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.

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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.

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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.

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Creature Comforts: Pets and Mental Health

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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”?

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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
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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.

Some Thoughts on Running

CW: mentions of self-harm

Sometimes I run because it’s when I feel strongest. I run because I love the feeling of my muscles working beneath my skin, my breath matched to my stride. Breathe in for three steps, breathe out for three steps. I love the sense of accomplishment, knowing that my body can carry me further than I think it can. Sometimes I run because it gives me joy. The simple pleasure of the wind in my hair and the sun on my face, moving with a body I’m thankful for. My body is a canvas for my mental state; when I’m well, I run for the joy of it. When I’m unwell, I run because it’s just another way to hurt myself. I run because at mile three I’m still thinking about cutting, but by mile five my brain is numb. Breathe in for three steps. Breathe out for three steps. I run because maybe if I can push my body to obey me, my brain might follow suit. I run because to be exhausted is to be empty, and where could my depression have gone except to have been left behind on the path? Expelled by my lungs, my racing heart, my wrung-out muscles. I run because it makes me feel good, and because sometimes, it makes me feel nothing at all.

Love, 

Your Brain

How Do You Feel? SPD and Sensory Discrimination

Several years ago, I awoke with a slight but sharp pain in my chest. I went about my day, doing my best to ignore it. I thought it was one of those random, passing pains that bodies get sometimes. But the next day, it was much worse. Every time I inhaled, stabbing pain shot through my chest. I also was developing severe pain down my left shoulder blade and around my ribs. I debated going to the doctor for three days; meanwhile, I couldn’t sleep unless I was sitting up, and moving at a pace slightly faster than your local library’s Wi-Fi left me in breathless tears. It turned out that I had pneumonia, which was strange because I hadn’t been sick beforehand, nor was I obviously sick in any way other than having debilitating chest pain.

When I reflect on that experience, my first thought is “why did I not go to the doctor right away?” I’m certainly not a fan of going to the doctor, and I don’t like to draw attention to myself, even from concerned family and friends. But neither of those reasons fully explain why I waited.

I didn’t go right away because I didn’t know if the pain I was experiencing warranted a trip to the doctor. I distinctly remember thinking “am I imagining this?” Let’s let that sink in. I couldn’t get out of bed without first psyching myself up for several failed attempts and some tears, and I wasn’t sure if I was just~~imagining~~it.

My brain is always a little confused about the information it’s receiving because I have trouble with sensory discrimination. When someone asks me “how do you feel”, nine times out of ten I’ll go “I dunno”–because I really don’t. Especially when it’s something new, I don’t know what the heck I’m feeling from outside or inside my body. So, when I mysteriously developed pneumonia, my thought process went a little like this:

Hmm. This hurts. I think my chest definitely hurts. Should I go to the doctor? They’re gonna ask me what it feels like. Is it burning, or stabbing? What’s the difference? Maybe it’s not that bad. How bad is bad? Wait, which came first- the chest pain or the shoulder pain? Are they even the same kind of pain? Maybe I’m imagining it- if I ignore it, it might go away. Good gravy, putting on socks is really hard. I’m probably fine, though.

Because I know that sensory processing disorder (SPD) makes me sensitive to a lot of stimuli, this often leads me to understate how I feel, be it good or bad. I aim to be neutral in all aspects- I’m feeling sensations more intensely or in a mixed-up way, so it must be wrong, right? When you spend many years confused about how you feel, you get pretty good at hiding it. So, on the outside, I can appear relaxed and calm, but on the inside, I feel like that screaming bird meme. You know the one.

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My nervous system 85% of the time

Anyway, do as I say, not as I do (did). The problem with approaching sensory discrimination this way is not just that you might neglect yourself when you have pneumonia, although that’s certainly not optimal. On an everyday level, taking this approach perpetuates the confusion and only makes things worse. It takes practice to start listening to your body, and it might take some serious courage to start advocating for yourself. I try to remember that the way I perceive things might be different from what other people feel, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

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What I’ve Learned About Self-Harm

“I need a new bathing suit”, I told my mother before heading out the door. A list of criteria floated through my mind. It needed to have shorts, or maybe a skirt, which had to go down to my mid-thigh. Of course, it should be cute so as not to arouse suspicion or too many questions.

Buying a bathing suit with a skirt was just one of many ways I hid my self-harm from those around me. In my third year of college I became depressed, and the following summer I started self-harming. I did it in secret and hid the evidence. I knew that altering my clothing choices would spark concern, so I continued to wear shorts that barely covered the still-healing wounds. Looking at photos from this time is painful. I remember desperately trying to appear well; smiling while anxiously pulling my shorts down to cover my secret. It consumed me entirely until cutting was all I thought about. Fighting the urge to do it was like trying not to sneeze. I would think about it constantly for days or weeks until I could take no more, and give in just to make the thoughts stop.

At age 4, I was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder, a neurological condition that affects the brain’s ability to make sense of a world filled with sensory stimuli. I screamed getting my hair washed, I refused to go outside until my mittens were tucked into my sleeves, and anytime I fell down, I held my breath until I passed out. As a child, the world was a scary place, and although I learned to cope with my differences, the pressure of college and my looming adult life plunged me into numbness and depression. I began to feel outside of myself when in busy areas, and when I closed my eyes, I felt a gentle rocking as if I were on a boat. Cutting was a way for me to ground myself when things felt out of control.

All of this has taken me months to discover, though, and it was terrifying to not understand my own actions. Reaching out to my loved ones helped immensely. After months of hiding my self-harm from my mother, I told her about it the night before I moved back to school. When I showed her, she looked at the rows of raised, red scars and softly said: “that’s what I thought was happening.” All of the effort I had put into protecting her from the truth, for nothing. She had known for weeks, and I probably caused her more worry by staying silent. The next day, I left to begin my final year of college, four states away. I began seeing a therapist who encouraged me to create art that expressed my emotions, and when I found myself in a hazy stupor, I would open my sketchbook instead of turning to self-harm. But removing self-harm from my list of coping mechanisms made me feel wildly out of control, and I spiraled into a state of suicidal ideation. By the time I reached one month without engaging in self-harm, my therapist was gently suggesting hospitalization. Thankfully, I switched medications, and although it wasn’t the right one for me, it helped enough to keep me safe.

What I’ve learned about self-harm and other damaging coping behaviors is that they give you the illusion of control. Over time, however, it grows into a slippery beast of its own. You may eventually wonder how this action that you perceived as giving you control has come to hold you so tightly, until it doesn’t feel like a choice at all. Months of therapy, various medications, and the unwavering support of my friends and family have slowly allowed me to come out of the darkness. Today, I have gone over 10 months without self-harm, and I’ve come to understand that saying “no” to that self-harm voice gives me true control that is much more effective than self-harm ever was.

Letter to Myself About Depression

Dear Future Brain,
It’s been some time since you’ve been where I am, and I wanted to remind you of some lessons I’ve recently learned about depression and self-care.

1. You matter.

I hope that by the time you’re reading this, you sincerely believe this one. I know that we often get lost in existential quicksand. Try to remember that the things you think are indicators of an inconsequential existence can be viewed just as easily as miraculous and precious. Yes, the lifespan of a human being is practically instantaneous in comparison to the existence of the universe. And yes, multi-cellular life may have arisen by accident. But consider this: the fact that you are here, a teeming community of human and bacterial cells piloted by a blob of electrified tissue, is pretty incredible.

2. Listen to your body.

It’s not always easy. In fact, I’m learning that it usually feels like I’m guessing. If this is something you’ve lost touch with, refresh your memory of #1. Natural selection may have screwed you over when it comes to the arrangement of your food pipe and your air pipe (thank you, epiglottis), but it did ok when it came to your nervous system. Yours in particular may be a little out of whack, but it still keeps you alive. Try not to discount your body; it probably knows what it’s doing.

3. You require deliberate (and likely extra) self-care.

Because listening to your body doesn’t come easily, it’s important for you to make an effort to hear it. If that means being a hermit for a few hours every afternoon, so be it. Hopefully you’ve got this one mastered and it feels more natural, but if you still have to work at it, that’s ok. It’s worth it.

4. Depression does not make you a burden.

‘Nuff said.

5. Needing medication is not shameful.

I know, you were mortified when you had to get a bigger pill organizer because you couldn’t fit all your pills for depression in your old one (to be fair, those vitamins are freaking huge). And every time you fill a new prescription, you worry that the pharmacist thinks you’re a nut, but I assure you, she doesn’t.

6. Movement is wonderful.

It’s easy for us to be sedentary for way too long, and since we’re a creature of habit, breaking out of that pattern is tough. Take my word for it though; moving makes you feel better.
P.S. exercise doesn’t have to be difficult.

7. Seek meaningful connection.

Being isolated is tempting, and it’s necessary at times, but it doesn’t serve you in large doses. Whether it’s maintaining your existing relationships or reaching out to someone new, social connection is a vital component of your happiness.

8. Keep growing.

Growth takes lots of forms, and it’s not always about taking a big risk. Stick your toe outside of your comfort zone every once in a while, and believe me when I say that you’re more than capable. If you don’t stretch yourself, your comfort zone will just keep shrinking.

9. Practice gratitude.

This is not to say that your pain is invalid because of the positive parts of your life. Instead, acknowledging the things that you’re thankful for can make the tough stuff a little easier.

10. Have hope.

Depending on where you’re at, this may seem like a meaningless platitude. If that’s the case, I don’t think I can convince you to believe it. Someone once told me that they’d hold the hope for me, so for now, I’ll hold the hope for you. You from the past is rooting for you. You’ve got this.

Love,
Your Brain

balance

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Sensory Processing Disorder: How to Feel “Just Right”

When someone is affected by Sensory Processing Disorder, keeping their nervous system regulated can be more difficult than it is for other people. One of the goals of occupational therapy is to learn skills and strategies to stay regulated.

The Basics

This afternoon, I cried while rocking and squeezing a dryer ball between my hands as hard as I could. I was experiencing what my OT calls “split arousal”. If you imagine a parabolic curve, at the left side is low arousal and at the right is high arousal. Low arousal feels like if you ate an entire Thanksgiving turkey right after you failed an exam. Sadness, lethargy, hopelessness, distorted thinking, and slouched posture are all signs of low arousal. High arousal feels like drinking six cups of coffee at an amusement park right after riding the Tower of Doom. In between the two is where you feel like Goldilocks just before the bears burst in (after which I’m sure Goldilocks was in a state of very high arousal). Feeling “just right” is a wonderful state, and there are tons of strategies to get yourself away from either end of the spectrum, towards the middle. It should also be said that everyone’s arousal curve is different. What would put me into a sweaty panic might be just right for you because our nervous systems are different.
So, what’s split arousal? Split arousal happens when your body is in a state of low arousal while your mind is in a state of high arousal. If you’ve ever experienced dissociation, you know how that’s possible. Signs of split arousal include unusual quietness, low energy, racing thoughts, overwhelm, and emotional shutdown. I seem to be adept at achieving contradictory states, simultaneously. Go, me.

A Few Strategies to Cope with Sensory Processing Disorder

When you’re in a state of low arousal, it helps to do things that perk you up. Listen to peppy music, eat crunchy foods, go out in bright sunlight. As you might expect, doing the opposite can help bring you out of high arousal. Dim the lights, wear comfy clothes, drink something soothing. When you’re in split arousal, the things that usually help perk up your body will only make your brain more frantic, and the things that calm your mind will make your body shut down even more. This is why people with Sensory Processing Disorder sometimes turn to self-harm, which is very grounding. It’s something strong enough to break through the haze of low body arousal, but somehow repetitive enough to be soothing and make you feel in control. (The bumps on a dryer ball can give you the same sensation of intense pressure, but without the permanent damage.) Again, everyone is different, so what one person finds grounding may not work for another person, but generally, doing something active but not too active can bring your body and mind back to the same place.

Step By Step

So, how am I dealing with it? Squeezing the dryer ball was step one. That got me past the initial urge to self-harm. Then, I went for a brisk walk with my dog. Being outside in the fresh air, feeling my feet underneath me and the leash in my hand, these sensations helped focus my mind and calm me. Now, I’m writing. I can feel the keys underneath my fingers and I have to herd my thoughts into coherent sentences. Setting out the logic of it also makes me feel less irrational.

But, Why?

This didn’t just happen for no reason (although brains can be finicky, who are we kidding?) To put it briefly: I was having a bad day. To put it lengthily: I was forced to abandon my routine and go to an unfamiliar place to work. It was loud, busy, and my laptop was being a huge pain. I’m behind on a completely unattainable project goal, and to top it all off, I was hangry. Then, to assuage my guilt for leaving my puppy cooped up at home, I took her to the dog park when I got back, only to be drenched in a sudden downpour upon our arrival. Cue: me, crying under my weighted blanket and silently cursing everything that was making noise in the neighborhood. Sometimes bad days happen, and where the me of 6 months ago would have had no idea how to remedy it, the me of today pulled out her OT handouts and picked some strategies. Go, me!