An open laptop with the screen angled down and a bright swirl of colors being displayed against a dark background

How Sensory Processing Disorder Can Make Screens Unbearable

Twice this week, I surpassed my daily limit of 5 consecutive hours of screen time. This limit is one imposed by sensory processing disorder, and if I fail to adhere to the rules, there are unpleasant consequences. These include nausea, vertigo, and intense anxiety bordering on sudden panic.

My job as an editor is done entirely on the computer, and it’s very detail-oriented work. I have to focus intently on the screen in order to catch typos and fix grammar and punctuation mistakes. I also have to do a lot of tab switching and scrolling up and down as I add words and change headers. Some sensory stimuli, like bright lights and visual movement, bother me more than they might bother someone who doesn’t have sensory processing disorder. Taking long breaks – an hour or more – helps stave off the effects of digital screens, but when I spend too much uninterrupted or eventually, cumulative time looking at my laptop or phone, something gets mixed up in my brain. As a non-expert, I don’t know the precise details of what happens, but I do know that it feels TERRIBLE.

I start feeling some vague nausea around hour 4 of mostly continuous work. It spikes when I switch tabs or close windows- the little “whoosh” of a window disappearing into one corner is not something I notice at other times, but when I’m getting overstimulated, it makes my stomach turn. The light of my screen is physically painful to look at, so I turn it progressively lower as I go on. Scrolling is the worst; short vs. long makes a big difference, but they’re both bad. A long scroll makes the nausea much more severe and gives me an indescribably strange pulling sensation in my sternum. It’s something like how I imagine having a long, wet string pulled slowly up and out of your chest would feel. It creates an intense feeling of horror and high anxiety distilled down into the 1.5 seconds it takes to scroll from the top of a page to the bottom. Short-term panic. Something about the movement on my screen is powerfully repelling. The longer I push on past my limit, the more the panic sensation bleeds into the time around the scrolling.

For a little while, turning the brightness down low and wearing sunglasses helps, but eventually, even that doesn’t work. I take short breaks to press my feet into the floor and look at something stationary in the middle distance. I often close my eyes while scrolling, but this just prolongs the experience because I never scroll to exactly the right spot. If I’m typing anything, I look away from the screen. As the anxiety gets worse, I take deep breaths and pause to look elsewhere. My 5 to 10-minute breaks become time for me to lie on my back on the floor and squeeze my knees to my chest – trying to ground my frazzled nervous system.

A glowing blue laptop screen over a backlit black keyboard
Photo by Markus Petritz, @petritz on Unsplash

It became the worst it’s ever been this week when I carried on to about 7 hours of editing. The two hours leading up to the end were miserable. I was doing everything I could to make it through my remaining work, to the complete detriment of my body. I found myself involuntarily rocking back and forth after particularly awful scrolls, just trying to keep it together while my nervous system went haywire. My body was screaming, “HEY. DUMMY. JUST TELL YOUR BOSS YOU’RE SICK.” But I’m perfectionistic and had decided that it was my un-shirkable responsibility to finish all of it myself. When I did finally finish it, I barely held down vomit after booking it to the bathroom. I’m a dummy.

I wonder if it has to do with the blue light (I plan on trying some blue light-blocking glasses) or the frame rate of my screen. I haven’t been sleeping well lately, and I suspect that my sensitivity is heightened when I’m not well rested. Sensory processing disorder does weird things to my ability to handle multiple types of stimuli at once, and being tired just exacerbates it. In the same way that an escalator on its own is fine but an escalator after a busy day in an airport filled with noise and movement gives me vertigo, being tired makes handling the imperceptibly flickering light and movement of a laptop screen way harder.

I spent many years not paying attention at all to the way my sensory processing disorder impacts me. I knew I had it, but I told myself that I should be able to do all of the things that other people can do. So I minimized it in my mind. Despite having learned more about sensory processing disorder and having gotten some treatment in the form of occupational therapy in the recent past, acceptance is something I still need to work on. When simply looking at my laptop screen for too long has such debilitating results, SPD is something I should be considering more carefully. Pushing myself to the point of throwing up was extremely unwise and points to a general disregard for my own wellbeing. I didn’t want to inconvenience other people by being late with my work or shuffling it off onto someone else. And ultimately, I just did not want to admit defeat when it came to something as innocuous as looking at a screen.

I think I’ll try to reframe “admitting defeat” as “taking a really big hint from my body.” If it means living in a way that doesn’t leave me green with nausea and crying, that seems more like winning to me.

Mental Health is More Important Than Academic Success

Growing up, I was always motivated by grades. I liked having that definitive mark to indicate whether I did well or not. Clearly, the beginnings of my perfectionistic tendencies go way back. Even in middle school, I remember carrying around a lot of anxiety about tests and grades. When I got to college, I was excited to be focusing more time on my interests – biology and anthropology – but the pressures of academia and my budding mental health issues wore me down.

Still, I was determined to do well. I had learned that I could earn good grades if I just put in enough work, even in subjects that didn’t come naturally to me. School was what I knew, and I felt tantalizingly close to the finish line. So, when I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder in the middle of my college career, I didn’t slow my progress down. Like many students, I simply forced myself to put my mental and physical health behind academic success.

At its worst, I went back and forth from my bed, desk, and class, taking naps when necessary but skipping meals and forgoing social interaction to conserve emotional energy. I thought about suicide a lot. I had several plans in mind, and I kept the worst of it from my therapist, fearing that she would force me to go to the hospital. The worst part of that potential event, in my mind, was missing class and falling behind. When I look at photos of myself from this time, I remember how forced it often felt to smile. Even on graduation day, I didn’t look happy; I just looked exhausted.

I hoped that if I could just make it to graduation and go home, I could rest and recover, and my mental health would improve. Instead, the sudden lack of structure combined with my admittedly fragile emotional state made things much worse. I tried – for months, I went diligently to therapy and attempted to pull myself out of my depression, but ultimately slipped back into suicidality. I was hospitalized for over a week, then released on condition that I do a partial hospitalization program for two more weeks.

I don’t know that all of that was caused by the stress of college. I am in my early twenties, when many mental illnesses make their presence known, so it’s possible that my symptoms would have been just as severe had I not gone to college at all. But I suspect that my perfectionism surrounding academics and the pressure I put on myself to succeed made an already risky situation worse.

When I can find compassion for myself these days, it makes me sad that I treated myself so poorly. Yes, I got a good GPA, but at what cost? To imagine anyone else doing what I did – valuing their academic success over their own life – is unbelievably sad. There is no grade that matters more than your wellbeing. I’m not exactly sure how my perspective was so narrow for so long. I knew that I could have taken a semester off – my mom suggested it, once – but I was vehemently opposed. I didn’t want to fall behind my peers. The thought of returning to campus without my friends made me anxious, and it left a vaguely shameful feeling in my chest. To take a semester off felt like a failure to me. That was my perfectionism speaking. There is absolutely nothing wrong or bad about taking a semester off. Or two. Or however many you need.

If I could go back, I would do things differently. I did love my majors – I would keep those. In fact, finding subjects that sparked my curiosity was a positive force on my mental health. Knowing that I had something to use in a career gave me a sliver of hope that was enough to let me imagine a future in which I wasn’t depressed. But two majors in four years is hard. I took a lot of credits each semester, and there was no way to avoid pairing difficult classes together. If I could go back, I would do it all more slowly. I’d take fewer credits per semester and accept that it would take me longer than four years. I’d also apply for accommodations. Beyond the assistance of longer exam times, it would have been nice to have my professors in the loop about my depression.

A lot of my perfectionism surrounding academics existed long before college, but there is something to be said for the culture that permeates my alma mater. There’s a sort of competitiveness among perfectionistic students for who can push themselves the hardest. If you say you’re stressed, people ask you how many credits you’re taking, as if your stress doesn’t count unless your course load is full. It’s not stated outright, but the general atmosphere is one of suffering-related humblebragging. If you’re stressed, it means you’re pushing yourself. If you’re not stressed, you might be slacking. Again – I love my university, and I’m proud to have gotten my degree there. People are motivated to achieve at Michigan, which is wonderful. That said, the limitless pressure to succeed can be dangerous.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college-age people in the US, and its rate is increasing. Around 1,000 college students die by suicide each year. When young people are off at college, often away from home for the first time, they’re vulnerable to the prevailing ideas. Submerged in a competitive culture, it’s easy for students to believe that their future will be ruined by a bad grade. And I get it – students have plans beyond college that require top-notch GPAs. For a while, I thought that veterinary school would be my next step. Instead, my plans seemed to come to a screeching halt after college. Depression has altered my life enormously. If I could talk to sophomore me, I’d say, “I haven’t gone to grad school, but my life is not ruined.” Through the waves of depression, I catch glimpses of what really matters, and none of it is a letter grade or a GPA. I think I have a healthier perspective on life and academics now.

I sincerely believe that most of my depression is biochemical. That said, I’m pretty sure my college experience sped up the decline in my mental health significantly. Again – I don’t regret going to college, but I do think that if I had taken time to consider my innate traits, really thought about the stresses of being a highly introverted person at a university with more than 40,000 students, things might be different for me today. I did my best at the time, but I wish that I had honored those parts of myself; the quiet parts, the parts that need calm and routine, which were frazzled and burnt out after four years of high pressure. My sensory differences made the pace of life I’d chosen at university unsustainable, and by the time I graduated, I had an almost constant low level of vertigo, loud noises made me cry, and lots of movement in my visual field (like in a busy dining hall or a crowded hallway) made me disoriented.

I would encourage anyone who is pursuing a degree now or considering doing so to remember that it’s your education and your life. Everyone goes at their own pace, and what anyone else thinks about your pace doesn’t matter. Furthermore, what you think other people are thinking is likely more harsh than the reality. Taking care of yourself and your mental health is not always easy, and going against the grain takes courage. Think about the resources and environments that would support you and seek them out. Make friends who understand you, and above all, put your health first.

(There were parts of college that I really loved. The friends I made and the things I learned were priceless. Football games, waffles, fancy events at my dorm, exploring campus – there are tons of great things about college! I didn’t intend for this post to turn out so dark. It’s all about moderation.)

Watching rotund squirrels eat nonspecific trash was always fun, too.

light-and-dark-blue-in-close-up-of-glacial-ice

The Subtleties of Water: The Ketamine Chronicles (Part 27)

I’m always looking up at the sky when the water closes over me. This time, it was cold, and an eggshell-thin layer of ice formed above me while I watched. Gentle waves followed one another, freezing over the previous layer and leaving a frosty texture on the surface. Darkness spread from the periphery of my vision until I strained to see through the last window of light, the only notable image being the shadow of a person standing above me on the ice.

I didn’t put a lot of effort into remembering this infusion. I know there were graceful, disembodied hands dancing amid blue and red lines, swirls, and dots. There was more water – ripples and waves, mostly. There was a pyramid with a circle above it, which turned into a blinding white light. I’m certain that there was a lot more, but it’s faded away from me by now.

My mental health is declining. I’m not sure why. Ketamine doesn’t seem to be working as well for me, now. Every day, I have to rate my mood on a ten-point scale. It’s hard to capture how I feel in numbers. Potatoes are easier, but still not quite enough. Honestly, sometimes words themselves seem too limited. How can I describe how I feel? This morning, I woke up at 4. I got dressed in the cold – same clothes as yesterday – and went to the kitchen for some food. I walked the dog when the sun came up, but we came home quickly because of the sharp, cold air. My eyes feel heavy. Not the lids – the actual eyeballs; they sit heavy in their sockets, like wet marbles or enormous caviar. I wonder, if I tip my head forward, will they fall out? When my depression is worsening, I often notice this feeling in my face. Everything is heavy and hard to move, and I’m sure my expression is grim. I think the clinical term is RDF – resting depression face. At least my pandemic mask covers most of it.

Maybe the person above me on the ice in my ketamine dream is me. I’m on thin ice. Skating across a just-frozen lake in my wool socks at 4am. Someone else is waiting beneath the surface, straining to see through the darkness. Is she also me?

__________

My recent ketamine infusions have all featured water, and I’m often drowning in it. It’s not scary – it’s peaceful. It’s soothing. I’ve never stayed up by the surface before; always finding myself sinking into the dark, quiet depths. But this time, I was floating – pressed against the underside of the ice, trying to see through it to the person on the other side. I was curious about this person, but the darkness closed in before I could begin to unravel what was happening, and then I found myself in a different scene, which I do not remember.

I’m fascinated by this recurring theme of water, especially because in my regular life, I’m not a big fan of it.

I have sensory processing disorder, and as a young child, I flat-out refused to swim. I was overwhelmed to the point of tears by the splashing, the echoes in the pool, the temperature change from air to water, and most of all, the fear of people touching me. I eventually came around to the idea, but never enough to take lessons. So, having never properly learned how to swim, I nearly drowned at a friend’s birthday party when I was 8. I remember being uncomfortable going into the deep end, but my friend was insistent. I lost my grip on the side of the pool and began to sink. When people say that drowning is not a dramatic event – there’s no splashing or screaming – they’re right. My head tilted back instinctively as I went under, and I could see my hand, extended above me, slip under as well while the rest of my limbs flailed uselessly underwater. A panicked hopelessness overtook me as I choked on chlorinated pool water. Then, my friend’s hand broke the surface, reached down, and grabbed my wrist.

I have never felt relaxed on or in water, and it’s not just the near-drowning that explains it. The same sensitivities that kept me from participating in swimming lessons have persisted into my adulthood. I dislike the unsteadiness of water, the unpredictability of how it will splash, the feeling of water on my face. And yet, when I’m reclined in my doctor’s office, ketamine moving into my bloodstream, visions of water are soothing. I can feel the cool, constant pressure of being underwater without the anxiety or the sensory overload. I can feel myself standing on the deck of a boat, watching the foamy water beneath me leap forward and recede, and I feel peaceful. I’ve seen whirlpools, rivers, melting glaciers, and the unbelievable enormity of oceans. It’s a strange experience to suddenly realize what water might be like for other people, as those feelings are foreign to me in my waking life.

I feel as though, unhampered by the symptoms of my sensory processing disorder, I can connect to a larger, evolutionary interest in water that I am unable to find under normal circumstances. Humans have been fascinated with water for millennia. In fact, some evolutionary anthropologists believe that nearness to water supported the development of large brains – that we are, in part, the heritage of small, coastal communities of early humans whose lives revolved around the movement of water and the food within it. To this day, many island and coastal cultures retain great reverence for the ocean. When we gaze out upon a watery horizon, it is difficult to not be awed by the vastness before us. In my eye, to find our place in relation to bodies of water is akin to our struggle to find our place in the vastness of space. Questions of identity and survival are found in the depths, and I believe we carry the answers within ourselves.

My depression is a constant in my life. It is all-encompassing, lonely, and feels like drowning. I’m not one to find meaning in every dream, but the images of water that I experience during ketamine infusions have begun to feel profound. What does it mean? Certainly not that I should give in, wave a white flag and let the water crush me. Nor should I wait breathlessly under the ice, squinting as if to look through a frosted pane of glass, uncertain if I’m even above or below. Rather, I believe my visions of water are windows into the nature of the human experience. Perhaps they’re snapshots of how I feel – how depression feels to me. My mind is an ocean, and at times, it’s oppressive. I sink within myself, finding it easier to let the water cradle me as I descend than to keep swimming. At other times, I find comfort in accepting the changing nature of my illness. Like a river flowing downhill, impermanence is unstoppable, and the emotions of being a human move inexorably back and forth. When we crest the top of a wave and begin to fall down the other side, we wait for the next one, just as we take each arriving day. And when you are drowning, reach up. A helping hand may be just about to break the surface.

To start at the beginning of my journey with IV Ketamine for treatment-resistant depression, check out Part 1

Sensory Ramblings About Building a Fire

One day it’s 70 degrees, and the next there’s freezing rain and heavy snow. February in Colorado is a strange creature. After a day of low light and cold fingers, I clomped down the stairs to the back door, Stella in tow. She stood on the stairs to the deck and watched me as I chose logs from the woodpile underneath her. That’s by far my least favorite part of building a fire; I always inspect each piece carefully for spiders before I put it in the crook of my elbow. It’s probably too cold for them to be at the top of the pile, but as seeing black widow spiders was not unheard of in the house where I grew up, it’s my preference to be a choosy wood-carrier.

Building a fire is a skill that I learned as a child. We heated our house with a wood stove, and my formative winters were spent helping my parents keep the fire burning and the cold at bay. Now, when the snow is falling and I have nowhere to be, my first inclination is to get a fire going and then park myself in front of it with a book and a blanket. On this day, I brought two armfuls of wood upstairs and then searched the recycling for some newspaper or junk mail to burn. Then I grabbed some matches and plopped down in front of the fireplace.

From an occupational standpoint, building a fire is a fairly complex task, and it offers a lot of sensory input. You have to be able to tell which logs are dry, which ones have dangerous spiders on them, and then carry them safely to the fireplace without tripping over the dog. I know what kinds of materials are good for getting the blaze going, and which kinds are good for maintaining it. Arranging all of those materials in a way that lets enough oxygen in is a skill that takes practice, and you need to be able to look at your materials and imagine the best arrangement. This is a praxis-heavy task. Fortunately for my coziness goals, I’ve had plenty of practice. Building a fire is also a task that requires a lot of sensory discrimination; you have to use your eyes and ears to determine when and where it’s safe to put your hands near the flames. Even lighting a match is tricky if you can’t tell how much pressure to use. I remember being horrified as a kid, watching my dad place new logs in the fireplace, convinced he would catch on fire as he stuck his hand over the flames. Now, I know that he simply had a good sense of the heat and sparks.

I love sitting in front of a fire in winter. It feels cozy and warm, and it gives me the sense that there’s nowhere else I need to be. There’s the sound, the flickering light, the heat, and all the other parts of being inside by the fire, like hot chocolate and pajamas. Sitting in front of a fire evokes a feeling of security in me, even if I’m already safely indoors. Many people believe that the discovery of fire and how to control it marked an acceleration in human evolution because it offered a new abundance of calories and nutrients from more easily digestible, cooked foods. It may also have served to bring communities together, strengthening bonds and changing the dynamics of an already social genus. Perhaps my brain recognizes this ancient connection and knows that family is nearby and predators will stay away. At the very least, there’s gentle crackling and a nice, orange glow that puts me at ease. Plus, my domesticated canine, who also evolved around fires, likes to rip up the paper and small kindling while I’m getting it started, and that’s always fun to watch. She’s such a good helper.

Stella fire

Anxiety and Doing New Things

In an attempt to fill my time with things that will keep me from slipping back into severe depression, I’ve started doing New Things. One is volunteering and the other is taking a neighbor/friend up on her offer to teach me how to ride horses.

I really want to quit and crawl back into my hermit cave. I am way outside of my comfort zone, which, for me, always leads to near-constant worrying and ruminating. I can’t help but laugh because when my new therapist asked if anxiety was also a problem for me in addition to depression, I said “hmm, no, not really.” She later disagreed, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that yes, yes it definitely is. Now that my depression is easing, I think that anxiety is coming to the surface. (Additionally, when I tell people about this anxiety realization, they look at me like “you…didn’t know that?” So, that’s cool. Everyone knows about this but me.)

When I’m really depressed, I’m so numb and slowed down that I don’t even worry about saying “yes” to new things; the answer is automatically “no”. But when the depression lifts, my natural tendency to overthink everything and fall face-first into crippling indecision has room to become obvious. Because I feel capable of doing more than I did while depressed, I feel like I should say “yes” to new opportunities, even if I’m on the fence.

Rather than deciding to just get out there and demolish the boundaries of my comfort zone, I get…stuck. Really stuck. I want to do new things in general, but when an opportunity comes along, my worry and fear keep me from making a confident decision. It’s tough for me to decipher whether I don’t want to do something because I’m feeling overwhelming New Thing-anxiety or because I won’t like it. And, since I know that this is a problem for me, if I think there’s a chance I might like it eventually, I tend to make myself push through and do it no matter what. Of course, I do that while also continuing to worry about whether or not that’s the right thing to do.

An additional layer of this terrible cake is that I do not like quitting, even if I really want to bail. And even if this hypothetical New Thing has very natural exits where I can decide it’s not for me and stop, it still feeeeels like quitting. This makes me even more indecisive because not only do I need to know if my anxiety is coming from a dislike of the Thing or not, but I also need to know if I can be committed to the entire Thing. No quitting. Approaching opportunities like this is not fun, and I do not recommend it. 0/10.

I imagine the goal is to take each new opportunity and be able to decide, quickly and simply, whether I want to do it or not. I just don’t know how to do that without taking all of the stuff above into account and getting hopelessly tangled up. I guess step one is to remind myself that I can say “no”, changing my mind is ok, and that in many cases, it’s not that big of a deal.

Much easier said than done.

 

The Sensory Meditation of Flow

When you’re reading a good book, playing a familiar song on your instrument, doing a word search or a jigsaw puzzle, or any number of absorbing activities, you might be experiencing flow.

A while back, my occupational therapist explained the concept like this:Flow

If the difficulty of whatever you’re doing is too high and you haven’t spent very long doing it (aka: have a low level of skill), you’re likely to be above the “flow” line and feeling stressed.

If the difficulty is low and you just started, you’re probably pretty close to flow from the start. The longer you do it, though, the more skilled you get and the more bored you become.

This is probably pretty intuitive to most people. To stay close to flow, you need to adjust the difficulty level to match your skill. Otherwise, you get either overwhelmed or bored. Everyone has unique sensory needs, so your nervous system might react differently to inputs that create a perfect state of flow for another person. For instance, my ability to follow a cardio dance video is atrocious, but someone with awesome praxis skills might think it’s exactly right for them.

Currently, my favorite leisure activity is embroidery.

embroidery-of-wooden-fence-and-red-poppies

I started out with those pre-packaged kits that have the image inked onto the fabric, like a paint-by-numbers but for stitches. That was great because I didn’t know what I was doing, but as I learned and got more comfortable with it, those kits became a little boring. Now, I make it up as I go, so it takes some focus and creativity but it’s also repetitive and relaxing.

If, like me, you have trouble with sensory discrimination and often don’t know what you’re feeling or what qualities of something you do or don’t like, finding an activity at the right difficulty to produce flow might be tricky. Trial and error is always a good way to approach this. Give the “trial” enough time that you’re able to decide whether you like it or not, and why. When you do find something that gets you to a state of flow, don’t forget to up the difficulty on occasion. The challenge is what makes it interesting!

Anonymity and Mental Health Stigma

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When I started this blog, it was deliberately anonymous in an effort to avoid any mental health stigma from reaching my real life. I didn’t have my name anywhere on it and I made a conscious effort not to mention anything about my life outside the sphere of mental health. I don’t think I even told my immediate family about it until a few months in.

I liked the freedom of writing anything I wanted without overthinking it. Those fears of what will people think? were almost nonexistent because nobody knew who I was. Over time, I began sharing it with people I knew. My immediate family and friends, then my extended family, my therapist, and others involved in my treatment.

I know that putting my name on my blog doesn’t change much for you, the reader. It does, however, signify a big change for me in the context of internalized mental health stigma. I’m finally coming to terms with my diagnoses and feeling more comfortable talking and writing about them as myself, with my real name attached.

Everyone has their own reasons for keeping their online presence anonymous. My reason was rooted in shame. I was afraid that if people knew I was writing about topics like depression, self-harm, and suicidality, they would never again see me for the things that make me, me. The reality is that people I know tend to notice the things that shine through the overarching topics. They comment on my love of writing and my sense of humor before they mention the content of my posts. And when they do broach the subject of my blog, they express their happiness that I’m still working towards stability. It helps, of course, that my family and the people surrounding me are very understanding. Not everyone has that, and I’m so thankful that I do.

Anyway, there you have it. My name is Genevieve (Gen), I’m 23 years old, and I live in Colorado. I got my bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, where I studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology as well as Evolutionary Anthropology. I work from home as an editor and freelance writer (not at all related to my degree, but whatever). On my blog, I write about my diagnoses of sensory processing disorder and major depressive disorder. I like reading, making art, and being in nature. This is starting to sound like a cross between a cover letter and a dating profile, so I’m going to wrap it up.

Lumpdates is still lumpdates, but I’m pretty dang proud of myself for standing up to mental health stigma by typing the nine letters of my name into my username settings.

Wishing you curly fries,

Genevieve

woman in orange jacket holding flowers in front of face

5 Tips for Therapy Clients Who Hate Talking About Themselves

If you ever feel like a deer in headlights when asked to talk about yourself, I empathize. Whether it’s one of those dreaded get-to-know-you icebreakers or your therapist asking you a question, having to talk about yourself is uncomfortable for many people. By now, I’ve been in mental health treatment for several years, and I have a few tips for therapy I’d like to offer.

When I first sought therapy for myself, I found it extremely difficult to engage with it fully. If you don’t like being the center of attention, beginning therapy can be overwhelming. After all, the entire point of it is to focus on you. Early on, talking about myself in therapy felt, at times, nearly unbearable. Too many questions too fast made me shut down, and too loose of a structure lead to lots of awkward silences, both of us waiting for the other to say something. Over time, however, I’ve gotten much better at it. Here are some of the ways I’ve found to help me feel more comfortable about talking about myself in therapy.

The Essentials

Any list of tips for therapy wouldn’t be complete without a soapbox moment about the therapeutic relationship. It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting therapy or you’ve been in it for a while; it’s vital that you like your therapist. The struggle of talking about yourself will be even worse if you don’t feel understood or accepted in therapy. In fact, research shows that therapy is much more effective when you and your therapist click. Don’t feel bad about shopping around or about switching therapists if it’s just not working out.

Secondly, remember that therapy sessions are for you. Push yourself out of your comfort zone, but go at your own pace. Therapy is your time to do with it what you will.

Communicate What You Want From Sessions

This is a tough one. There’s a lot that falls under this umbrella, but mostly what I mean by it is: tell your therapist if you would like to direct the topic of each session or be given more structure. Maybe it’s hard to talk about yourself because answering questions feels too probative, and you’d rather start off with a narrative. I prefer to have more structured questions because if I’m given free rein, I go blank and have absolutely nothing to say. Regardless of which end of the spectrum you’re on, your therapist is always there to help direct you and keep you on track.

Practice Saying How You Feel

I struggle hardcore with identifying how I feel. Maybe it’s sensory processing disorder, maybe it’s Maybelline. Sensory discrimination issues have extended into the emotional realm and mean that I often don’t know how I feel about something. If you have a hard time verbalizing how you feel, my advice is to practice. It sounds silly, but just as if you were a little kid, practice saying “I feel ____” and then fill in the blank with something more specific than “okay” or “fine”. Even on your own, check in with yourself; am I feeling excited? Lethargic? Irritated? It really does start to feel more natural over time.

Make the Space Comfortable

Of course, it’s not your office. You can’t go swapping out furniture and changing the overhead lights. But you can do some things to make the space more comfortable for you. A therapist I saw in college noticed that I have a very wide bubble of personal space and offered to move her chair a little further away from me. You can ask to close the blinds if it’s too bright for you, bring a small blanket to help you feel cozy, and be sure to wear comfortable clothing.

Stay (Mildly) Busy

Something that I learned in occupational therapy but haven’t put into practice (maybe I should!) is that talking about difficult things is often easier when your hands are busy. Bring a coloring book, a fidget toy, or a craft- if you’re a knitter, crocheter, or have some other portable project. Of course, this is one of my tips for therapy clients that is only good advice as long as your therapist doesn’t need you to be completely present during your work together. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

For us reticent folks, therapy can be scary even just to think about. But, like so many things in life, working on what’s difficult often leads to the best outcomes. With time and practice, talking about yourself in therapy gets easier, especially if you find what will support you and then advocate for yourself.

yearly calendar on table with cup of coffee and dish of paper clips

December Resolutions

The yearly frustration that most of us can likely relate to is that our New Year’s resolutions only last a few weeks, or at best, a few months, and yet we continue to make them. It’s relatable because change is hard, and the excitement of turning over a new leaf soon gives way to the stresses of normal life and the reality of breaking old habits. But there’s something so attractive about starting fresh; new calendar, new me.

Clearly, I like the idea of making a deliberate change on a specific date. Something about marking your resolution with an external, cyclical change makes it feel more decisive. Unfortunately, I am so put off by the pressure of an entire year ahead of my resolutions that I simply don’t make any. I’ve made New Year’s resolutions in the past but petered out before they really formed habits. Then, the internal shame of having failed a New Year’s resolution discourages me from trying again mid-year. Because really, why can’t I just resolve to change whenever I want? Because human brains like to impose order on things like arbitrary laps around the sun.

Instead of griping about the pitfalls of New Year’s resolutions and why I can never seem to make it work for me, I’m going to try something different.

~*~*~*~December Resolutions~*~*~*~

This sounds incredibly silly and I think that it’s a little bit sad that it’s come to this, but I think I need to trick myself into meeting my goals. Instead of making a list of resolutions and waiting until the new year to begin, I’m going to have a trial month for my new habits. December will be my 31-day behavior test, and if I hate the goals/habits I come up with, no big deal. I won’t feel bad about quitting because it’s only my December resolutions, not the monumentally more important New Year’s resolutions.

(Yeah. It’s exactly the same thing, but shhh, don’t tell my brain.)

Bonus, if I do like my resolutions and am happy to keep going with them, I won’t have to face the overwhelm of a brand new year stretching ahead of me. I’ll already have a whole month under my belt.

I really think this is going to work for me, at least better than the usual resolution schedule does. Here’s my list of December resolutions, but remember, it’s low-stress, low-commitment, so these can change without me feeling like a failure. At least, that’s the theory.

  1. ACTUALLY start volunteering. Somewhere. Anywhere. Don’t just think about it.
  2. Keep running regularly (yay, I’ve already started!) See if I can reach a comfortable 5 miles by January. I’m more than halfway there, so this seems very doable.
  3. Reestablish a skincare routine, aka get my psoriasis under👏 control👏.
  4. Welcome the hostile Duolingo owl back into my life and start re-learning German.

These seem reasonable to accomplish within a month. The one that I’m definitely most apprehensive about is volunteering. At this point, I’ve thought about it for so long and looked at opportunities in such detail that I really have to just go and do it, and try not to worry about all of the unknowns (thanks, SPD).

Ok, internet, hold me accountable.

nighttime time lapse of mountain road curving and car lights driving around pine tree

Sensory Processing Disorder and Driving

Ah, driving. The ultimate achievement of teenage freedom (in the US, at least). For anyone learning to drive, teenage or adult, the convenience and independence of a license is powerful motivation. I’ve been driving for years, now, but it wasn’t an easy process to get my license. At the time, I wasn’t as cognizant of my symptoms, but looking back, I can see why I struggled so much with having Sensory Processing Disorder and driving.

Proprioception in Cars

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) makes it hard for me to interpret sensory stimuli, including proprioceptive information. Proprioception is the sense that tells you where your body is located in space. I struggle with motion sickness on buses, boats, even escalators, because the movement doesn’t match my brain’s sense of where my body should be. Initially, this made driving a car incredibly stressful; relative to your body, the car is not moving, but relative to the ground, it’s moving a LOT. Coordinating the movements of driving with the interpretation of how the car responds took a while to become natural. Once it did, though, it made my motion sickness in cars much better, as long as I’m the one driving.

Peripersonal Space

When you’re driving a car, your “body” sense expands to include the dimensions of the vehicle. This is called “peripersonal space”- the sense that expands and contracts to include the objects in our immediate surroundings. In The Body Has a Mind of its Own, authors Sandra and Matthew Blakesley explain,

“When you drive a car, your peripersonal space expands to include it, from fender to fender, from fender to door, and from tire to roof. As you enter a parking garage with a low ceiling, you can “feel” the nearness of your car’s roof to the height barrier as if it were your own scalp. This is why you instinctively duck when you pass under the barrier.”

Learning how to manage Sensory Processing Disorder and driving took me a while, in part because it was a challenge for me to get a sense of the dimensions of a car. Now that my brain has established it as effectively a part of my body, driving is much simpler. However, there are additional layers of difficulty that, no matter how much I learn, might always be challenging.

car side mirror with city and other cars in reflection
Photo by Onaivi Dania on Unsplash

Visual Challenges

The visual tasks involved in driving can quickly become overwhelming. Monitoring the movement of cars around you, watching for signals, brake lights, and obstacles in the road is already a lot to handle. Add to that the stress of driving in an unfamiliar area and attempting to read street signs and highway exit signs while managing the rest of your visual tasks, and you have a veritable mountain of sensory stimuli to deal with.

Driving with Dyspraxia

I think that the processing power I dedicate to handling visual stimuli while driving leaves little for planning complex movements, known as praxis. I have symptoms of dyspraxia, meaning I have trouble following sequences of actions and, even more so, planning the steps involved in getting from A to B by myself. If I can prepare ahead of time, I’m fine, but I really struggle to make decisions in the moment because I feel like I can’t process all of the information fast enough to take the right action.

Driving with dyspraxia makes me an anxious planner. If I’m going somewhere new, I study Google Maps obsessively, considering the factors I do or don’t like in each route. Is there a highway involved? Can I take a route with fewer lanes? If I miss a turn, how easy would it be to fix? How early should I leave to account for any mistakes? As I’ve become more comfortable with the other aspects of driving- the sensitivity of the pedals and the steering wheel, the dimensions of the car, predicting what other drivers are going to do- I can dedicate more mental energy to handling praxis. I still plan my routes in new places, but I’m more confident in my ability to get back on track if I get lost.

Sensory Processing Disorder and Driving Takes Practice, Practice, Practice

If you’re struggling with Sensory Processing Disorder and driving, an occupational therapist can help you identify your particular difficulties and come up with ways to make them easier. Whether you work with an occupational therapist or not, the best way to get comfortable with driving is to practice. When you’re overstimulated in the car, the last thing you feel like doing is getting back in the driver’s seat, I know. Trust me, I rolled my eyes so hard at everyone who told me that practicing would make it feel more natural; I felt like I just wasn’t made for driving and no amount of practice would change that. I admit- I was wrong. Practice does help, and I find that now that I’m adept at each aspect of driving and can better regulate my nervous system, my sensitivities probably make me a more mindful, safer driver than I would be otherwise.