Sensory Processing: When You Need To Go Up

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So I have a new therapist and I love her. Which means that there are about to be a lot of posts about personal insights coming your direction, because it’s been literally years since I’ve had a therapist who is pushy enough to get me to talk and insightful enough to make suggestions I haven’t heard before. And let me tell you she dropped some insight on me yesterday and it’s only our third session and I was not ready for her to pick up on my needs so dang quickly. This is your regular reminder to get you a therapist that feels right to you, because I have struggled through about five therapists who weren’t right and got nothing, and in 3 hours this lady has done more for me than any of them.

But today we’re not going to be talking about therapists and how awesome they can be. Today we’re going to talk about an element of sensory needs that is so rarely discussed that I work at the autism society and I flipping forgot about it: when you need more sensory energy instead of less. To clarify: I’m not talking about needing more sensory input vs. less sensory input. I’m talking about which direction the input takes your nervous system.

This can be a confusing distinction, so let’s take a couple of steps backward and see if we can work from there. When humans are faced with conflict, our nervous system activates: we hit fight or flight. But some of us have a freeze tendency. We leave our bodies, we dissociate, our energy and adrenaline seem to disappear. On an everyday basis it’s always useful to be balanced between that high energy reactivity which you may need because it activates you to go and do, vs. the calm that keeps you from getting overwhelmed and overstimulated.

We often think about sensory input as a way to bring people down: are you having a meltdown? You may need different sensory input. Are you running and screaming and have too much energy? Maybe you need some deep pressure. We think of the senses as a way to calm people down because it’s much easier to see if someone is dysregulated when they’re highly energized and all over the place.

But sensory input can go the other direction too. It can also bring someone’s energy levels up. The example that we were talking about was my average workday. Therapist asked what I do for self care at work (and I laughed), so we discussed where I tend to be on an anxiety level at work. I tend to be hugely disconnected from my body. I dissociate. I ignore my bodily needs. You know, the usual. What we realized was that I was getting really minimal sensory input of the type that makes my body feel good and capable: the proprioceptive, vestibular, spinny, pressure, bouncy goodness that keeps me awake and connected to my body.

It had literally never occurred to me before that I needed to be more activated at work, since we spend so much time thinking about reducing anxiety, staying calm, bringing our emotions down, etc. But here we were, talking about ways to hype me up. Get that nervous system flaring and energized. It was wild but made so much sense, as my responses always tend towards shutdown rather than meltdown, fatigue rather than insomnia, just falling asleep instead of facing my problems. When I do hit high anxiety or high activation, I know how to respond: I know the breathing techniques, I know the mindfulness, I know the sensory input that helps to calm me down.

What I DIDN’T know was what wakes me up and gets me excited. I didn’t even know that I needed to think about that. I think that this is one of the downfalls of focusing our discussions of autism and sensory processing disorder almost exclusively on children. Kids tend to have more energy than your average adult. It’s rare that I hear discussions of sensory supports that talks about people who fall asleep at the drop of a hat, or people who won’t get out of their chair or move. Those are the folks whose nervous systems are down down down. And I’ve noticed that the older people get, the more likely they are to deal with the fatigue, low energy, no activation style of sensory processing.

In order to deal with the fatigue and low energy, we’ve decided that I need to introduce sensory breaks into my day to get up and walk around, as well as start using a yoga ball for seating at least some of the time (so I can do a bit of the bouncy input).

I think it’s incredibly common that issues like sensory processing disorders get pigeonholed as one thing, and the people who fall on the reverse side get a bit boned. I’m always excited when a therapist points out the quieter side of a spectrum and reminds me to notice those needs.

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