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.

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.


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!


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:


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.


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.

College and SPD: 3 Things I Wish I Knew

I’ve known that I’m sensitive my entire life. I don’t like crowds, loud noises, getting splashed in the pool, or rollercoasters, and although I technically knew that I had Sensory Processing Disorder, that fact clung to the periphery of my awareness until I was nearing my college graduation. For the majority of my time at university, I questioned my worth, my intelligence, and my capabilities. Had I gone into college prepared with knowledge about my disorder and the intention to remember my sensory differences, I think my experience would have been much more positive.

But, here we are, and shoulda, coulda, wouldas won’t change the past. But they might change your future, so I thought I’d expand upon what I wish I knew about college and SPD.

1. I Got In For a Reason

I can’t tell you how much time I wasted worrying about my perceived inadequacy and comparing myself to my peers. So. Much. Time. And where did it get me? Countless sleepless nights and a heck of a lot of cortisol. When the other freshmen complained about the workload and said that they “breezed through high school”, what I thought was geez, I had to work really hard in high school. That must mean I’m not smart enough to be here. What I should have thought was: I worked really hard in high school and developed valuable time-management skills and study techniques. 

In hindsight, I probably felt I needed to put a lot of effort into my high school classes because planning and abstract thought are not my strong suits (read: math is hard for me). I often felt behind my peers because I learn best when I have quiet time to digest new information on my own; doing homework was usually when concepts started to make sense, but I was often utterly lost in class.

So, the bottom line is: I wish I knew that my learning style has more to do with sensory processing and less to do with my intelligence.

2. Everyone’s College Experience is Different

I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type. This doesn’t tend to mesh well with the party lifestyle many people associate with college. I also really like oatmeal raisin cookies and think they’re vastly underappreciated. (Read: I’m actually an old person in a young person’s body.) My point is, I spent a lot of time feeling like I was missing out on all the things I knew I wouldn’t like, just because it seemed like I should.

A sub-category of this section is that finding a space that fits your needs in terms of community, interests, and activities is definitely possible and makes a huge difference in creating a sense of belonging. I went to an enormous university, and I was worried that it would be hard to make friends. So, I lived in a small, all-female dorm for three of my four years there. That turned out to be the best part of my college experience. I made life-long friendships and I immediately felt welcomed and accepted.

3. Focus on Yourself

In some ways, I did do this; I went to office hours, I prioritized classwork, I took the maximum number of credits a few times in order to fit in two majors. In other words, I focused on my academic goals, pretty much to the exclusion of all else. I didn’t start seeing a therapist until my senior year, and I failed to advocate for myself when it came to things like roommate disagreements and class accommodations.

When you’re in college, it’s important to remember that it’s your education. It’s a privilege many people don’t have, so get the most out of it while you can. That being said, your education won’t be much good to you or anyone else if you’re unable to use it after graduating. Taking care of yourself should be your first priority.

Gotta love Nichol’s Arboretum and its weirdly habituated deer.

There are some aspects of college life that are unavoidable. For example- I don’t like crowds, and going to a big school meant that I was bound to encounter crowded walkways several times a day. When I had roommates, I realized that there weren’t many places on campus where I could be truly alone. Being surrounded by people at all times was exhausting, so I went on long walks to the arboretum near campus. I even started timing it so that I wouldn’t be leaving or returning when classes let out and the sidewalks were jammed with students.


There are a ton of other things related to Sensory Processing Disorder that I wish I knew or that I discovered a little late in my college career. Before I’m out of college for too long and forget them, I figured I’d share a few of them here. If coursework and time management, navigating campus, creating your ideal dorm room, or anything else SPD and college life-related is something you’d like to read more about, let me know.


Dyspraxia, SPD, and Change

If you’ve ever spent time around small children, you might be familiar with the sneaky tactic that is framing decisions with acceptable options. Asking a toddler if they want three pieces of broccoli or four somehow bypasses the part where they say they want cake, instead. For as long as I can remember, my mother has given me options from which to choose, but not because she was trying to shepherd me towards a healthy decision. It’s more because if she didn’t do that, we’d likely still be waiting for me to decide what to eat on my fifth birthday. I’m twenty-two. Dyspraxia as a symptom of SPD is and has been a roadblock for me for a long time.

What is Dyspraxia?

Dyspraxia falls under the Sensory-Based Motor Disorder subtype of Sensory Processing Disorder. People with SPD often have a combination of affected sensory systems that lead to symptoms in one or more SPD subtypes. The STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder sums it up this way:

“Individuals with Dyspraxia have trouble processing sensory information properly, resulting in problems planning and carrying out new motor actions. They may have difficulty in forming a goal or idea, planning a sequence of actions or performing new motor tasks.”

A Few Tips for Dealing with Dyspraxia

As an adult with symptoms of dyspraxia, I notice that decision-making, in particular, is often difficult. Even small decisions, like which brand of cornbread mix to buy can leave me scratching my head in the baking aisle for way too long. Bigger decisions, like where to go to college resulted in a stressful, last-minute choice after months of deliberation. Here are a few of the ways I tackle everyday and not-so-everyday decisions.

  1. Make a list of the options: (my OT calls this a “menu”)
  2. Decide what you can handle at that moment: (Am I only considering something because other people expect me to?)
  3. Ask for support
  4. Take a break and come back to it
  5. Put it in perspective: (Is it crucial that I make the “right” choice? E.g. the cornbread dilemma)
  6. Plan ahead!

When I started occupational therapy, one of the things we worked on was creating a weekly plan. Since spontaneity is not my strong suit, planning in activities ahead of time makes it more likely that I’ll follow through. Now that I have an established routine, I don’t make a plan every week, but it’s a good fall-back option for when I’m in a rut. It’s also great for when big changes are happening; a new job, moving, even the holidays are well-known for disrupting routines and causing stress. With symptoms of dyspraxia, life changes can be completely overwhelming, so tackling decisions ahead of time can make coping so much easier.

Last, But Not Least

drawing-of-girl-looking-at-surreal-landscape-with-bees-surrounding-herMy final tip (one that I’m still working on, myself) is to be as patient and nonjudgmental about dyspraxia as possible. I still get frustrated with myself for being slow to make decisions or reluctant to try new things, but it helps to remind myself of why those things are difficult for me. It also allows me to more easily support myself before and after unavoidable, sudden changes. After all, routines are great, but life can be pretty unpredictable. Knowing how to handle disruptions is always a good skill to have, even if it is a work in progress.


SPD Confession: Sometimes I’m Not Sure If I’m Wearing Pants

In casual conversation, I once said to my mother, “You know how sometimes you just have to look down and make sure you’re fully clothed before you leave the house?” She responded with a blank expression, and that’s when I realized that most people can tell without looking whether or not they’re wearing pants. Yet another way in which Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) affects strange parts of my life.

Several Small Mysteries, Solved

There are SO MANY things that make sense in the context of Sensory Processing Disorder that I had never considered before my recent re-education on SPD. Like how I cease to function when someone asks me more than one question at a time, or how I actually find elevators a little bit exhilarating. Once, a friend scared me when I had the hiccups, and I was totally overloaded and burst into tears. (I then promptly hiccuped again, so it was all for naught.) When yoga instructors suggest the class close their eyes in a pose, I scoff internally because I know that if I did that, I’d end up falling spectacularly and taking half the class down with me. I’m seriously incapacitated in the dark.

Not to mention the wide variety of school-related struggles that I had never connected to SPD before. It doesn’t help me in any practical way now to know that Socratic seminars were so torturous because I’m not great at praxis, but it does reassure me that the anxiety I felt had a definable cause. Give me a few hours to think and I’ll give you a detailed response, but put me a circle with my peers and expect me to formulate an opinion on something and share it immediately, otherwise, I lose points?! C’mon. That’s a recipe for a non-answer.

You’re an Adult: Now What?

I had the benefit of being diagnosed at a young age, so I had some inkling of the broad aspects of SPD. It is, however, very different to manage your disorder as an adult; you have a more complete understanding of societal expectations and your growing independence means that you must deal with a lot more on your own. I can imagine that for people receiving a diagnosis for the first time as an adult, it would be even more overwhelming to put all of their behaviors, quirks, and challenges into context. You can suddenly tie seemingly unrelated things together into a single explanation, and that can be extremely validating. But, it can also be a little bit intimidating. Armed with all this knowledge, you now have the power to make life 1,000 times easier for yourself, but that often requires an element of assertiveness. If you’ve been pushing yourself to endure things that drive you bananas and drain you of all life force because “everyone else can do it,” it’s really hard to change that habit. (And no, not everyone else can comfortably do it. Just for the record.)

Change can be tricky for everyone, but particularly if, like for me, dyspraxia makes dealing with uncertainty extra hard for you, it’s ok to take it slowly. It may be somewhat counterintuitive that advocating for yourself would be harder than continuing to do things that don’t work for your nervous system. Even though those things are uncomfortable or distressing, they’re likely also familiar. If you don’t know exactly what will happen if you change your routine or how other people will react, it might seem safer to just stick with what you do know.

If you’re in that boat, try to be patient with yourself. Ever so slowly, I’m getting better at saying “no” to things (and not feeling guilty about it). I’ve also learned that it’s totally worth it to speak up on car trips and explain that everyone will be much happier if I sit in the front seat so that I don’t get carsick and hyperventilate/blow chunks in the backseat. I rely a lot on what I see to help me discriminate sensory information, so yeah, sometimes I double-check that I’m wearing pants before I step outside. And that’s ok. With practice, it gets easier to advocate for yourself, and I think you’ll find that it’s worth it.


Creature Comforts: Pets and Mental Health


There’s nothing better than a cozy evening spent snuggled up with your dog or cat, right? Pets come with lots of responsibilities, but also with plenty of benefits for our health. I know how it weighs out for me- strongly positive. My dog has been an enormous help in my recovery from depression, and she also helps me regulate my nervous system when Sensory Processing Disorder gets in the way. But what does science say about pets and mental health?

Animal Assisted Therapy

I’m particularly interested in how pet ownership affects mental health and wellbeing, but perhaps it’s best to start with the research on therapeutic interventions. I’m guessing that it’s much easier to study the effects of human-animal interactions in the context of short visits than in the context of pet ownership for a few reasons.

  1. It’s more difficult to determine causality in cases of pet ownership. Are people with pets healthier, or are healthier people more likely to have pets?
  2. Many pet ownership studies rely on participants’ ability to report results over a long period of time, as opposed to short AAT sessions.
  3. AAT is implemented and monitored by professionals who keep detailed records.

Before I even read any articles, I was expecting to find that AAT is backed by a sizeable amount of evidence supporting the link between pets and mental health. After all, I’d seen those news stories about unconventional Emotional Support Animals, and those aren’t necessarily trained to perform a therapeutic role.

A 2017 review compiled data from 18 studies of AAT. In 15 of those studies, at least one positive effect was found, although the authors point out that most of the studies found no significant effect on treatment outcome. Overall, the review suggests that AAT, particularly dog assisted therapy, provides mild to moderate effects. Not bad, given how many variables are unavoidable when it comes to animal interactions.

Therapy dogs have been successfully used as part of treatments for elderly Alzheimer’s patients as well as in promoting social interactions in a long-stay psychiatric population.

So, if AAT is mildly or moderately effective in short “doses”, how does near-constant interaction with animals affect us? I’m wary of extrapolating too far because pet ownership is certainly not just a scaling-up of petting a therapy dog at your university’s library during finals. There’s a lot more to it; perhaps the responsibility, stress and frustration when a pet misbehaves, and of course, the emotional pain of losing a beloved companion outweigh the benefits of interacting with animals.

My Roommate is a Quadruped

Did y’all see that Reddit thread about how weird it would sound if we called our pets “roommates”?


My roommate ate every Lactaid pill out of my mother’s purse and left all the wrappers on the floor. The other day, I walked into the kitchen to find my roommate standing on the table, eating jam right out of the jar. I know someone whose roommate ate crayons and then pooped rainbows for a week.

Pet owners share their lives with their pets; not just their time and energy, but their homes, too. Many people consider their pet as part of their family, and I can see why (and not just because I’m one of those people). Anecdotally, I can understand why pets and mental health benefits are often linked in our minds.

Social Support

A qualitative study of people with mental health conditions, conducted in 2016, had participants map out their social support networks in three concentric circles, the innermost circle being the most important. 25 of the 54 participants were pet owners, and the majority of them placed their pets in the innermost circle. The researchers identified several common ways in which participants reported benefits from owning pets.

  • Establishing routines
  • Distraction from symptoms (e.g. hallucinations, suicidal ideation)
  • Sense of certainty that pets would reliably provide support
  • Caring for pets gave participants a sense of meaning
  • Reducing the stigma of mental illness through pets’ unconditional acceptance of owners
This meme will one day be horribly outdated, but that day is not today.

Another study with a similar design had me grinning from ear to ear- some of the transcripts of participants talking about their pets are delightful. Although this study focused more on chronic physical illnesses, I noticed some relevant parallels. The authors describe the apparent infantilization of pets and hypothesize that it provides a sense of reciprocity that chronic illness sufferers may not have in their human relationships. Those with chronic illness- physical or mental- often report feeling like a burden on others. Doting on a pet, it seems, alleviates some of those feelings and makes the pet owner feel needed.

Soothing or Stressful?

Everyone feels distressed from time to time. Petting an animal can help calm someone in distress by reducing blood pressure and reactions to mental stress. One study, hilariously called “Friends with Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership,” experimentally found that pets were able to keep their owners from dwelling on negativity caused by social rejection.

For people with Sensory Processing Disorder, pets can provide a myriad of soothing sensory benefits. They offer tactile feedback in the form of fur, feathers, wool, etc., and the extra snuggly ones can provide deep pressure (depending on how heavy they are). Indirectly, pets provide proprioceptive and vestibular input simply by requiring interaction- walking, feeding, bathing, and training them. Pets tend to have less complex, more predictable social cues, which may make them less stressful to interact with than humans, especially for people who are easily overwhelmed.

Some of the Drawbacks

On the other hand, pets are their own entities with their own agendas. They don’t always do what we want them to. For instance, my dog barking at me while I try to drink my coffee in the morning is definitely NOT soothing. There are distinct disadvantages to owning a pet when you’re affected by SPD and/or mental illness. They can be messy and loud (unless you like those things- then add that to the advantages list), and sometimes they get in your personal space when you don’t want to be touched.

The Intersection of Pets and Mental Health for Me

Despite the frustrations and occasional discomfort, I’ve found pet ownership to be immensely helpful and rewarding. My dog reminds me to get outside and walk, to look up from my computer every once in a while (she’s being quiet…too quiet), and to enjoy all the little pleasures- long naps, eating with gusto, and rolling in smelly things.

Wait- not that last one. Don’t do that.