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!