Sensory Processing Disorder & Psychopathology

Sensory Processing Disorder, which is the inability to process sensory information efficiently creates or results in a slew of psychiatric disorders, ranging from anxiety to panic to depersonalization. The following are the different types of sensory processing disorders and the psychopathology associated with each.

Sensory Modulation Disorder

Sensory Over-Responsivity or Sensory Defensiveness: Sensory defensiveness, which is hypersensitivity to sensation that the average person can generally tune out creates varying levels of stress and trauma that mimic, exaggerate, or result in many psychiatric conditions. These include:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): As the world feels constantly overwhelming, it leaves you hyped and stressed and the sensory defensive experience muscle tension, fidgeting and restlessness, irritability and perhaps angry outbursts, sleep difficulties, concentration difficulties and fatigue – the symptoms generally used to describe people with GAD. These symptoms however come from sensory overload, not from excessive worry, as they do in those diagnosed with GAD.
  • Phobias & Panic Attack: Easily destabilized from movement experiences, like elevators, escalators, roller coasters, going fast, or spinning, the sensory defensive may panic and display space related phobias like fear of heights, claustrophobia, fear of flying, and so forth.
  • Agoraphobia: Continually overwhelmed by sensation, some SDs will experience panic on an ongoing basis and bury themselves in their homes and appear agoraphobic. The sensory defensive can also become reclusive because home is the only place where they can reasonably control sensory input.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Personality: As the sensory defensive feel victimized by sensations they cannot control, they go overboard trying to control what they can and behave rigidly. To self-calm, they will indulge in compulsions like eating, shopping, sexual activity and so forth, predisposing them to obsessive and compulsive behavior.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Acutely bothered by certain sensations on their hands, some SDs will wash them constantly, wear gloves when preparing meals, and obsess over getting dirty, leading psychologists to believe they have OCD. Other behavior as well can mock OCD. For instance, the sensory defensive might engage in rituals, like repetitive rocking or counting, as a distraction.
  • Addictions: To create a steady flow of pleasurable vibes and blunt feelings of tension, anxiety, and frustration, as well as to blunt the senses, the SD might develop an addiction to controlled substances, like alcohol or tranquilizers.
  • Anorexia: If you are oral defensive, certain food textures or temperatures irritate, as do some taste sensations and the SD develops many food fetishes. Some also have a strong gag reflex. Eating may feel unpleasant and the oral defensive will snack rather than sit down and eat a meal. By adolescence, some will starve themselves and appear anorexic.
  • Depression: Loneliness, anxiety, extreme fatigue and sleep problems, and lack of human affection set up passive resignation and depression follows. Further, the SD feels lack of control in her life and, as what you go for you don’t get, you figure why bother; learned helplessness sets in and you drag through life.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: After someone experiences extreme trauma, their body gets stuck in the "fight or flight" mode. Life seems constantly dangerous and they remain hypervigilant and constantly on guard. This defines the experience of the severely sensory defensive, for who many sensations feel traumatic (Rainman screaming from the fire alarm) and you live your life in constant PTSD.
  • Borderline Personality: Marked shifts in mood, impulsive and unpredictable behavior and great difficulty in personal relationships, often transitory, along with self-destructive addictive behavior, like substance abuse for self-calming make the SD appear a borderline personality.
  • Bipolar Disorder: Sensory overload in turn causes impulsive, frantic, aggressive, and even violent behavior and the SD appear manic, and ultimately shut down when you cannot escape the overload, and you appear depressed. Both behaviors make the SD appear bipolar.
  • Depersonalization/Dissociation: When life inside one’s body becomes intolerable, the sensory defensive shut out the world and depersonalize, losing sense of self as real. Some dissociate and lose memory, as in amnesia or multiple personality disorder.
  • Suicide: If anxiety and tension becomes unrelenting and maddening and you constantly want to jump out of your skin -- a psychiatric condition called akathisia -- some SDs will attempt suicide.

Sensory Under-Responsivity

Languid/Passive Seeking: Characterized by low arousability, low muscle tone, and low activity

  • Generalized Anxiety: Because so much information is missed, the world often doesn’t make sense and, easily confused and frustrated, you get quickly anxious.
  • ADD: Needing much sensation to tune in, you appear unfocused and out of it.
  • Addictions/Substance Abuse: You rely on stimulants to rev up enough to tune into the world.
  • Depression: Under-responsivity to sensation, low muscle tone that makes moving effortful and low energy creates lethargy and depression.
  • Overeating & Inability to Lose Weight: Passively seeking sensation, you overeat and, as moving takes effort, don’t exercise. As a result, many languids are overweight and fail at dieting. Added weight also feels oddly comforting as it makes you feed more grounded and therefore more secure.
  • Bulimia: Over-eating and lack of control over your weight may lead to gorging and purging, which provide intense sensory input.
  • Sexual Acting Out: You engage in frequent sex as intense odors, sounds and movement, as well as heavy pressure into the skin, which increases body awareness, provides intense sensory stimulation. Some women will become frequently pregnant as pregnancy adds weight, enhancing bodily sensation and body awareness.
  • Cutting: Emotionally frozen and out of touch with your body, cutting your skin provides at once intense sensation into the skin for body awareness and distraction from intense emotional pain.
  • Dependent Personality: You become dependent on others to force you out of lethargy and organize you.
  • Depersonalization: Under-responsivity to touch and proprioception (sense of body awareness) makes it hard for you to figure out your edges and, out of touch with your body, you may feel unreal and the world distant.

Bold/Active Seeking: Characterized by risk taking, high sociability, attention getting behavior, boredom, and in some cases hyperactivity

  • ADHD: If you don't get enough sensation to feed your nervous system, you become frenetic and appear hyperactive and distracted.
  • Mania: Constant sensation seeking makes you appear manic and you may be misdiagnosed bipolar.  Psychologist Martin Zuckerman found that bipolar disorder and sensation seeking are highly correlated (see resources).
  • Bulimia: You engage in gorging and purging to control weight as this provides intense sensory input.
  • Addictions/Substance Abuse: You use stimulants to rev up and tune in.
  • Sexual Acting Out: You engage in promiscuity and risky sexual behavior for intense sensation and thrills.
  • Overeating: You overeat as food with intense taste revs you up and chomping provides input into the jaws, which quickly modulates.
  • Cutting: Emotionally frozen and out of touch with your body, cutting your skin provides at once intense sensation into the skin for body awareness and distraction from intense emotional pain.
  • Sociopathology: Insensitive and poor at reading social skills and hell-bent on sensation seeking irregardless of the other's needs, you exhibit sociopathic behavior.

Sensory Discrimination Disorder

Poor sensory discrimination makes you feel easily confused and, often wrong in your perceptions, you feel insecure, dependent, and may be afraid to take chances.

  • Learned Helplessness/Depression: Confused, you feel inept and unable to meet your wants, creating learned helplessness and depression.
  • Dependent Personality: Needing to rely on input from others to glean appropriate information from the environment and to help get organized, you appear helpless and dependent.
  • Fear of Dark: Easily disoriented in the dark, you become fearful.
  • Depersonalization: Out of touch with your body, you may feel unreal & the world distant.
  • OCD: Confused and easily thrown, you need everything in its place.

Motor Problems (Dyspraxia & Postural Issues)

Dyspraxia and postural issues makes you clumsy, uncoordinated, unsteady on your feet and accident prone, creating gravitational insecurity (over-responding to position changes) and, as a result, fear.

  • Sports: Afraid of getting hit by a ball that you misjudge, or tripping and falling while running, as well as other realistic mishaps, you dislike sports.
  • School: Worried you would be ridiculed for your clumsiness, as a child you dreaded school.
  • Socializing: Concerned that you will look awkward when writing or signing your name in front of others, or eating and drinking in public, you avoid social situations. You may refuse to go dancing, nervous that others will laugh at your two left feet.
  • Space: Easily losing your place in space, you fear flying, heights and wide, open spaces.
  • Elevators/Escalators: Afraid of not being able to get on or off the escalator on time or without tripping, you fear escalators; worried you will be unable to get in or out of an elevator before the door closes, you fear taking elevators.
  • Tunnels: Nervous that you will be unable to keep your car within its lane in the dark, you fear tunnels.
  • Hitting/Getting Hit: Unable to determine the speed, position, or direction of moving vehicles, you fear getting hit while crossing a street or hitting someone while you are driving.
  • Crowds: Afraid of getting knocked over, you fear being in a crowd.
  • Choking: Worried you will choke (vestibular dysfunction may un-coordinate normal reflexes), you fear swallowing pills.
  • Agoraphobia: Afraid of jelly legs because of floppy muscle tone, you fear falling, fainting, getting injured or losing control and may panic in situations from which you can’t easily escape, like being in a theatre or church.

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