Mental Health: What Is Sensory Defensiveness?

too loud book coverI’m currently reading a book called Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight by Sharon Heller. Sounds like erotica, I know, but it’s actually about what it’s like to be a sensory defensive person in the world, and how to cope. My coach recommended it a few weeks ago after I told her how spending a half day in a noisy, busy hair academy (chosen because it was cheap), getting my gray colored over AND foils AND a haircut, left me completely shattered. My plan had been to go to my office afterward and work for the rest of the day, but when I got there, I lay curled in fetal position on my beanbag chair for 30 minutes before I could even attempt to look at words on a page. I considered shaving my head and getting a nice wig, rather than ever go through that kind of torture again (I have way too much hair; the foils pushed me over the edge).

A surge of books and articles have been written recently about what it means to be an introvert; as it turns out, the concept has historically been rather misunderstood, so the material filled an information need. It helped a lot of people, me included, understand why we have no problem engaging with groups of people—leading meetings, facilitating workshops, public speaking, etc.—but then require anywhere between hours and days of quiet time to restore our energy balance. Many of us have also heard of highly sensitive people (HSPs), a term introduced by Dr. Elaine Aron in 1996. But sensory defensive? That’s a term we don’t see kicked around as much, even though it has been around since the 1960s (although called “tactile defensive” until the 1980s).

As defined by Dr. Heller, “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 nonirritating stimuli.” The stimuli can include anything from irritation to tags in clothing, to touching dirt, to an aversion to cutting your nails, to getting carsick.

There’s some science behind why some people can find themselves with this condition. Three particularly important senses are involved, and those are the “proximal,” which tell you what’s going on inside your own body: 1) the tactile system, responsible for information on touch, pain, temperature and pressure, 2) the vestibular system, which involves inner ear structures and is used to detect movement and changes in the position of your head and 3) the proprioceptive system, which provides feedback from your muscles, joints, and tendons that enables you to know your body’s position in space. Then, these three sensory systems send messages to the three parts of your brain: 1) the brain stem, or primitive brain, 2) the limbic system, or emotional brain, and 3) the neocortex, or thinking brain.

Megaphone manWhen integration is lacking between the proximal systems, and/or connectivity blips in the three brain parts make it difficult for the brain to organize the inputs from the proximal systems, you find people who are sensory defensive. This isn’t to say that the other senses – touch, vision, hearing, smell and taste – aren’t also involved. Oh yes, throw them all into the sensory defensive stew!

From the reading I’ve done about introverts, HSPs, empaths, people with anxiety disorder, and the sensory defensive condition, there is an unsurprising amount of overlap in symptoms and traits. In fact, sensory defensiveness is often misdiagnosed as anxiety, Heller writes. And, it largely boils down to one core concept: our brains receive and process signals differently, then tell our bodies how to respond. For whatever reason—biological, environmental, psychological—some people’s brains and bodies respond in a more dramatic way than others. That could range from having physiological reactions of nausea, headaches, etc. to stimuli such as light, smells, and touch, all the way to a fight-or-flight cortisol spree, which, while unpleasant at the moment of occurrence, also has long-term health implications.

Having read about a third of the book so far, I’m not convinced either way yet as to whether I’m sensory defensive or not, and while I may be, I’d certainly fall in the “mild” category in terms of symptoms (some with this condition find things such as the sound of a bag of potato chips being opened excruciating!). However, I’m about to get into the tips and tricks section for how to cope as a sensory defensive in a stimulating world, and given that I do know I’m an introverted empath who has had anxiety disorder, something tells me the information will be useful in some capacity or another! I will be sure to share the highlights in a future blog post.

Have you had experience with sensory defensiveness, or any of the other conditions I’ve listed? Whether diagnosis-driven or anecdotal, I’m interested to hear stories of your experience in a world that can feel too loud, too bright, too fast, too tight.


  1. says

    Gosh, how interesting, Laura. I once bumped into a former colleague whom I hadn’t seen for years, since before she’d had children, and she described how her son had special needs related to being oversensitive, which made normal classroom life very difficult for him to tolerate. She didn’t seem to have a medical diagnosis to describe it, and I hadn’t heard it defined as a clinical condition before your post. I do know however that occasionally when recovering after an illness, I’ve had heightened sensitivity to smells – presumably because the body becomes extra defensive while vulnerable – and it has been quite a revelation. Equally after going without food before and after an operation, nothing ever tastes as good as that first cup of tea and ham sandwich (which seems to be standard hospital issue here)! To live with such heightened sensitivity all the time would be challenging, I’m sure.
    Debbie Young recently posted…An Old-fashioned Remedy for A New-fangled IllnessMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      Oh man, yes, it would be super challenging for a child in a classroom setting. Here’s a good resource for parents who are experiencing some of these challenges with their kids:

      The tea and ham sandwich made me laugh — deprivation really can intensify senses. I had an experience when I was working in Cameroon, eating blah food, and Francis came out to visit and brought me a couple of bags of fruit and nut mixes called Sahale Snacks. I almost died from happiness when I ate them. Then, when I returned home and bought them, I was like, “Meh, what was so great about these?!”

  2. says

    Hi Laura! Definitely interesting stuff. I definitely believe that some people are much more sensitive than others. I tend to be able to handle a lot of it but got worse during menopause for sure. In some ways my DH is more sensitive than I am which helps because together we manage it pretty well. The book sounds like a great resource for learning ways to help navigate it all. You’ll have to let us know what you think once you finish. ~Kathy
    Kathy @ SMART Living recently posted…3 Steps To Right-Sizing Your Work For A Happy LifeMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      I believe it now, but you know, Kathy, I used to kind of dismiss the notion of “I’m sensitive.” Funny enough, I’m one of the sensitive people! LOL!

      Interesting that you brought up menopause. Hormones have an effect on so many different things in our bodies. I will be looking out to see if hormonal changes come up at all in this book.

  3. says

    This seems like a very helpful and necessary addition to the research on anxiety and sensitivity challenges. I’ll be interested in your next blog about the techniques for managing it.

    I too am an introvert and totally relate to needing down time to re-energize. I’ve also learned I need to choose my people engagement activities in as balanced a way as I can so as not exhaust myself. If I’m been teaching a class, for example, I usually don’t make plans to get together with friends during that same time.

    Having this sort of information out for the public in accessible language will go a long way toward letting people know that this is a real problem some people have. The “Oh, don’t be so sensitive,” judgment may then recede and enable more authentic dialogue between people. Wouldn’t that be nice?
    Jagoda Perich-Anderson, M.A. recently posted…Relationships Are A DanceMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      It would be nice, Jagoda! It would be a shift from the “man up!” culture we’ve drifted into, and toward one of endorsing that as humans, we are bodies of energy that vibrate at different frequencies, and need to take care of ourselves in the way that suits each of us best.

      Totally know what you mean about balancing social engagements depending on what else is on the calendar. And for an introvert, teaching must be one of the most exhausting activities going.

    • Laura Zera says

      Do you ever find that when it’s really quiet your ears hum? When you hit that point of really, really, really quiet?

  4. says

    Okay, so how about every day after school when students finally left the classroom? I would go into complete and utter withdrawal. Teaching requires a person to always be “on stage” all day, every day. Even though I approached my work as more of a facilitator rather than a “sage on the stage” it was still draining. I have heard of this term before, and can say for certain I am a sensory defensive person and that is why I most likely had to get out of the classroom or go absolutely batty. I’ll take a look at that book too.
    Jeri recently posted…#WriteTip: Plotters vs Pantsers by Michael CairnsMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      Wow. But how could you know until you’d been at it for a while, hey? I’m glad you realized what you needed to do. Love the expression “sage on the stage.”

  5. says

    Urgh. I suppose I’ve always been mildly sensory defensive (although this description is new to me). Interacting with large groups, being on public transit, and being in any high-stimulus environment would leave me with an urgent need for instant solitude, preferably in a dark and quiet room. After my concussion a couple of years ago, though, the “mild” escalated to “severe” for several hellish months, and even now that the post-concussion symptoms have mostly abated, I still get hit with random sensory overload. Sometimes it’s unpredictable, sometimes it’s due to lack of sleep, sometime’s it’s triggered by stress–any which way you slice it, it’s ghastly and debilitating.

    Sounds like an interesting book, Laura, and I look forward to hearing about the tips and strategies for coping.
    Kern Windwraith recently posted…Of milestones and gratitudeMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      Kern, this quote comes from the University of Massachusetts paper that I linked to in the post: “People with a history of physical or sexual abuse, torture, institutionalization, sensory deprivation, or a traumatic injury, have about an 80% chance of developing sensory defensiveness.” I’m sorry to hear it can be so hellish for you. I’ll try to hurry up and finish the book so I can get the tips and strategies post up!

  6. says

    I’m an introvert … who has had anxiety disorder” Laura, me too. I just linked to your blog in a post and when I checked the link I remembered we talked about this book and I had to read the post and the comments (Jeri, I hear you about teaching!) I need to get this book. The real one, not the Kindle. I love my Kindle but I have so much sensitivity to light that reading it at night can mess with sleep! I felt so validated reading this post, thanks so much. My husband doesn’t get why when I have a migraine I need dark and quiet. Or why I need a day off after a party. Or why I don’t really like parties. And I totally get your hair experience. Sounds like torture. But your hair is lovely:)
    Cindy recently posted…Happy AccidentsMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      It’s well worth the read, Cindy. I’m just finishing the last chapter, and plan to do a follow-up post of tips and tools. The end of the book is full of them. Really good “handbook for life,” actually. And now I’m reading Elaine Aron’s “The Highly Sensitive Person.” I think there’s so much overlap between all of these things, so I’m avoiding using labels for myself, but am sure gaining some new insights. It can be very validating. The trick, I’ve found, is to figure out how to work with it so that “acceptance” doesn’t become “limitation,” if that makes sense. Understand the signs and symptoms, but don’t let them make your world smaller. I hadn’t realized until recently that I’d started to do that, so am reversing the pattern! Thanks for being here, Cindy, and the hair compliment, lol!

  7. says

    Wow. I’ve honestly always thought I was pretty far along the autistic spectrum because of this stuff. I’m highly highly irrationally sensitive to sounds. I can’t sleep if my hands or feet need lotion (and will actually wake up out of a dead sleep to moisturize). So, my coping mechanisms help. I keep lotion by the bed so I don’t have to walk to the bathroom. And I listen to a lot of pink noise and rain sounds when I am having problem with noise. It’s the most played mp3 on my phone.

    I learned about pink noise when I discovered misophonia (similar, related, noise-specific), and that 30 mins a day can help train the brain to tune out sounds. And that earplugs are not recommended because then you become more sensitive to sound. This has played out in my life. Pink noise has helped a lot to lower my stress levels and to help me cope with general din.
    AK Anderson recently posted…Mini-piphany about ProcessMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      AK, you sound like someone who would really benefit from reading the whole book. I’ve put up a post about coping tips and tools, and plan to do a Part II of it, but the book explains things in so much detail and there really is a lot of science behind why people become sensory defensive and have extreme responses to stimuli. Your lotion one is interesting, especially that you’ll wake out of a dead sleep. (I can’t go to sleep without lip balm on.) And pink noise is great, hey? I also find it helps me focus when I sit down to write. Thanks for your comment, and happy writing (and querying, if you’re still doing that) to you!

  8. Joni says

    Oh man, does this ever resonate for me. Now that my kids are in school full time, and have been or a few years, my anxiety has been greatly reduced. I have to be careful to make sure I get lots of down time alone at home. I think I’ve done a pretty good job managing my symptoms/reactions in the last couple years. I get better at it every year.

    One anecdote I have to share is that when I have to go shopping in a large store (like Bed, Bath, Beyond or Sears) I can last about 20 minutes before I have to leave. I just get overwhelmed with all the smells and noise.

    • Laura Zera says

      And aren’t the perfume counters at department stores also just way too much?!? I’m glad to hear that you’ve been able to figure out what you need and work it into your life. Given that we live in a society that values the extrovert (and extroverts tend to be less sensitive to stimuli), we have to look out for ourselves! Thanks for sharing your input, Joni.

  9. Joni says


    I can’t deal with most department stores. I steer waaay clear of the fragrance counter. But scents are funny. I do fine with the essential oils, etc in the health food stores. It’s just the ones at the cosmetic counter that kill me.

    I bought new lotion recently and finally opened it. It’s got a VERY strong scent, but I LOVE it. It’s mostly sandalwood.

    Yeah. Anyway. My husband is convinced that I’m an extrovert. I maintain that I’m just a gregarious introvert. :D Thanks for the essay. Very helpful to get this stuff out there. I hadn’t realized there was a name for it until my therapist mentioned it to me several years ago, btw. :D

    • Laura Zera says

      I’m exactly the same with essential oils — I could sniff those until the cows come home! And there are definitely gregarious introverts — I would say that I’m one, too. Being an introvert definitely doesn’t mean the same thing as being shy (although there are some introverts who are also shy).

      Glad to meet you and your beautiful, cool quilts, Joni!

  10. says

    Your website looks wonderful, Laura! I was very interested in this post because I’m 100% sure my late mother suffered from sensory defensiveness. She often told us how sounds and other stimuli literally hurt her sometimes or at least that the irritation was severe. Having some degree of this trait was probably good from an evolutionary standpoint because people who had it would be the first to realize that the subtle rustle in the bushes was actually a saber tooth tiger they should run from! It made it harder for her to mother and now that she’s gone understanding things like this about her help me to put alot of things I used to resent into perspective.

    I’ve been somewhat following the topics of introversion, Highly Sensitive People, empaths, and sometimes-disabling anxiety because I know myself to be/have all of these and it’s nice to know overlaps are common. I’m not as introverted as you (don’t need much recovery time from overstimulation) but I get it!

    • Laura Zera says

      Thanks, Miranda!
      You might want to have a read of this book. It gives so much more detail about the science behind it than I can provide in a summary. It also talks about people with sensory defensiveness and parenting, and just how hard it can be because of their response to even touching their child.

      Yes, so much overlap. I know you’ve voice strong dislike of labels and diagnosis before — the fact that there’s so much overlap could lead to a person ending up with eight simultaneous diagnoses, and a total complex just from that! I’m working on finding the gifts within the symptoms and disorders. While it’s very draining to be an empathic HSP, it’s also a gift to have the hyper-awareness. Now the trick for peeps like us is to learn how to use it to our benefit.

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