Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight


What to do if you are sensory defensive in an overstimulating world (HarperCollins, 2000) amazon_buynow

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Introduction:  Too Sensitive for Your Own Good (excerpt)

“Relax,” people would tell Dr. H., a college professor, “stop letting everything bother you.”  But she couldn’t and she didn’t know why.  The labels in her clothing, the sound of someone opening a bag of potato chips, the odor of her new car, the flashing pointer on the computer screen, the computer’s hovering noise – everything seemed to drive her crazy.

Driving in traffic, or going to the mall, a restaurant or even to a friend’s could feel like maneuvering through a sensory minefield and at times she needed to brace herself to go out.  Her skin, ears, eyes, nose, taste buds, and teeth were all overly sensitive.

What’s life like for everyone else, she wondered?

She felt old, vulnerable, and weighted down by a pervasive underlying sense of terror.  By turns drained and wired, by the end of the day her body was exhausted but her insides vibrated.  At night she was unable to rest or concentrate but would lie awake for hours, hoping she could quiet her nerves enough to face another day.  Why couldn’t she shut out unwanted sensations and relax?

It wasn’t for lack of trying.  She took yoga, practiced deep breathing exercises, used aromatherapy and tried to meditate.  But during yoga, the overhead lights, the whirring of the air conditioner, the rough carpet touching her feet, the body odors of others in the group, and her instructor’s squeaky voice would grate on her nerves, even when she was not unduly stressed.  During meditation, noises slit open her inner sanctum.  If her cat brushed her arm with his whiskers, her skin crept and she had to break from the stillness to rub the spot.  Moreover, whatever relaxation these activities afforded seemed short lived.

She worried that this might be as good as it gets.

Fortunately, it isn’t. I am Dr. H.  This book is my attempt to enlighten others whose senses are also in overdrive and explain why this happens, what it means, and what they can do about it.

What made me so over-reactive?  Was it stress?  Anxiety?   That’s part of it.  But as a psychologist, I knew this explanation was incomplete.  Though psychotherapy relieved my depression and crippling anxiety, I remained an artful dodger of sensation.  As I aged, the sensory world seemed to invade my space more and more and created an on-going tension that I felt helpless to control.  Always there was a vague, nagging feeling that something more was wrong.  But what?

And then, in 1996, while writing The Vital Touch, a book on mother and baby intimacy, I happened upon a talk by occupational therapist and counseling psychologist Patricia Wilbarger.  She described children who are fussy and hard to calm, who shrink from human touch, arch their back and cry when they are picked up.  Often, these children hate to be bathed and have their hair washed, and throw off hats, clothes and blankets.  Many startle easily to noise or certain movements.  She called their behavior sensory defensiveness.

Hmmm. Could sensory defensiveness explain some of my extreme excitability and need to escape into a cave? Indeed.

Sensory defensiveness is a condition that encompasses a constellation of symptoms, including tension, anxiety, avoidance, stress, anger and even violence, that result from aversive or defensive reactions to what most people consider non-irritating stimuli.  Though largely unrecognized, sensory defensiveness is not uncommon.  As many as 15% of otherwise normal adults have a nervous system that is overly sensitive to sensation:  what is interesting, ho hum, pleasurable or exalting for most people, can be irritating, disgusting, alarming and even painful to them.

Sensory defensives don’t just feel sensitive to sensation.  Along with having acute sensitivity, they feel bothered by and distracted by sensation.  Musicians or artists, for example, can have keen senses but are not necessarily irritated by sensation.  Picasso indisputably had superior vision.  Yet, he read by the light of a naked bulb over his bed, a glare that would make many defensives uncomfortable.  And while the many people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are sensory defensive, some feel distracted but not necessarily bothered by sensation.  Some don’t notice an odor in musty sheets; others notice but it are unconcerned.  The sensory defensive says “No way can I sleep in that bed!”

Here are some symptoms of sensory defensiveness:

  • Annoyed when certain textures touch your skin
  • Recoiling to light, ticklish touch or when someone, particularly a stranger, unexpectedly touches you
  • Startling to loud, sudden, or piercing sounds; being unable to shut out constant noise
  • Wincing at bright lights; becoming disorganized by excessive visual stimulation
  • Grimacing at odors others don’t notice
  • Light-headed and sick from chemicals in the environment
  • Avoiding foods of a certain taste or texture
  • Anxious when experiencing sudden or fast movement, when leaning forward or backward, or from heights, unstable surfaces, swings, or roller coasters
  • Shunning crowds

People with a mild case may feel irritated by many clothing textures and toss and turn at night to the sound of a dripping sink, but find that life is basically manageable.  Though they may be more edgy, fastidious and restless than most, they see themselves as garden variety neurotics, not people with a “disorder.”

People with a severe case suffer hair-raising sensitivity to barely noticeable stimuli.  To them, life feels like a bed of thorny roses -- an on-going struggle to avoid getting pricked, scratched, rubbed or brushed by anything or anyone touching their skin.  A gentle hand on their shoulder can feel like a claw and if you suddenly pat their back, they might need to exert extreme control to not punch you spontaneously.  Other senses will be heightened as well.  Ears may feel like loud amplifiers and the sufferer flees in panic from the low frequency waves of a looming helicopter.  Eating, washing, dressing, loving, working, playing – all activities are carefully scrutinized to avoid unpleasant sensations and seek out soothing ones.  Dis-ease, tension and frustration are their constant companions and undue stress severely diminishes their ability to interact with the world.  Life is rarely joyful.

At this level of severity, most have been diagnosed as learning disabled, ADD, autistic, developmentally delayed, schizophrenic or severely emotionally disturbed.  They generally get referred for some form of therapy.  But some are just quirky, ordinary people leading otherwise normal lives and don’t necessarily appear disabled:  that the slightest touch makes them want to jump out of their skins may not be visible to others.  These people -- normally functioning adults with mild to severe sensory defensiveness -- are the focus of this book