Posts Tagged ‘sensory integration’

A retained reflex: working with fear

As part of my ongoing occupational therapy, I’ve been doing exercises on primitive (or neonatal) reflexes. I mentioned them briefly here. I was addressing the Moro, or startle reflex, and now I’m doing exercises related to the Fear Paralysis reflex…which is supposed to be integrated before birth but….didn’t with me. The Fear Paralysis reflex precedes the Moro reflex, and is defined by withdrawing and freezing in response to stress and stimulation.

I’ve been looking at the symptoms of a retained fear paralysis reflex and I identify with most of them. I took the list of symptoms from two pages: this one and this one.

  • Insecure, low self-esteem
    • Yes. I have definitely done a lot of work with this.
  • Depression/isolation/withdrawal
    • Yes.
  • Constant feelings of overwhelm
    • Yes, I do get overwhelmed easily.
  • Extreme shyness, fear in groups
    • I’ve always felt more at ease interacting one-on-one or in small groups. I’m more likely to freeze/shut down in larger groups.
  • Excessive fear of embarrassment
    • Yes.
  • Sleep & eating disorders
    • Sleep, yes. I’ve struggled with insomnia, especially when I was younger. Eating disorders, not so much.
  • Feeling stuck
    • Yes. I used to think this was primarily based on a belief I had, but perhaps it began with a feeling
  • Withdrawal from touch
    • I’m tactile defensive, so yes. I’ve definitely improved in this area, but if I’m overstimulated, my tolerance of touch is the first thing to go.
  • Extreme fear of failure, perfectionism
    • Oh yes, definitely. I’ve done a lot of work on this, too, and consider myself to be a “recovering perfectionist.” My healing/personal growth work has been helpful, and learning to teach Nia has been especially helpful in accepting imperfection and being softer with myself when I make mistakes.
  • Phobias
    • This is a very broad category. Which ones? What I can say is that I have a strong tendency towards being fearful, anxious, and hyper-vigilant.
  • Low tolerance to stress
    • Yes.
  • Constant state of anxiety
    • Part of me says that it’s been “consistent” but not constant. In any case, I would definitely say that anxiety has generally been a major factor for most of my life.
  • Tends to “freeze” when there is a threat, instead of fight or flee
    • Yes. And this also could happen in situations that weren’t exactly dangerous, like being called on in class (even if I often did know the answer).
  • Sensory processing issues
    • This goes without saying.
  • Hypersensitivity to light and sound
    • Definitely to sound, although that’s improved somewhat since beginning my iLS listening program. I’m not a fan of flashing lights, and my sensitivity to light skyrockets when I have a migraine.
  • Does not adapt to change well
    • Transitions are challenging for me. I can adapt, but it’s a slower process than I would have liked to admit in the past.
  • Overly clingy
    • My mom says that I was very attached to her, especially in my toddler years, to the point of clingyness.
  • Extreme fatigue
    • Yes. “I’m tired” has been one of my most common comments throughout my life. I tire easily, and I’ve also struggled several times with adrenal fatigue and precursors to chronic fatigue syndrome.
  • Deer in the headlights response
    • See “freezing.” Wide eyes, go silent, shut down.
  • Selective mutism (not speaking in situations where talking is expected, especially if speaking is already an established ability)
    • Not sure on this one. I had thought it was a conscious choice to not to talk to certain (or most) people in middle school and other times in my life, but what if it wasn’t entirely a choice?
  • Holding breath when upset or angry
    • Wait, breathing is expected in those situations?
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) traits
  • Defiant or controlling behavior
    • On these last two, generally, no. I definitely have done things to control my environment and reduce stimulation, but I don’t think I exhibit OCD traits. Defiant behavior depends on the environment, but generally I made an effort to behave well and blend in.

When I started doing the integration exercises for the Moro reflex, I definitely experienced some tense moments. As I begin the exercises for the fear paralysis reflex, I’m definitely experiencing occasional moments of high anxiety. Integrating these reflexes requires activating my strong startle or fear responses and sometimes it feels akin to poking at a wound so I can heal it. Luckily, it also involves some soothing exercises as well. As usual, I don’t know what changes to expect as I do these exercises. My hope is that I’ll be able to return to – or reach – a state of calm more easily.

Beginning Vision Therapy

Go here for more background on my vision issues.

My adventures in the land of sensory integration exercises continue.  I’ve now been doing the Intergrated Listening Systems program for over six weeks.  I’ve noticed that I’m adjusting more easily to the noise level in public places and my ability to filter has improved.

However, there have been other side effects that have thrown me for a loop.  In the past month, I have alternated between feeling like I could easily get dizzy and feeling pretty solid on my feet.   Then two Sundays ago, I spent the day mostly resting, as movement added to a consistent feeling of dizziness. When I danced in Nia class the following day, I had regained quite a bit of steadiness but still had a few moments of imbalance.  I also had a growing sense of unease – my vision seemed different and I couldn’t pinpoint what was going on exactly.  I definitely knew I was concentrating and straining my eyes more, especially while driving.

When I went to my occupational therapy session last Friday, we decided to start vision therapy.  When my OT moved her hands quickly, I quickly looked away. It definitely seemed too fast, too much.  She said,  “My hunch is that your vestibular and auditory systems are integrating more, and your visual system isn’t keeping up.”

This past Wednesday, after doing eye exercises in my session, I looked at the homework sheet.  For a second, I saw double.  I closed my eyes and shook my head; when I opened them it went back to being one piece of paper sitting on a table.

This past week, I’ve gotten tired more easily and have taken more naps.  Today, the muscles around my eyes are still slightly sore.   At moments, it’s taken longer to focus on or process something.  It’s kind of like, “I’m sorry, my brain is trying to rewire itself and learn where my eyes are actually pointing.”

As I begin this process, I am reminding myself to be patient.  I may be more tired and irritable at times.  I may become even more aware of my vision and other sensory issues.  I may also discover what it’s like to see the world in a new way.

Listening for sensory integration

This is my third week doing an Integrated Listening Systems program.  Integrated Listening Systems (iLs) is an multi-sensory program for improving brain function, and can be used with people with autism, SPD, ADD, and ADHD. It may help people process and integrate sensory information more effectively.  I’m renting mine from a local children’s sensory integration clinic.  The program involves listening to classical music on an iPod for hour-long sessions 3 to 5 times a week, and the headphones have a bone conductor on them that vibrates at various frequencies along with the music.  There are several different concentrations, and the first concentrates on sensory motor skills.  The equipment also comes with a book of exercises. 

iLS equipment

The music is mostly instrumental, and occasionally includes low-key chanting.  The vibrations from the bone conductor are pretty subtle at this point.  So far, I find the music soothing and the sessions are a nice break from the rest of my day.  The first few times, my ears started aching slightly towards the end of the session.  It’s sometimes more challenging for me to process additional auditory information afterwards.  Also, my energy level often drops after I listen.  I’m taking it slowly and keeping notes of my experience.

Since learning more about my sensory challenges, I’ve become more aware of how I rarely filter out or ignore background noise.  Hearing multiple conversations in a space can throw me off and make it challenging for me to concentrate.  This past Saturday, I briefly had a different experience.  While having breakfast with my love and a friend at a local diner, I noticed the noise of all the people talking, and then I focused back on our conversation.   I shifted my attention from one to the other without getting overwhelmed by either or both.  It was somewhat like an auditory version of zooming in and out.  It felt expansive.  While it’s hard to say if this was directly related to the iLS sessions, I definitely processed auditory information more effectively in that moment.

Sensory integration work often seems like a huge experiment. I don’t know how going through the iLS program will affect me in the long run. I’m remaining open and curious.  I’ll keep you all posted on any new developments. 

Taking a moment for gratitude

In the midst of transitions, it’s sometimes challenging to have perspective. It’s easy for me to get bogged down with thoughts of how hard it’s been and how I will continue to manage.  For all the challenges that sensory processing issues have brought me throughout my life, there are many ways in which I feel fortunate. I need to take a moment to reflect on and acknowledge those.

I am grateful that…

I have sensitive parents who recognized that I was a sensitive child and advocated for me when I got overwhelmed.

I went to a small high school where I got individualized attention.  The teachers may not have known exactly what was going on, but they generally were patient with me.

I have been able to take quality time off at certain points when I got burnt out.

I am continually learning how to honor the different parts of my sensitivities more.

My intelligence has helped me compensate for some of my limitations and challenges.

I have found an online community of people who have had similar experiences.

I have friends and family who love and appreciate me for who I am.

Dance and movement have helped me improve my coordination and body awareness.

I’ve seen improvement in my responses to tactile stimulation.

I have new tools for self-regulation.

I now understand and validate what’s happening when I get overstimulated.

I respect my boundaries and limits more.

I have new illuminating insights and knowledge about myself.

I have wonderful therapeutic support to help get me through this time of discovery and transition.

I’m learning how to take care of myself better than ever before.

I am learning how to advocate for myself.

I am sharing my own experiences.

My own personal brain chemistry experiment

In the weeks after the White Belt training, I began to notice I felt more on edge. I also noticed I felt pressure in my head – not a headache, and the feeling did not go away when I used coping skills to lower my stress level.

I went through all the things it could be, and finally thought of medication side effects. I didn’t think I needed to go up on anything, but it might be wise to check with my psychiatrist about decreasing my dose on one of the two antidepressants I’m taking.

So I did. We agreed that I could try decreasing my Zoloft dose from 50mg to 37.5 mg/day and take time to see if tapering down might help.

That was a week and a half ago.

The pressure in my head has mostly gone away, and on the whole I’ve felt a little calmer. However, at times, I have also been: dizzy, nauseous, woozy, tired, losing focus, more forgetful. Sometimes I’ve felt sad, but that might also be due to being tired, and also grieving what I’ve lost in the past.  My psychiatrist also said that the side effects of decreasing a dose can sometimes mimic symptoms of depression.  Whee.

I e-mailed my occupational therapist to ask her if my sensory integration exercises might affect the effectiveness of my medication, since both affect brain chemistry. She said she didn’t know for sure, but her guess was that it was possible. She mostly works with children, so they may not report back the same way I do. However, she has heard from some guardians that they’ve been able to decrease the kids’ medications doses after a few months of sensory integration work with good results.

Sometimes I think I’m my own personal chemistry experiment, and the solution keeps changing.  At the moment, I want to feel better.  I don’t feel awful, but I definitely feel strange.  I hope that the side effects will decrease soon.  I hope I can find the formula – whether it’s through medication, exercise, sensory integration work, something else, or all of the above – that works best for me right now.

New sensory accessory!

My newest sensory toy/accessory:  A felt cuff bracelet. The inside is incredibly soft.

felt bracelt on hand

I bought it from one of my crafty Nia White Belt classmates. I had initially selected one that was very unique with extra yarn and beads on it. However, after a few minutes, it started bothering me. It was challenging to think of anything else. Sometimes I think that my tactile defensiveness in terms of clothing texture has decreased significantly…and perhaps it has since childhood. But then something feels scratchy. Or I’m in a fitting room and everything starts to feel weird after enough time trying things on. In these cases, I remind myself that it’s definitely still a consideration in my day-to-day life.

So I chose this one.

From this angle, you can see the soft fleece-like fuzziness.

From this angle, you can see the soft blue fleece-like fuzziness.

When I put it on my wrist, I immediately feel a little calmer. It’s definitely comforting. It’s also fun to pet.

When I was talking to my Occupational Therapist last week about my new toy, I also mentioned that I enjoy going into fabric stores and touching the soft fabrics. She said, “I see how happy you look talking about it. Maybe you can go to a fabric store and buy samples of the fabrics you like and carry those around with you, too?” So, next sensory-related project: get fabric scraps.

In the meantime, I’ll keep petting my new bracelet.

Ability, capacity, and capability

Ability and capacity are described as synonyms in many dictionaries. I’ve skimmed through some articles on this, and there are different perspectives. Many discussions also included the definition of capability and made a distinction between the three. Some discussions got quite philosophical.

This is some of what I’ve gathered from my reading:

Capacity refers to the extent – the maximum amount – that something or someone can perform.   There is a limit to capacity – like once a glass is full, it cannot hold more water. It has reached its capacity.

Ability refers more to the skill, talent, means, and/or opportunity that someone is in possession of in the present.

Capability refers to the potential of being able.

I think about limits, what I am capable of doing vs. my capacity. For example, I may be capable of holding down a 40 hour a week job, but I may not currently have the capacity to do so. There may be limits to my energy and resources that may compromise my ability to do the job well.

Can I increase my capacity? Perhaps, it depends. But that takes intention, time, and energy, kind of like adding rooms to a house so that more people can live there.  I hope that the sensory integration exercises will help increase my overall capacity (in general, not just for work), but I don’t know what that will look or feel like.

I’ve been thinking in broad terms about the times in my life when I said “I can’t.” In the past, I’ve had others suggest that I have  a negative core belief that I am not able or capable due to my sensitivities or whatever else.

However, it’s possible I doubted my capacity more than my abilities. There’s the whole, “you’ll never know what you’re capable of doing until you try.” And I did try. I tried hard, and I was fairly successful for a time. However, there was a large energetic cost – I went over my capacity, over my therapeutic edge and stimulation threshold. So in that case, “I can’t” could have been more of an expression of “I’ve reached my limit and it would be extremely challenging to continue right now. I’m overstimulated and I’m shutting down.”

I didn’t have the words then. I’m starting to now.  The more I know about myself, how I process information and stimuli, the more I can communicate about what I am experiencing.  I realize that increased self-advocacy has the potential (the capability!) to give me more power and agency in my life.  And that’s pretty exciting.

Friday link roundup 7/10


Janelle Silver creates positive reminders for those who experience anxiety, including illustrated zines with uplifting messages and temporary tattoos that say things like, “Breathe,” and “You are Loved,” and “Be Kind to Yourself.”  Her Etsy sales have increased due to the popularity of this article.

Have you ever had someone tell you can (or should) choose to be happy?  Why Happiness Isn’t Always a Choice.

This article made me want a sensory room of my own.

Are empathetic people’s brains physically different?  Researchers weigh in.  

As an AmeriCorps Alum (two terms!), I believe in AmeriCorps’ positive impact on communities, organizations, and members.  The funding is again being threatened.  Why AmeriCorps Deserves the Nation’s Full Support.

If you have time and are curious about Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), here is Marsha Linehan’s PowerPoint from the NAMI conference.

When volume of the world went up.

Over the past few weeks, as I’ve begun my tactile exercises and sensory diet for sensory integration, I’ve noticed that I’ve been more sensitive to sounds.  I’ve been startling evening more easily.  It was definitely noticeable, but more of a point of observation than a cause for alarm.

That was true until Tuesday evening, when I was putting away dishes after dinner.  The sound of a spoon against a mug sounded like it was amplified several dozen times, like someone had turned up the volume level to the point of hurting my ears.

I decided that the best solution would be to put in earplugs and stay as still as possible for a little while, since even the sound of my own footsteps on the wood floor set me on edge.  When I took out the earplugs before bed, I still felt sensitive, but a little less so.

I woke up yesterday morning feeling like I’d been to a loud rock concert the night before.  My ears felt sore. Sound was still amplified, but much less painful.  I told my Nia teacher what was going on (yay for self-advocacy!) and asked her if she could keep the music volume consistent during class.  She agreed, and was both understanding and supportive.  In class, I was mostly sensitive to certain tones and beats than the volume, and that remained true throughout the day.  I also discovered in DBT group that I felt fine as long as multiple people didn’t start talking at the same time or someone made a strange noise (like whistling or squeaking).  I did give the group facilitators a heads-up that I was feeling extra sensitive to sound, too.

Today, it seems like the volume of the world around me is still somewhat higher than usual, but it’s definitely more tolerable.  I talked to my occupational therapist today and she said that sometimes these kind of things happen when the sensory exercises are working and the brain is trying to find a new kind of balance.   She wanted to make sure, though, that noise levels are generally tolerable for me and not intense or extreme.   She recommended that I cut back to going on the swings to every other day, and if that didn’t help, to reduce brushing.

Sometimes, this all seems like a great experiment.  I don’t know where I’ll land, or if I’ll feel landed when I get there.  In the meantime, hopefully there are parts of this extra-sensitive hearing experience that I can enjoy, such as soft whispers, the sound of the wind on the trees, or the laughter of a child across the street.


Adults and Sensory Processing Disorder Resources

In my online quest for more information, I discovered adults writing about their own sensory processing issues and spreading awareness. There is an abundance of information on kids (often geared toward or written by parents), so it was great to find these.

A great article on Sensory Processing Disorder  (SPD for short) by Rachel Schneider.  I think it’s a great introduction in general, and perfect for sharing with friends, family, and loved ones.  The articles has great analogies and information.  This was also my first introduction to the term “neurotypical.”
Her blog:
Facebook page:  She also has a private Facebook group for Adult SPD support.

A woman with SPD shares insights and draws webcomics about her experience:

Sensory Sea-Turtle: A tumblr meme page for people with SPD.

Sharon Heller, who has written several books on the subject and also has resources on her page.

The blog and website of an aspiring musician with SPD: – tips and perspective from the U.K.

I’m sure there are more resources and blogs out there.  If you would like to share more links, please comment!