Settling into sensory integration work

An internet definition of sensory integration:  “Sensory integration is the ability of the brain to take in, combine, and organize sensory information so that it can be interpreted and acted upon.”
My mom tells me that she took me to a baby massage session when I was six weeks old.  While other babies relaxed, I hated it.

I have shied away from touch for as long as I can remember.  At times, I have had to reassure myself that certain kinds of touch (like hugs, for example) were safe.  “It’s okay,” I would tell myself.

I startle easily at loud noises.

Crowds make me nervous – it’s challenging me to filter the sights and sounds, as well as the proximity to so many other people.

Sometimes I describe things to myself as “feeling loud” even if it isn’t directly about noise.
I get overstimulated easily – too much external and/or internal noise can lead to me feeling overloaded and wanting to shut everything out.

When I was 9 or 10, my dad tried to take me to an Occupational Therapist to get me evaluated for sensory processing issues.  I had the initial evaluation, and then was supposed to go for a full assessment.  The OT cancelled – twice, after a waiting period both times, claiming she was overwhelmed.  We didn’t reschedule.

Fast forward to recently, over 20 years later:  my DBT therapist looked startled when I described how strongly I react to certain stimuli:  sounds, touch, other experiences.  She told me that I might benefit from seeing an Occupational Therapist for sensory integration work, and that doing so may help me regulate my emotions more easily.  I was reluctant at first, and put off making an appointment.   and then I agreed to at least get an evaluation.

And…after talking to the OT, and talking about tactile defensiveness and other sensory issues, it does resonate with me, the interpreting certain kinds of sensory stimulation as acutely intense and overwhelming, or even painful.  I still identify as being a highly sensitive person with empathic and energetic abilities.  AND…I believe there’s to the picture than that.  I have realized that I have been trying to make things work that may not – or did not – work for me for years.  This means that I have been expending a lot of energy and effort.  I have overcompensated and exhausted myself trying to act as if I didn’t find certain aspects of life, people, the world, so overstimulating.

I have been through a holistic therapeutic program where “healthy touch” (appropriate touch, intended to nurture and connect:  back rubs, hugs, intentional gentle touch, etc.  It’s meant to help those who have had negative or inappropriate touch in the past) was encouraged.  Where I was told that “overwhelmed” was not an emotion (well, it’s certainly an experience that includes multiple emotions).  Where others told me that “it’s too much for me” was a belief and needed to be addressed as such. But this approach and modality neglected to ask the question:  what if “too much” actually feels like too much, and that’s how my nervous system is interpreting it?  What if adapting to healthy touch still feels uncomfortable at times, and less than healthy?

So, back to the present:  For the past two weeks, I have been doing the exercises my Occupational Therapist recommended:  therapeutic brushing and creating a sensory diet (different physical exercises:  I’ve even tried going on swings again!).  It’s been fascinating to see how I react and respond to new purposeful kinds of stimulation.  So far, I’ve felt more calm at moments and more alert or anxious at others.  I realize that while doing sensory integration work may help, it is by no means a cure or a total solution.  But if it has the potential to make life less intense and easier to manage?  That would be nice.

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