Always Overwhelmed? Or Constantly Thrill Seeking? It Might Be Sensory Processing Disorder.
Although we do not usually consciously think about our senses, it is not hard to see how important our senses are to our daily lives. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to interact with the external world. They allow us to experience the world in 3D high definition, while also filtering it unconsciously to only allow pertinent information into our awareness so that we don’t get bombarded with information. For example, when walking down the street we hear the hum of cars, and take notice of the stop lights and walk signs. However, we don't typically notice every detail of the outfits of people walking past, listen to their conversations, or think about the tag on the back of our shirt. This filtering of sensory information is a subconscious process. It allows us to interact with the outside world and affects every area of our life including our diet preferences, exercise routines, relationships, careers, and hobbies. Because of its involvement in every aspect of our lives, sensory processing impacts our internal worlds, impacting our emotional stability, sense of safety, social interactions and even our self worth and feelings of satisfaction or accomplishment. It is clear that this unconscious process of sensory processing is critical to our wellbeing, however, the brain is not always able to filter out information in a ‘typical’ way. This is referred to as sensory processing disorder, or SPD.
SPD is a neurological condition which results in the inability for a person to filter and process sensory information picked up from the outside world. This manifests in the person having an inappropriate motor or behavioral reaction to the stimuli. This can manifest in either under or overactive sensory processing. An under reactive person is not being stimulated to the same extent as others when exposed to the same situations. Common symptoms of this are stated in list 1 bellow. People with this type of SPD often say it feels as though blinds have been pulled over the world. On the flip side, some people may be oversensitive. These people have an exaggerated response to stimuli or pick up much more of the sensory information from the outside world then others might due to the lack of their brains ability to filter out ‘unimportant’ information. Common symptoms of this type are listed in box 2 below.
There are three types of SPD which encapsulate the majority of cases. The first and most common type is sensory modulation disorder. People with this type can be either over or under responsive to stimuli, which results in them either avoiding or seeking out stimuli. This results due to the nervous system not knowing whether to pay attention to or ignore certain sights, smells, sounds, touch/textures, and tastes. The second most common type is sensory discrimination disorder. In this type people are often confused about the origin of a stimuli (the source of a sensation). They may miss hunger cues, be clumsy, have trouble distinguishing between letters and the sources of sounds, or trouble knowing where in space they are. The third type is sensory-based motor disorder. People with this have trouble with tasks that require motor control like holding utensils, sitting up straight, and balancing. While the three types have separate symptoms, people with SPD may have one, two, or all three types and exhibit an array of symptoms from each category. People may also notice that only one sense is affected, while others report symptoms in multiple or all senses.
Generally, SPD is more common in children, but adults have it as well. One reason SPD may seem to be less impactful to adults is that they have developed coping mechanisms as a result of living with it for years. Although they may have developed ways to cope or hide their symptoms from others, it does not mean that they are not still bothered. In children, symptoms are more obvious because no coping mechanisms have been developed yet. In some cases, SPD can be linked to language delays, poor motor function, and altered muscle tone. Because of the wide array of symptoms, people struggling with SPD may feel isolated, and are at higher risk for other conditions like depression and anxiety. This is related to feeling overwhelmed or overloaded by situations, causing avoidance of going out into places where the person has less control over the environment then they would staying at home or in a comfortable place.
While the exact cause of this is unknown, genetic and environmental conditions have been linked to increased likelihood for an individual to have SPD. Prenatal malnutrition, premature birth, and maternal deprivation (infrequent, absent, or distorted physical contact between a mother and her infant) all increase likelihood of developing SPD. Early institutional care also increases risk. This is because all these factors deprive the infant of proper stimulation to promote sensory integration, potentially leading to improper sensory monitoring later in life.
There are several treatment options for those with SPD. The most common treatment is a form of occupational therapy in which the therapist introduces sensory stimuli in a controlled environment, and helps the patient learn to develop an appropriate response to the stimuli so that when they encounter it in the outside world they are not overwhelmed. Another treatment is listening therapy, which uses frequencies to stimulate the brain. Both of these strategies are helpful in controlling SPD, and utilize neuroplasticity to train the brain to be less affected by sensory inputs.
Neurofeedback can also be used to help those struggling with SPD. Unlike other therapies, it doesn’t only teach the client how to have a more appropriate response to stimuli that may have cause an over or under reaction. Rather, it uses the concept of neuroplasticity to train the processing centers themselves how to better regulate sensory input. This means that the client will not just learn how to cope with altered sensory perception, but the unconscious process of sensory regulation itself is improved. This results in a person who is no longer as over or under-stimulated, so the need for coping mechanisms is diminished. These results last a lifetime, and can allow the person to interact with the exterior world with less trouble. This can help those who self isolate and feel alone or anxious. Because of the improvement in symptoms, people may get downstream effects such as decreased depression and panic. If you or anyone you know is struggling from SPD, it is worth considering adding neurofeedback to the treatment plan. It will not only improve symptoms, but will help correct the root neurological problem causing the symptoms. This improvement can lead to a lifetime of better social interactions, confidence, and overall mood.