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Sense and Sensitivity

Miriam Bloch

When bright lights or noisy crowds or seemingly normal smells and tastes drive you crazy — something more might be at play

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

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“What really matters is the person’s level of functioning,” Jerusalem-based occupational therapist Chava Zehava Fleischmann explains, “how is it affecting her life, what are the areas in which she feels limited, does it constrict her in any way, and how”

B othered by the sound of fingernails on a blackboard? What if you also feel that way when touched from behind or unexpectedly? You’re exasperated by the volume of your kids’ music, tense up from the smells of your coworker’s lunch, and feel thrown when things get in the way of your perfectly planned weekly schedule. 

Anxiety, control, and overwhelm are just some of the terms that have been tossed at you, but you wonder: What if there’s another explanation? 

That Makes Sense

You may have always been this way, but suddenly, as an adult, it matters. It matters, because no longer are you the child whom people forgave for her quirkiness; it matters, because when you snap at your toddler who reached out to stroke your face, or when you react to your spouse’s early homecoming with frustration because you just weren’t ready for him, not yet, there’s too much going on, you know it’s stopping you from being the person you want to be. It matters so much that you start to hate yourself for being this way. You’re frustrated and so are the people around you. Nobody is able to make sense of your reactions, of your intense need for things to be a certain way — least of all yourself.

If any of that sounds familiar, you’re probably well acquainted with terms like panic, anxiety, OCD, and depression. But somewhere, something niggles; you know that can’t be the whole story. How does it sufficiently explain why you hate noise and bright lights and recoil at the slightest form of touch? You often feel dizzy, you avoid heights, and you get nauseous each time you travel — why?

Questions like these followed Rachel S. Schneider, MA, MHC, over the years, as she struggled to find an explanation that would tie together the gamut of her frustrating experiences. And then, in 2010, at age 27, she stumbled upon some interesting research and finally had her lightbulb moment: She wasn’t crazy or impatient or obsessed — she had sensory processing disorder (SPD), a neurological condition that impacts the way one processes the information that enters the nervous system through the senses.

Later, Rachel would go on to establish a website on adulthood SPD, as well as author the blog Coming to My Senses, which, she says, provides an intimate picture of SPD diagnosis and treatment in adulthood. In 2016 she published her first book, Making Sense: A Guide to Sensory Issues, in which she uses a combination of plain English, a good dose of humor, and thorough research to help people understand adulthood sensory issues and the struggles that accompany them.

 

All Systems Go… Or Not

What is sensory processing anyway?

When a sensory stimulus entering the system — say, a bright light or a soft touch — is not adequately processed, the body cannot respond appropriately; hence the terms sensory processing disorder or sensory integration dysfunction.

 

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Stimuli can come from any of the senses — sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell, as well as from the proprioception (the body’s sense of position, orientation, and location in physical space), interoception (the internal sense that tells us what our body needs to function), and vestibular (balance) systems.

When the systems work at a healthy level, responses are either negative or positive but are appropriate given the input (snatching your finger away from a hot iron, for example, or feeling excited upon hearing music at a wedding hall), and for the most part, performance and function are optimal. When the system goes awry — in sensory lingo, lacks organization — and the brain perceives certain input as a threat, responses become disproportionate in relation to the input, and can be either physical or emotional.

 A common example of this, says occupational therapist Miriam Manela, founder and director of The Thrive Group, a New Jersey–based occupational therapy clinic, is responding to an innocent brush on the shoulder by reciprocating with a shove. An emotional response might be a sudden intense need to yell or cry or run away and hide.

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 600)

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