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.

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.

scrabble tiles reading Mental Health with sprig of greenery on side

What’s in a Diagnosis? MDD and SPD

This post first appeared on Mental Health @Home in Ashleyleia’s Emerging Blogger series.

Many thanks to Ashley for hosting me!


Diagnoses are a contentious topic. Logistically, they’re important for clinicians and insurance companies who need proof of your conditions. But for the individual, they come with pros and cons. I carry the well-known diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder and the less well-known diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder. The effects of the diagnoses themselves feel very different to me, and I’ve spent some time reflecting on why.

Well-Known vs Little-Known

A diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder made me feel much less alone in my suffering. Depression is astoundingly common and increasingly talked about. Stigma remains, to be sure, but awareness surrounding depression is thankfully improving. I can be pretty sure that when I tell someone that I have depression, they’ll know what I’m talking about. The same cannot be said for Sensory Processing Disorder.

Insecurity in a Diagnosis

Having a diagnosis of MDD, maybe more than making me feel less alone, makes me feel understood. Simply saying the word “depression” makes most people, I think, picture the same constellation of symptoms: low mood, lethargy, loss of interest, etc.. This is not to say that I haven’t encountered stigma or innocent ignorance- I have. But when I tell someone that I have depression and they tell me that their brother or friend or significant other has depression, too, it connects us for a moment, and I know that on some level, they know what I’m going through.

This is not generally the case for my diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder, at least in my own lived experience. A person with SPD has difficulty processing the information that comes in through their senses, including the usual five (touch, sight, sound, smell, taste) as well as the less well-known senses of proprioception (where your body is in space) and interoception (internal body sensations like hunger). SPD can make you over-sensitive or under-sensitive to these stimuli. I’m over-sensitive to most, just plain bad at proprioception, and relatively unaffected when it comes to taste. Sensory Processing Disorder is overwhelmingly common among people who have Autism Spectrum Disorder, but you don’t have to have ASD to have SPD. They are separate disorders that have a TON of overlap. Despite the growing body of literature from occupational therapists, scientists, and doctors, SPD is not included in the DSM V.  It is, however, its own diagnosis in the ICD 10. This discrepancy is what throws me off. I know that SPD is real. And yet, when I try to explain to someone what it is and how it affects me, I flounder. It’s challenging to describe how I’m affected by a diagnosis that not everyone agrees upon. It leaves me feeling vaguely defensive, or like I’m grasping at straws to explain my symptoms. In this sense, the label of SPD does not make me feel secure in my experience of the disorder.

Feeling Alone with SPD

While it is incredibly validating and relieving to have an explanation for symptoms that aren’t frequently talked about, the very fact that it’s not often discussed makes for an isolating diagnosis. I feel much more uncomfortable when I have to explain SPD than I do while explaining MDD. Once you grow up and leave behind the allowances of childhood, you’re expected to conform to a lot of social and institutional rules. I think this is why kids who have SPD grow up to be adults who hide their symptoms with willpower. They put themselves into situations that cause them distress because it seems like they “should” be able to. The problem here is not that you might push yourself to do uncomfortable things – that’s how we grow. The problem is that people with SPD often hide their discomfort and end up feeling alone and wrong for feeling how they do. It also leads to overstimulation and meltdowns, chronic anxiety, and exhaustion. Ultimately, I am so glad that I know about my SPD, not just because it explains all those sensory symptoms that make me think “why can’t I be like other people?”, but because it offers me room to advocate for others who feel alone in this diagnosis, too.

How a Diagnosis Can Hurt

For me, whether the diagnosis is well-known or not, simply having a name for what I’m going through is incredibly helpful, and I believe outweighs the downsides of having a label. That said, there are some potential dangers of diagnoses.

Mental Health and Identity

I’ve heard lots of discourse about the risk that you might allow diagnoses to seep into your identity until there’s no room for anything else. I enjoy writing about mental health, and at the moment, a lot of my focus is placed on managing my depression. Our experiences shape us, so it’s natural that I find parts of my identity rooted in depression and Sensory Processing Disorder, but I know that I am a whole person without them.

Is a Diagnosis Confining?

The risk that I don’t hear much about when discussing diagnoses is the ease with which a label can trap you in a definition. It’s subtle sometimes, but having a diagnosis of depression can make you perceive even mundane things as attributable to your disorder. For instance, I recently read a book for the first time in a long time, a hobby I abandoned when depression settled in again. The book was humorous, but I didn’t laugh out loud or even pause to appreciate the jokes. At first, I thought it must be because I’m still depressed. I didn’t even consider the possibility that maybe the book just wasn’t that funny. Feeling confined within my diagnosis, the sub-par experience of reading that book became a product of my depression.

A new diagnosis can, understandably, push you to look for information online. Reading case studies and statistics, while informative, might be discouraging. I think it’s very easy to slip into a set of criteria and forecasted outcomes because a diagnosis feels official. It’s easy to forget that a diagnosis is an explanation of symptoms, not a set of imposed rules. Not only is this likely to feel suffocating- like a diagnosis of depression means that any end to an episode will inevitably be followed by another episode (something I struggle with all the time)- but it makes any attempt to counteract it feel futile. I constantly need to remind myself that a diagnosis does not confiscate my agency over my life.

There is Always a Choice

Even within a diagnosis with symptoms outside of your control, there is always a choice. You can always take action, be it reaching out for help or making the choice to take your medications. I take solace in the fact that I’m not alone in my diagnoses, even if it sometimes feels that I am. At the same time, I work to recognize that I am an individual with my own course through life and my own opportunities to fight.

photo of desert ground with interlocking cracks and dry plants

I’m a (Self)-Control Freak

I’ve trained myself to be restrained whenever possible. I hold myself back when I don’t like something, and even my enthusiasm is tempered. People find me hard to read, and I don’t open up immediately, a little later, or even a bit after that. It takes a while.

Some of this is surely a product of my Sensory Processing Disorder. The world is abrasive to my nervous system; it’s loud, fast, bright, and unpredictable. So, to avoid standing out, I bury my reactions. I’ve developed excellent self-control. Of course, this has repercussions for me when I go home in a haze and need to do a lot of nothing for a while. Hiding how I feel about outside stimuli often protects me from two of the things I dislike the most: interrupting people and being the center of attention. Sometimes, enduring the feeling of people crowding around me is more bearable than attracting attention by elbowing my way to the door on legs that don’t feel like mine.

I have a fear of not being in control of myself. I find nearly every environment to be full of stimuli that are “too much” for me. Even my internal body sensations are problematic. My brain doesn’t always know exactly where in space my body is located or how things are moving around me. All of this feels very much out of my control, so I cling to my self-control for safety. However, I think my self-control has expanded past its allotted jurisdiction, and it’s time to address it.

My need to be in control of my reactions has seeped into my sense of what is my responsibility and what is not. It’s easy for us to think we’re responsible for others; we come to think that their feelings, their setbacks, and their decisions are on our shoulders. What any good friend would tell is you that you aren’t. You’re not responsible for how other people move through the world. We make our own choices, manage our own feelings, and deal with change on our own terms.

small black sign with white letters reading make today tolerable with succulent in wooden container next to sign

My particular misplaced sense of responsibility lies in how I think about my depression. I have always had a nagging (or roaring) sense that my depression is my fault. If I could just do more, or try harder, maybe I could fix myself. I’ve recently been faced with a treatment option that forces me to confront the fact that I have treatment-resistant depression, and that it’s not my fault. Seeing my severe depression as an illness that is out of my direct control is terrifying. It’s simply more comfortable for me to think that I’m just not doing a very good job at solving a problem that can be solved with enough effort.

And that’s how I realized that I’m a (self)-control freak.

actually would rather believe that I’m a failure than that I drew the short mental health straw. At the same time, it’s freeing to view my depression as something that has happened to me rather than something I caused. It takes some of the burden off of me, but it also takes some of the control away from me. Brains are weird, and sometimes they have a mind (har har) of their own. Sudden relapses, triggers, and even seemingly spontaneous ends to episodes are not entirely understood. It’s scary to think that after all of this- the numerous medications, the hospitalization, the group therapy, the individual therapy, the occupational therapy– my brain has stubbornly remained depressed.

If I’m going to get better, I need to stop blaming myself. I need to accept that some things are out of my control and that I don’t need to hold myself entirely accountable for my symptoms. I’ve learned a lot about healthy coping mechanisms in my years of therapy, and although right now I feel too debilitated to put them into useful practice, I hope that a new approach might relieve my symptoms enough to let me begin to heal on my own, the way I like to do it: with hard work.


The term “control freak” has plenty of negative connotations, and it can be hurtful to people who struggle to trust others or to let go of perceptions about the “right” way to do something. This post is in no way a jab at others, only at myself. The title is meant to be humorous, to poke fun at a coping mechanism that holds me back. I’m a self-described self-control freak, and as the term does not bother me, I hope that it doesn’t come across as insensitive.

black-and-white-photo-of-people-sitting-and-standing-at-airport-gate-B30

Traveling with Sensory Processing Disorder

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and I’m worn out. While waiting to board my latest flight home, I pretty much sat at the gate in a sensory stupor while the gate agents droned on the speaker about checking your carry-on bag. Because I have Sensory Processing Disorder, I needed an afternoon (or more) to reset my nervous system and return to the real world as a functioning human being. Unfortunately, airports have very few places in which to hide from the noise, movement, and general chaos of airport activity. (But for help finding those rare spots, check out sleepinginairports.net)

And, it’s not just the crowds of people that are overwhelming- it’s also the tasks you have to do in order to get onto your flight. Standing in lines is okay for me; it’s ordered, it’s neat, and the most difficult part for me is identifying which kiosk just opened up (might take me a little longer, but I’ll get it eventually). Security is a mess. People crossing from the main line to a security line across the room, the choices involved in preparing your things to go through the imaging machine (should I take off my shoes first? What about my belt?), and then all of a sudden the line has moved ahead and I’m the dam holding back a flood of grumpy people trying to catch their flights. At least, that’s what I always worry will happen. In reality, it usually goes more smoothly than I expect, and I imagine we look more like ants, focused on our own tasks with occasional hiccups but somehow hurrying around one another to reach our destinations without incident.

Airports are visually busy, and with loudspeaker announcements, children crying, businessmen talking shop on their cell phones; it’s a barrage of auditory assaults for people with sensitive nervous systems. Not to mention the vestibular hurdles- the moving walkways clogged with people, the escalator that somehow jostles you up and down while also transporting you diagonally to the next floor. Too much of this, and I begin to get vertigo, letting me know that I’m nearing my limit.

My Tips for Traveling with Sensory Processing Disorder

Airports are challenging places to navigate for people with Sensory Processing Disorder. Luckily, there are strategies you can use to make your airport experience less stressful.

  • Get organized the night before to set yourself up for success
  • Bring things that ground you- mints, strong smells, weighted lap pad
  • Give yourself time to recover after your flight
  • Be patient with yourself and others. There are a lot of moving parts in air travel, and getting frustrated often doesn’t accomplish anything
  • Take care of the needs you can control- food, water, wear layers, bring headphones
time lapse photo of blue and red lights moving erratically

Science Saturday: Sensory Processing Disorder

Today’s topic is Sensory Processing Disorder. I didn’t have a specific question to answer, so I decided to make this post an overview of our current understanding of SPD. As with all of these posts (so far), it’s important to know that I’m affected by the topic at hand. I’ll do my best to remain objective, but I do have some biases when it comes to SPD.

Sensory Processing Disorder as a Diagnosis

SPD was first described as a construct by Ayres in 1964. At that time, it was known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction. Now, SPD has several subtypes, including Sensory Modulation Disorder.

Sensory Modulation Disorder

Three main categories compose SMD: sensory overresponsivity, underresponsivity, and sensory seeking. Sensory Over-Responsivity (SOR)  can be defined as:

…exaggerated responses to one or more types of sensory stimuli not perceived as threatening, harmful, or noxious by children and adults who are typically developing.

Analysis by different authors of data from a 2004 study that investigated the prevalence of SPD among kindergarten children in a Colorado school district found the prevalence of sensory over-responsivity to be between 2.8 and 6.4%.

Experiencing Sensory Under-Responsivity (SUR) might look like:

…quiet and passive, appearing to disregard stimulation by not responding…[they may have] inadequate body awareness, poor endurance, and movements that are not appropriately graded.

And lastly, sensory seeking, or Sensory Craving (SC), is “…craving sensory stimulation and appearing to be obsessed with obtaining additional sensory input.”

SBMD and SDD

The other two subtypes of SPD are Sensory-Based Motor Disorder, which includes dyspraxia and postural disorder, and Sensory Discrimination Disorder, which can affect one or more sensory systems. A diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder can include symptoms in each of the subtypes; in fact, it’s often a mishmash of seemingly contradictory symptoms that fit into different types.

SPD and its subtypes are included in the 2005 version of the Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood (DC:0-3R). However, it’s not included as its own disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which only perpetuates the idea that SPD symptoms are just behavioral and temperamental issues, rather than a real, neurological diagnosis.

Neurological and Physiological Research

Fortunately, there is evidence supporting SPD as a valid diagnosis. A 2013 study compared the brains of boys with and without SPD (sample size of 40) using diffusion tensor imaging. Significant differences in white matter microstructure were found in the posterior corpus callosum, corona radiata, and thalamic regions. This study used the cardiac vagal tone index to measure the physiologic reactivity of 15 children. The results were significant and showed that the kids with SPD had less effective vagal tone than kids without SPD. This indicates that people with Sensory Processing Disorder may have impaired parasympathetic functioning. I have no reason to doubt this result, I just wish the sample size were larger.

Not Significant?

I wanted to include this study, and as I read through it, I reached the part where they break it to you that the results were not statistically significant. Darn! (Remember when I said I was biased?) In any case, it’s still interesting, and this is part of what science is about; you can still learn something from insignificant results.

An EEG study with a sample size of 53 tested kids’ brain waves by introducing a “conditioning” stimulus followed by a “test” stimulus. The idea is that your brain becomes accustomed to stimuli that it deems safe, so the test stimulus elicits a smaller reaction than the conditioning stimulus. This is called sensory gating. As a group, the kids with sensory processing disorder showed less sensory gating than the comparison group (p= 0.04), but it wasn’t statistically significant when an adjusted alpha level was used. If the results are robust enough, it indicates that people with SPD don’t get conditioned by stimuli like people without SPD. Every instance of a startling stimulus produces the same reaction as the first one did.

Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism

The vast majority of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) also have sensory challenges. Yet, not everyone with SPD also has ASD. Research is beginning to tease apart where the overlaps lie. Using the same imaging technique as in the study above, researchers found differences between the white matter in boys with autism and the white matter in boys with SPD alone. Compared to a control, both groups’ white matter differences overlapped in tracts thought to contribute to sensory processing. However, the boys with ASD had additional white matter differences in tracts linked to social processing. Other research suggests that assessing cognitive styles may be a good way to differentiate between Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Sensory Processing Disorder and Mental Health

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog (if not, welcome), you know that I have sensory processing disorder and depression. I stumbled upon a couple of studies that show correlations between sensory dysfunction and mental disorders. This one, for example, shows that both under-responsiveness and over-responsiveness correlate with depression and impulsivity. Another one suggests that under and over-responsiveness may be “trait” markers for people with major affective disorders. That last one seems like a stretch to me, but my own perception of those studies is that a.) perhaps there’s some neurological connection between the white matter changes of SPD and mental illnesses, and/or b.) it’s tough to live with SPD, leading many with the disorder to develop secondary disorders.

This is a complex topic, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let me know what you think in the comments.

prickly-pears-in-rocky-mountains

Why I Love Hiking: a Sensory Photo Narrative

Mud squelches underneath my boots, and I reach out with my fingers to balance myself against a tree. I can feel the pack on my shoulders, hear birds chirping, and smell the sharp scent of pine needles.

I love hiking both because I love nature and because it fulfills nearly all of my sensory requirements. I can go at my own pace and under the power of my own body; only the weather and the wildlife are out of my control. When the world around you is overwhelming and hard to understand, it’s nice to put on a backpack with everything you’ll need for the day and let your legs carry you just as far as you want to go. Along the way, every element of a hike serves as a sensory “snack”. The vestibular input of balancing on rocks as I cross a stream. The feeling of my arms swinging at my sides as I get into a rhythm. The soft, spongy moss that I pause to touch with my fingertips.

close-up-of-green-moss-on-multi-colored-rock

piece-of-quartz-on-rock-with-dried-moss

 

 

I don’t like the dried moss surrounding it, but I notice a smooth piece of quartz that draws my eye.

 

muddy-hiking-boots-on-feet-of-hiker-sitting-on-large-rock

 

 

Later, we stop for lunch and I study the rust-colored mud on my boots.

 

 

 

two-hiking-backpacks-on-a-rock-in-the-rocky-mountains-on-a-sunny-day

 

 

My pack feels secure; it’s a comforting weight. We get up to investigate the surrounding plants, and I look back at our lunch spot. It’s breathtaking in the sunlight.

 

 

 

 

black-dog-in-profile-sitting-with-hiking-day-dog-pack-on-back

 

I hear my dog lapping up some water from her bowl, and I take a moment to appreciate her presence.

 

 

 

 

 

We find some prickly pears and admire their toughness. Centers chewed through, their spiny armor breached, they continue to survive. We don’t touch them; we just look at the color and shape of them.

prickly-pears-in-rocky-mountains

Across the path, a Ponderosa pine stands tall and broad. This one isn’t in the sun, but I gently scratch the bark and lean in to smell it. Warm Ponderosa pine bark smells like vanilla, and it’s one of my favorite parts of hiking. This one offers a very faint fragrance. It smells like vanilla and fresh cookies and hiking and happiness.

ponderosa-pine-bark

After lunch, we decide that it’s time to head back. Back through the forest, back through the mud, back through the tall grass at the base of the mountain. When we get home, I settle on the lawn with my dog, our muscles tired but happy, and our senses satisfied. Time for a well-deserved nap.

black-dog-sleeping-on-side-in-grassy-lawn

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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Explaining SPD to Health Professionals

It’s become clear that I have a hard time explaining how Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) affects me, particularly when I’m speaking to health professionals.

When I was recently hospitalized, I spoke to a ton of mental health professionals, all of whom asked me about my diagnoses. I had no trouble letting them know about my diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder, nor did I struggle to tell them about my childhood history of OCD. Disclosing that I have Sensory Processing Disorder was something that I was oddly unprepared for. I either would minimize it by mentioning it as an afterthought, neglect to mention it at all, or not do an adequate job of explaining it if I was asked follow-up questions.

Sensory Processing Disorder is not in the DSM, and I’m never sure whether the person I’m speaking to believes in its validity. I’ve never run into anyone who gives me reason to believe they don’t, but the disorder’s lack of diagnostic acceptance puts me on edge. SPD is a neurological condition that results in differences in how the brain processes information. Does this make it a physical health condition or a mental health condition? SPD has multiple sub-disorders; is it enough to simply say “I have SPD”? How should I go about explaining my disorder without minimizing it or coming across as defensive?

Usually, when someone asks me how SPD affects me, I end up saying something like “I’m over-responsive to a lot of stimuli, so things like loud noises, bright lights, and certain textures really bother me.” While accurate, this doesn’t capture the extent to which SPD affects me. Saying loud noises bother me doesn’t illustrate that I have to spend 2-3 full minutes psyching myself up with my finger on the button before I turn on the blender. When I say that changes to my routine drain me, what I really mean is that I once had a full-blown panic attack while driving on the highway because I had to leave earlier than usual and it was drizzling.

Sensory Processing Disorder is real. It’s also hard to explain. I’ve started using a mixture of SPD terminology and real-life examples to illustrate my symptoms, and while it’s difficult, I combat my tendency to understate everything by tossing in some descriptive adjectives like “overwhelming,” “draining,” and “dysregulated”. The vast majority of health professionals just want to help, so describing your challenges as accurately as possible is really the best approach. Plus, advocating for yourself is important, something that I recently learned firsthand. But, that’s a story for another time.

How do you explain SPD to health professionals? Share your tips in the comments!

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The Weekly Plan: Structure and Expectations

I recently wrote a post about SPD and dyspraxia, in which I mentioned using a weekly plan to help me deal with uncertainty and change. In all honesty, I haven’t used my weekly plan in a while, so I’m hoping that reflecting on what worked for me and what didn’t might encourage me to get back into it.

How to Make a Weekly Plan

There really isn’t one right way to make a weekly plan. I like to create mine with an hourly-organized template so that I can schedule each part of my day. It helps me stay on track and prevent procrastination. Sometimes I take more of a loose, overarching goal approach where I identify a couple of tasks per day or week that I want to accomplish, and then fit those in around my normal routine.

I’ve tried a paper planner and a digital notes app, and I’d say I prefer the digital method; I can refer to it anytime because, like a typical millennial, I’m never far from my phone. It’s also easy to alter by replacing items or copy and pasting them to another day/list. The digital method also appeals to me because replacing tasks leaves no evidence of the previous one, as with paper and pen, which brings me to another point:

Pitfalls

I had to dedicate several weeks to trial and error when starting my weekly plans as part of my occupational therapy. I tend to avoid making choices as much as is humanly possible (thanks, sensory discrimination challenges), so when I’m faced with a decision like “digital or paper?” I won’t know which one I prefer until I try both and compare them.

Rigidity

Here, we come back to the “digital changes leave no trace”. This is a relic of my own high expectations for myself and my reluctance to change plans. I found that erasing (or worse- crossing out) tasks in my weekly plan when I couldn’t complete them brought on a sense of guilt and failure. Nevermind that imposed the plan in the first place and may have bitten off more than I could chew. Once it’s in the plan, I have to do it, right? Nope- moving things around and postponing some tasks is often necessary. Something takes longer than you anticipated, an unexpected problem arises, or you’re really just not up for tackling a particular task that day. I think eventually, I’ll get better at finding the balance of flexibility and rigidity, but until then, a digital format works best for me. That way, I don’t have to see the faint outlines of my overly ambitious, past plans.

Too Much Detail

Honestly, this is still something I struggle with. It’s tricky to know how much is reasonable to plan into one day, especially because, as with the previous section, sometimes things come up and you’ve got to shift gears. When I started figuring out my weekly plans, I started seeing improvements in my productivity, and consequently, my mood. Riding the wave of that success, I was perhaps a bit overzealous in my weekly planning and crammed as much detail as possible into each day. Every hour was occupied by some task, either work-related or relaxation-related. (You can imagine that that approach wasn’t very conducive to relaxation.) Ultimately, too much detail would lead me to fall “behind” on my plan, start to feel discouraged, and sometimes just give up on the day altogether. Now, I like to leave a buffer zone around work tasks and intentionally leave at least a couple of hours empty to take care of little chores or just sit around and do nothing.

My Ideal Plan with Sensory Processing Disorder

I think that anyone can benefit from a weekly plan; even if you try it and decide it’s not for you, you’ll likely learn something about yourself in the process.

I’m over-responsive to a lot of stimuli, and I have some issues with discriminating sensory information, so I do best with predictability. Routine is how I function best, and spur-of-the-moment action makes me anxious. For me, my ideal weekly plan is one that looks pretty similar to the previous week’s. Whether I write it out or keep it in my head, my day-to-day routine is remarkably consistent; and that’s how I like it. For someone who seeks more stimulation, this might be incredibly dull, so it’s certainly not for everyone. I keep most of what I do every day the same, and then sprinkle in equal amounts of fun and dreaded tasks. Going to the dentist on Tuesday? Make Wednesday a library day. Need to go grocery shopping? Pick up a treat as a reward. When things start to get a little too consistent, I go back to the drawing board and make an effort to incorporate new activities.

Extra Tips

  1. Keep a running to-do list for when you’re at a loss for what to do.
  2. Pick a day of the week to sit down and plan the next one.
  3. Break large tasks down into smaller chunks to be accomplished over time.
  4. Don’t take it too seriously- it’s a tool, not a rule.