Sunday, June 7, 2015

About Sensory Issues

"Sensory issues" is sort of a purposefully vague catch-all term for any problems someone might have from the way their neurology processes their physiological senses. That's the "five senses" of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, and also the other twenty-something senses no one's ever heard of like nociception and proprioception.

Here is a checklist of Sensory Processing Disorder symptoms. You don't have to have SPD to have sensory issues, but all of the SPD symptoms are examples of sensory issues.

If you have sensory issues but you've never heard about the concept before, you may not have realized. It's hard to tell if you're normal/typical in this regard, since whatever sensitivity level you have is pretty much the only level you've every had, so you have no basis for comparison. However, if you read some info about it, keep it in the back of your mind for a few weeks while you observe yourself and others, then come back and read again, it may seem clearer.

What are the problems?

Most of my knowledge relates to hypersensitivity (being too sensitive) because that's my problem. Some people are under-sensitive instead.

There are two key aspects:

How uncomfortable is the input?

There are some things that normal folks can ignore or that they even find pleasant but that are very annoying to me. Things that most other people find really annoying might be really painful for me. 

Things that super-annoy me include the texture and/or flavor of most vegetables,  the texture of a lot of clothes, the feeling of any socks that aren't microfiber, the vocal sounds made by calm well-behaved children, and that "lurch" when a vehicle comes to a complete stop. That's not a complete list.

OMG, the next time my roommate wears that dumb cologne right before he wants me to drive him somewhere... >:(

Recently when I was at a fast food restaurant, one of the employees was tidying up on the far side of the room, and that involved repositioning some metal bar stools that made a LOUD scraping sound against the tile floor. I think it would have been less startling and less painful if someone had just kept smacking me upside the head at random intervals. I'm guessing other people found the sound kind of annoying, but if normal people found it anywhere near as bad as I did, I'm sure the employee would have been trying to make less sound. She could have moved them less or lifted them off the floor. Actually, it probably would have been a moot point because the management could've put some felt pads on the bottom of the stool legs to prevent the whole problem. Anyway, I left the restaurant earlier than I planned.

How much input is "too much"?

I don't like this metaphor, but I haven't found one I like better, so I'm going to talk about buckets.

Imagine everyone has some kind of psychological bucket, and every sight, sound, taste, smell, texture, motion, physical pain, temperature perception, feeling of having to use the bathroom, et cetera that you experience adds a little bit of water to your bucket. The more intense the sensation, the more water is added, even if it's not an unpleasant sensation. Rest and relaxation will empty your bucket. People like me have a smaller bucket. (And/or sensory input adds more water than normal. Not sure if that distinction matters for this dumb metaphor.)

Some kind of Bad Thing happens for anyone whose bucket starts to overflow, but that's not a common concern for typical adults. However, hypersensitive people like me should constantly manage our buckets. How much water is in it now? How much water will certain activities add? Which activities can I afford to do before my next rest opportunity? Am I okay with having to get the amount of rest that a certain activity will require?

When I get overloaded, I mostly have cognitive or emotional problems. (Fatigued or sleepy, increasingly scatterbrained, anxious or grouchy, eventually angry. When it's severe enough, I can basically become a violent lunatic! Before I understood sensory problems, I thought I had anger issues.) However, I've heard of other people having problems like vision issues or blacking out.

Bucket Management

If you're hypersensitive, I think the most important thing is self-awareness. Just knowing how certain input affects you will make a huge difference because it allows you to make more informed decisions.

When it comes to how much "water" certain input will  add to your "bucket," the key seems to be intensity or length, not unpleasantness. Painful or annoying stimuli obviously cause problems, but I think we might underestimate the effects of stimuli that's pleasant or only a little annoying. Here are some things that bother me that I didn't originally recognize:

Very sweet foods, or foods that otherwise have an intense flavor.

Crowds: Conventions, events, crowded restaurants, the mall at noon on a Saturday, or even the grocery store on the weekend. Even the fun stuff is exhausting. My poor assertiveness makes this worse because I'm always trying to stay out of other people's way and, if I'm with someone else, I have to go at the pace that suits them instead of me.

Riding in a vehicle. It's not as bad if you're the one driving because you're in control of most of the motion. Any factors that increase the inconsistency of the motion (more bumps, rattles, jostles, stops, speed changes, swerves) will make it worse, such as road conditions, vehicle functionality, the style/ability of the driver, or how much traffic there is.

Having my hair in a hair clip.

Air blowing on me (e.g. a fan).

Bucket improvement?

Apparently, if you do a lot of exercises that stimulate your proprioceptive system (sense of where all your body parts are) or vestibular system (sense of movement), it will relieve hypersensitivity at least a little--both making input less painful and increasing your capacity for input. I don't know of any widespread studies, but some personal experience and some anecdotes seem to match up with the idea.

A lot of the relevant exercises are things you might normally do in the course of "working out" or naturally having a physically active lifestyle. Since they're healthy for you anyway, it's not a bad idea to give it a shot and see if it works for you.

Proprioception exercises involve putting pressure on the joints and connective tissue:

  • Pushing something heavy
  • Pulling something heavy
  • Hanging from something (pull-ups, monkey bars)

Vestibular exercises involve moving yourself:

  • Push ups (do push ups against the wall if you are too weak to do normal push ups)
  • Dance
  • Jog or run

Be careful not to overstimulate yourself, which is easy with vestibular activities.


For children diagnosed with some kind of disorder, such as sensory processing disorder, occupational therapy can help. If you're an adult, society doesn't care about you, so you'll probably have trouble finding an occupational therapist for this kind of problem. Fortunately, it's easier to help yourself with this kind of thing than it is to help someone else.


Stimulation of one's own nerves (stimming) is done by everyone to comfort themselves or to modulate sensory input when their instincts are making them feel like the input they're getting isn't enough. I think most hyper-sensitive people stim more than normal people, for comfort, and I'm making a wild guess that under-sensitive people will stim WAY more.

Technically, everybody stims, but the term is generally only used for those of us who do unusual activities or do it with unusual frequency. Some people really hate it when children do certain forms of stimming and will try to prevent them from doing it (either because they're embarrassed to be seen a weird child, or because they associate stimming with some kind of disrespect toward themselves for some reason, or because they think that stopping the stimming will cure you of whatever problem caused the need for stimming). As a result, you may have gotten into the bad habit of not stimming very much.

A structured plan for stimming is called a "sensory diet" (the word "diet" is metaphorical here), but you can also just stim willy-nilly as you need to,

If you think you might need to stim more, here are some ideas: (Update: There's a bigger list in this post.)

Socially acceptable or only slightly weird:
  • Wear a weighted vest when driving.
  • Use a weighted blanket when sleeping.
  • Squeeze a stress ball.
  • Pet a furry animal.
  • Take a hot bath or shower.
  • Press your hands together really hard in front of your chest for a few seconds.
  • Look at fire (e.g. candles or fireplace).
  • Lift weights or something heavy (without straining).

These could cause sensory input to the people around you (which could be annoying and/or they'll just think you're weird) so use with caution:
  • Bounce your leg.
  • Rock back and forth.
  • Swing your legs while sitting.
  • While sitting in an office chair, use your feet to rotate back and forth.
  • Pace.
  • Anything else that causes you to be in constant motion, as long as you're in control of the motion.
  • Any kind of focused breathing or breathing exercises.
  • Hum.

If you need pain:
  • Squeeze an ice cube.
  • If you have any small skin injuries (e.g. paper cuts, or your pet scratched you), put rubbing alchohol on it.

Stuff that could work as a stim but you should probably avoid doing as a stim:
  • Anything that injures you.
  • Eating (not necessarily bad, but it can easily become a habit)

More info

Unfortunately, I don't have much knowledge about hyposensitivity (under-sensitive or sensory seeking), so it would be great if you folks could add anything on that topic.

Also feel free to share your stimming tricks or sensory coping techniques.


  • Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight - This is a great self-help book about sensory defensiveness (hypersensitivity) for adults or adolescents that have the problem.
  • The Highly Sensitive Person - A concept and associated book for folks that are more sensitive than most people but not so sensitive that it's debilitating. Unfortunately, some fans of this concept think that because they don't have a sensory disorder that must mean that no one has a sensory disorder... but the info is otherwise still handy.
  • Info about creating a "sensory diet" - If you want to create a sensory diet for a child, you probably want to have your child treated by an occupational therapist.
  • Hyperbole and a Half: Sneaky Hate Spiral - This hilarious blog doesn't mention sensory issues specifically, but I suspect sensory issues might be contributing to the author's experiences. Either way, there's definitely some overlap with the way I feel.

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