probably my favorite time of the day. I’d wake up at the same time, head down to the dining hall with my own mug, get some coffee and food, and start my day off right (read: predictably).

Having my own space set up the way I liked it was also helpful. Many people don’t have the option of living alone in college, but even when I had roommates, I tried to make my desk and bed into little sanctuaries where I could shelter and recharge. My weighted blanket is wonderful, and I learned to never underestimate the power of changing into pajamas.

When my insomnia was at its worst, it took me two hours to fall asleep at night. I just couldn’t settle down; I’d consciously relax my body, and then ten minutes later, realize it was tense again. All the while, my mind was running through deadlines and anxieties. Taking some time in between schoolwork and bed to do something soothing helped my insomnia. I brought my favorite poetry and fiction books from home so that I could read something enjoyable but not too exciting. I also did mental word games to keep my mind occupied until I could fall asleep.

I would have done some things differently if I’d known more about SPD, but I still found ways to cope. Looking back, I suppose that means that I shouldn’t discount my intuition. Listening to it and not judging it is the hard part.

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