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Uptight & Off Center
How Sensory Processing Disorder Creates Anxiety, Confusion & Other Mental Health Issues & What You Can Do about It , by Sharon Heller, PhD (Symmetry, 2009)
eBook and paperback coming soon!
All activities, whether figuring out what to wear, cooking a meal, washing the dishes, or hitting a hole in one require organization, planning, execution, muscle coordination and balance, and filtering out distractions. For the majority of people, sensory processing is well organized and integrated enough so routine actions like these take place automatically and effortlessly, accurately and efficiently. This process is referred to as sensory integration, a concept first recognized and researched in the 1960’s by occupational therapist A. Jean Ayres whose theories and work with learning disabled children pioneered the field known as sensory integration.
But in anywhere from fifteen to thirty percent of normal functioning adults, a “traffic jam” occurs in the brain that alters how you perceive and respond to your world. This faulty sensory processing plays out in different ways. People with SPD may experience extreme reactions to sensory input, from barely registering sensation – not feeling pain from a bruise -- to feeling overwhelmed by slight sensation – startling when the phone rings. You may have difficulties discriminating one sensation from another, for instance from the taste of lemon from lime, or the sound of a cat’s meow from a bird chirp. You may have problems with movement and be clumsy, poorly coordinated and have a sloppy handwriting. Some people experience difficulties in one area of functioning, others in all three areas.
All these difficulties in accurately registering and perceiving sensorimotor information make it hard to focus in on and act on your world in an efficient, purposeful and organized way. Messages get scrambled, over- or under filtered and you feel confused by the input, or you feel starved for or flooded with sensory information, and what seems simple and automatic to the normal brain becomes perplexing, irritating, effortful or impossible. Spontaneous behavior takes effort and energy and, in spite of best efforts, is inefficient, excessive or useless. Consequently, the world swells with confusion and you feel off center, out of focus, missing a beat, detached, and innocently say and do things at the wrong time, in the wrong place, in the wrong way.
How does all this confusion impact your well being? Profoundly so. Constant failure makes you feel stupid, clumsy, inept, embarrassed, self-conscious, humiliated, frustrated and guilty that you constantly disappoint. Reflecting your confused, disorganized state, your behavior appears frenetic, inappropriate, withdrawn, aggressive, self-absorbed, disorganized, or crazed. To function, you erect defenses, like avoidance, control, rigidity, and obsessive and compulsive behavior and people accuse you of being controlling, manipulative, and driving others crazy or being crazy.
How do you explain to them or to yourself that you are doing your best to adapt to the world as your brain perceives it? It’s hard. How do you make sense of why life is a constant struggle when you don’t know what is wrong with you? You can’t.
Consequently, you feel deeply flawed: “I can’t do it;” “I don’t have fun like others;” “I’m not normal;” “People don’t understand me;” “People don’t like me.” Psychotherapists try to convince you that these negative self-appraisals are unrealistic and can be changed through more positive thinking and by changing your intentions to reflect greater competence. It’s a tough sell. The negative self-appraisals are based on real neurophysiological deficits, not first and foremost on critical parenting or other causes of low self-esteem. As long as your senses keep betraying you, the deficits stubbornly persist.
How Do I Know If I Have SPD?
Sensory processing disorder is a complex condition that has many different signs. These include:
Oversensitive to Sensation
- Touchy about light touch, textures, clothing, ordinary affection
- Picky about food
- Bothered easily by noise, odors, bright light
- Fearful from movement experiences, like elevators, escalators, roller coasters, going fast, or spinning
- Avoid eye contact
Undersensitive to Sensation
- Slow to get moving; tire easily
- Seem oblivious to environment
- Seek intense sensation, like loud noise, spicy food, strong perfumes
- Crave roller coasters and fast movement
- May not notice if cut or bruised
- Hard to get up in morning
- Thrill seeker, ignoring potential danger
- Seek stimulants -- caffeine, tobacco, cocaine
- Hyperactive & fidgety
- Clumsy, awkward, or accident-prone
- Poor balance
- Rigid & tense posture or floppy & slouching
- Jerky movements
- Poor fine motor coordination – sloppy handwriting
- Fail to work up to capacity
- Learning problems but normal intelligence
- Perseverate on small detail
- Unaware/spaced out
- Hyperalert, not processing
- Turned inward
Poorly Organized Behavior
- Disorganized, distracted, spacey
- Problem following directions or adapting to new situation
- Frustrated, aggressive or withdrawn when encountering failure
- Compulsive, obsessed
- Rigid, controlling, short-tempered
- Feel weird, crazy, different & inept
- Feel you disappoint, anger & frustrate
- Feel “lazy,” bored, unmotivated, depressed
- Unable to unwind & self-calm
- Emotionally labile
- Emotionally flat
- Withdrawn, shy
- Inappropriately loud, silly, attention getting
Who Has SPD?
Though few people currently know about sensory processing disorder, it is estimated to afflict anywhere from five to thirty percent of children and adults without disabilities to some degree. However, according to occupational therapist and researcher Lucy Jane Miller, only around 10% of children with SPD will likely be diagnosed and treated by occupational therapy, the profession involved with understanding, researching, evaluating and treating sensory processing problems. These are mostly children who have severe over- or under-responsiveness to sensory stimuli that interferes with daily life, including social skills, attention, self-regulation, and skills development, and in whom SPD co-exists along with other diagnoses, such as autism, pervasive development disorder, ADD and other learning disabilities (some estimate that many as 70% learning disabled children have sensory processing disorder). Many, like those on the autistic spectrum, suffer abnormal responses to sensation so severely that they live constantly traumatized by the condition. Recall in the film Rainman how the autistic savant Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman screamed at the sound of the fire alarm or at being touched.
What happens to the 15% to 20% of “normal” but “out of sync” difficult children with sensory processing problems? Most will remain undiagnosed and untreated. Few parents, teachers, caregivers, physicians, mental health workers or parents are aware of sensory processing disorder. Of those professionals familiar with the condition, many deny its existence as an actual and treatable condition, particularly psychologists and psychiatrists who will treat the child from a psychiatric perspective. Consequently, many children grow into adults never having been identified with or treated for SPD.
This has dire consequences.
Without appropriate treatment, you will not come near your potential. SPD truncates skills, robs you of stamina, causes spaciness, distractibility, disorganization and disorientation, restricts work choice and location, and creates extreme stress that ultimately leads to a barrage of stress related illnesses like headaches, GI problems, dizziness, and chronic fatigue, and psychiatric disorders ranging from anxiety to dissociation. All these conditions interfere with self-sufficiency and many flounder through life, and often a lonely one.
As few people understand or know of SPD and the problems it creates, family, friends and co-workers expect you to behave normally. When you don’t, people become easily frustrated and disappointed in you and tend to attribute your behavior to a character flaw: you are difficult, fussy, stubborn, cranky, short-tempered, picky, unfriendly, disorganized, impulsive, lazy, depressed, attention getting or just spoiled. Such misunderstanding make you feel weird and crazy and you believe your failings must be your fault, “Stupid me!” Feeling that you don’t belong and not knowing how to help yourself be more “normal,” many live isolated and lonely lives.
If you turn to professionals for help, most assume your symptoms are psychological and treat you with tranquilizers and antidepressants or psychotherapy. Such treatment generally does mildly improve quality of life by helping you cope better and feel better about self but it has little to no impact on the sensory and regulatory issues underlying this dysfunction: sensory processing problems stem not from negative thinking or critical parenting but from miswiring in the primitive brainstem. Consequently, your functioning improves little and, still not knowing what is wrong with you, you feel invalidated and still anxious.
What can you do to help yourself? Get educated. Get treated. Get positive.
Part one eight chapters that provide a basic overview of sensory processing disorder and how it creates psychopathology and other associated problems. Chapter eight is a checklist of symptoms.
Part two consists of six chapters on how to create balance in your nervous system, your world, your body, and your mind. The last chapter is a sensory survival kit.
Part three consists of four chapters that provide sensorimotor activities to help balance your nervous system.
Part four consists of five chapters, four that discuss how to incorporate sensory activities into different aspects of your life -- while driving, traveling and so forth -- to reduce the stress involved in specific activities, and the last chapter on holistic solutions for the associated problems that accompany SPD.