Posts Tagged ‘sensory processing’

Approaches to change

I went to a college where I took a new class every 3 1/2 weeks.

I did a traveling study abroad program where we traveled to a new city and country roughly every two weeks.

After college, I did an AmeriCorps program where I worked on a team and changed projects (and locations, including places in the Northeast and the Gulf Coast) every 6-8 weeks.  In 10 months, I spent time in 5+ locations.

From ages 28-31, I lived in a communal home where regularly switching rooms – without much choice in the matter – was commonplace.  A lot of the activities in the house – which were based on a specific recovery and leadership model – reinforced accepting change, transitions, and transformation.

All these situations involved consistent change.

Somewhere along the way, I think I adopted the philosophy that adapting to situations would help me build resilience.  I chose activities and programs that I believed would help my personal growth.  When I first heard about my first AmeriCorps program, the representative at the job fair made the comment, “You have to learn to be flexible.”  I don’t know if I really took this in, or perhaps I believed that the program would help me grow and learn to adapt.  I do think that for some people, approaching situations this way might help increase their capacity to adapt and be flexible.  I think this is less true for me.

Two weeks ago, I sat in my occupational therapist’s new office with a weighted blanket on my lap, taking a few minutes to allow my nervous system to recover from the unfamiliar drive.  It was my first time driving to the area by myself.  My OT said she wanted to acknowledge how much effort and energy it had taken for me to get there – that doing something new and different is generally more challenging for people with sensory issues.

Looking back, I realize that transitions have generally been difficult for me, even from one activity to another, let alone a major life change.  I don’t ease into something new.  It takes time.  I realize now that I have more sensory tools, it takes conscious effort to self-regulate and adapt on my own terms.

I did all those things that involved so much change and newness, and in many cases, I thought it was in my best interest.  And while I can certainly say I learned from my experiences and have some positive take aways, there’s another part of me that’s like, damn, that was exhausting.  Those experiences definitely took an energetic toll on my nervous system.

Now, I know to prepare myself for change, to allow myself to go more slowly, and I’m more accepting when I feel drained after doing a new activity.

Now, I’m learning the street layouts of a new city before I move there in the fall; last week I spent time there with my fiancé so I can get acquainted with what our life there might be like.  I realize there’s a balance in not over-anticipating how this upcoming large shift in my life may unfold, but I can take steps.

I recognize that change is a part of life.  I don’t need to condemn or criticize myself for how I react to it.  When I consciously release any judgment on how I approach change, and keep sensory factors in mind, perhaps I’ll transition a little easier next time.


Sensory overload

My thoughts scatter
My energy drops
My emotions swell
My breath catches
I reach empty quickly,
want to fill my brain with nonsense or distraction
My ability to recall stretches and thins:
What’s that word or phrase again?

I remind myself:
This is not a catastrophe
it’s a sign I’ve done enough, had enough
I need time to recharge, refill

The best remedies:
Stepping outside to breathe in the cool air
taking walks
giving my system time
to find center once again.

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. 

Craft fairs and sensory self-care

This year, I have started to sell my art and jewelry.  I’ve been learning how to market myself online and build up my Etsy shop.  As of Saturday, I’ve also been a vendor in four craft fairs.

The holiday season is prime time for craft fairs, and I am aware of artists and crafters doing them regularly.  It’s now the season where they’re likely to make the most money because more people are shopping for gifts.

I quickly realized that doing one craft fair a month is enough for me.  Even – and perhaps especially in – a busy season.  I have to take my sensory issues into consideration.  Sitting at my table at a craft fair requires me to constantly be “on” and ready to greet anyone at a second’s notice.  I often find walking around a craft fair for too long to be overwhelming – there are so many colors, trinkets, items that my senses are soon confused, if not overloaded.  It also takes a lot of energy to be there.  It takes a lot of energy to prepare.  And it takes time to recover:  I try to leave the day after a craft fair completely free, and I’m sometimes more tired for a few days afterward.

This time, for a craft fair at a local high school,  I put less effort into preparation.  I used my energy as sparingly as possible beforehand and saved more of it for the actual event.  I made sure I had enough products, and I spent time the afternoon and evening before gathering my things together.  The knowledge I’ve gained from the past few craft fairs helped me know what I needed to bring and how to organize it.  I even got to bed at a decent hour.

Saturday’s fair went well – I sold 9 items (8 of them from people I don’t know) and was pleased with my table display.  A friend came and joined me for most of it – she says she enjoys being at fairs and having her there helped me feel more calm and centered.

Saturday night, I was prepared for the feeling of exhaustion and sensory overload.  I ate dinner and then noticed that my thoughts were rapidly becoming incoherent, and I allowed them to go there.   I was in bed before 9 and asleep shortly after.  I slept around 10 hours, which is unusual for me.  I was tired yesterday, particularly in the morning, and I did my best to keep my stimulation level low.  Today, I’ve felt sensitive and sleepy at moments.  I’m doing more conscious sensory self-care, and giving myself more space to feel how feel.

I’ve had several moments where I’ve been like,  But why can’t I do more fairs?  How can other artists do so many?  Then I give myself a gentle reminder:  This is me and this is my experience.  My needs may be different from those other artists.  I’m glad that I made it out there this Saturday and have another fair scheduled for December. 

Now that I’ve given myself credit, I think I’m going to go take a nap.

Sensory snapshots

Some recent realizations and snapshots:

As a child, I often had night terrors where I would scream, flail, babble, and sleepwalk.  I’ve had them occasionally as an adult during times of great stress [minus the sleepwalking]. I did a search online and discovered it may be common for children with SPD to have night terrors.  I don’t think there’s been official research on this, but I’ve definitely seen people discuss it in various SPD forums.

In high school, I would often freeze when a teacher called on me, even when I knew the answer.  I wanted to speak more in class on my own terms, but would often get so overwhelmed by the pressure that I ended up staying quiet.  I think this may have had something to do with the amount of internal and external pressure and being “on the spot” with everyone looking at me. I think I may have been feeling overstimulated and shutting down.  I struggled with this in college, too.  Now, it’s much easier for me to speak when someone asks me a question, and I still have moments [again, more likely when I’m under stress] where I find my mind blank and nothing on the tip of my tongue.

Recent pet peeve:  the video ads on pages.  I’ll be reading an article and suddenly there’s sound and moving objects on the screen.  My first reaction is to yelp and close either the a) page or b) laptop, so I somehow don’t think I’m their target market.

Last week, I was at a small bead store looking at crystal beads.  I noticed that the combination of the sparkly beads, the lights, and the ceiling fan made it visually challenging to focus on anything. The salesperson was nice and turned off the fan for me, and understood it was creating a mini-strobe-light effect (which she told her co-worker when she asked).  It occurred to me afterward that I was exposing myself by admitting that the combination of sensory information was affecting me.  I think I’m okay with that.

Before now, I didn’t know I could reserve a book at Barnes & Noble and pick it up at the register.  While I enjoy reading and getting new books, I often find the experience of looking for specific books at that store to be overstimulating.  Walking in, there are gadgets and magazines and best sellers and so much to take in visually that I often have to step back to remember what I came there for.  Since Barnes and Noble here is attached to a large mall, parking also can be challenging so I may walk in already feeling like I’ve been through an ordeal.  However, last Wednesday was much easier – it was the middle of a weekday and it had been drizzling, so traffic was comparatively low.  I did spend some time looking at some of the journals and things, and then I was able to go to the register, ask for my book, and check out.  I’m discovering I have about a twenty-minute tolerance at busy stores before I start  to shut down and wander around aimlessly.  Reserving the book allowed me the time to have some browsing time and leave before I got overwhelmed.

I got a weighted blanket!  I’m so excited!  It’s handmade, which cut the costs a lot once I found someone to make it for me (my sewing skills are very basic).  It’s so soothing and helps with anxiety during the day and sleep at night.  It was definitely worth the investment.

These days, I go in and out of acceptance. I have had sensory processing disorder all of my life, and I’ve only been aware of it fully for roughly five months.  My self-perception has been shifting – my reality hasn’t changed much but my perspective has.  After getting more information about my visual processing challenges on top of everything else, I felt more daunted.   I’ve had days where I’ve felt discouraged and like there was so much in my way, as if signs that said “go slowly” really said “stop.”   I’ve been noticing so much more, sensory-wise, and that doesn’t mean that it’s gotten worse, I’m just more aware.  I am acknowledging my challenges and limitations.  I know how to take care of myself better than ever before.  My preferred mindset is to see it like this:  I am trying to find the best possible quality of life for myself.  It may not meet my own or other people’s expectations.  I can create new and reasonable expectations for myself.  I can cheerlead myself on when I feel discouraged without pushing myself past my limits.  I am continually learning new tools and coping mechanisms.  It’s definitely a process, and I’m making progress.

On re-telling my story with sensory details

 I’ve felt overwhelmed this week because I got more information about my vision, which gave me a deeper piece to the puzzle of my sensory experiences – not only do I have poor binocular coordination, but also poor depth perception.  This leads to a number of things, but in short makes it very easy for me to get overstimulated visually.  I’m grateful for the information, and it’s also a lot to digest on top of everything else I’ve learned in the past few months.

Sometimes it seems like I am re-writing my own story, my own history
I know more of the hows and whys,
What I thought were tantrums were meltdowns
What I thought was shyness were often sensory shutdowns – like being put on the spot in a class and freezing and ending up saying nothing
Startling easily if someone came up unexpectedly or from loud noises,
Disconnection from my physical body related to feeling out of place in space, to not seeing distances accurately, to seeing much too much of everything;
and from tactile defensiveness, which came across as a traumatic reaction to touch.
When I experienced sensory overload often, it built up and led to breakdowns, which sometimes led to physical illnesses or depression.
Cringing at loud noises, gagging at strange smells
It all makes much more sense now.

I find this unsettling. I am aware that it also has the potential to be empowering.  I have information that has incredible explanatory power, a huge light bulb.  A huge light bulb that could lead to a key to discovering how to create a good quality of life for myself, on my own terms.

However, I also feel a deep sense of sadness, of grief
for all the years I tried to push these parts of me to the side
for realizing how hard I’ve been compensating – both consciously and unconsciously – and how exhausting that has been.

Now I feel like someone is squeezing my heart.  I am tired.  I feel discouraged.  I want to tap into the empowering pieces of these revelations, but they are not present for me right now.  There are no immediate answers. I am doing a lot to take care of myself. I need time with this.

Balancing my auditory sensitivity and love of music

Sense-wise, I would say that after touch, I am most sensitive to sound.  I startle – and sometimes jump – at loud noises,  despise firecrackers, and have a challenging time focusing in environments where there are multiple competing sounds.

I also love music, particularly live music.  My taste in music is fairly broad:  I enjoy singer-songwriters, Americana, folk, Celtic, other world music, rock, alternative, and even some heavy metal on occasion.

When I was 23-24, I regularly went to clubs and bars to hear live music.  I did some of this before smoking was banned indoors in Albuquerque, so I would often come home smelling of smoke and feeling like I’d been in proximity with too many people.  Granted, I may have ignored that feeling and made going more of a priority.  After a few months of this, the exhaustion caught up with me.

Now, I have a difficult time imagining going to those places, even if I like who’s playing.  I imagine the crowd, the sound bouncing off the walls, the volume tweaked ear-piercingly loud and the distorted sound quality, not being able to understand people when they try to speak to me.  Thinking of this is almost enough to overwhelm me as it is.  Now, I have a clearer idea of my limits, and I am much more aware of what sensory overload feels like.

Still, I go to music regularly, generally at smaller and more sensory-friendly venues. I know to plan ahead if I go to a larger event.

There have been times where the sound has seemed too loud, and for that, I now have a solution: ear plugs.  My earplugs are rated for 18 decibels and are made specifically for musicians or listening to live music.  They turn down the volume for me without muffling or distorting the sound.

ear plugs 1
I’ve had these for over a month now and I carry them with me on my keychain.  They’ve certainly helped when I’ve used them.  It’s also reassuring to know I have them with me.
Ear plugs 2

My earplug case, along with my keys and my Van Gogh’s Starry Night lanyard keychain.

I’m grateful for my sensory tools. I’m now giving myself permission to say:  “That seems too loud to me,” and taking the time to take care of myself, whether it means stepping out for a moment or putting in my ear plugs so I can enjoy the music more.