A few weeks ago, I wrote about what it means to be sensory defensive. The basic definition, as provided by Dr. Sharon Heller in Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight, is this: “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.”
As promised, this post is a summary of Dr. Heller’s recommendations for living well in an overstimulating world. Whether sensory defensive or not (I am in some areas, not in others), her tools are helpful for everybody, and I highly recommend the book. Dr. Heller has covered all the bases, and created a timeless guide for a healthy life.
Your Sensory Diet
The last part of the book is divided into two sections, “Your Sensory Diet,” and “Removing Treatment Obstacles.” These bullet points will highlight information from the first section. I’ll save the latter section for a future post.
- Jot down (and rate from 1-3) the objects, people and/or situations that stress your senses and which you find yourself avoiding. Heller provides a list, but you could do just fine if you aim to be specific when you create this inventory.
- Get used to body scanning for tension throughout the day. Start at the feet or head, and go up or down. Where do you feel tight, clenched, compressed, etc.? Are you frequently tense? Once you’ve found the tension, part of the exercise is to let go of it by allowing that part of your body soften.
- If you have severe sensory defensiveness, seeing an occupational therapist (OT) could help. Seek one who is a specialist in sensory integration.
- Engage in proprioceptive activities (“priming the pump,” as Heller calls it). Deep pressure on your body and heavy work that engages your body helps you feel grounded. This can be done in many ways, such as house work, exercise, standing in front of a wall and pushing into it with straight arms, or pushing your hands together in prayer position. What you are doing is stimulating the brain’s cerebellum, which communicates with the reticular activating system to inhibit arousal to a normal level. Our bodies were designed for movement and exercise. Heller points out how active our early ancestors were, and that exercise purges stress chemicals and helps organize the brain to do its job effectively.
- Slow down the music and turn down the volume. Music that is fast and loud creates internal chaos for the sensory defensive. Perhaps even try baroque or New Age music, which shift brain consciousness toward alpha waves, enhancing overall well-being (I’ve been listening to alpha wave music for six months and it has made a giant difference for me!).
- Chant, hum or sing. It creates vibration in the upper body that leads to deeper breathing, a more relaxed jaw and throat, and released tension.
- Replace your lightbulbs with the full-spectrum variety. They’re available for fluorescents, too. (Heller includes a fascinating section on light therapy, e.g., the work of optometrist John Downing and the Lumatron phototherapy device.)
- Carpets, paints, cleaning products, self-care products, etc. should all be as chemically free as possible. Besides the fact that chemicals are far from harmless, they can set off olfactory alarms for the sensory defensive which others are able to ignore. (I adore the smell of essential-oil-based stuff, but can’t tolerate perfume at all).
- Pay attention to your physical environment. Feng shui your home to allow natural flow of energy (de-clutter!), and choose paint colors based on mood impacts (this information can be easily found online; green has the most restful effect). Also, escape to nature as often as you can, and bring nature into your home.
The important thing to remember is that there is science behind these tips. Brain waves, pulse, breath, etc. have been measured and compared when exposed to different sensory inputs, such as fast, drum-based music versus music with a slower (or no) beat, and different types of light. And while some of us might be painfully aware of our adverse reactions to some stimuli, others may have been living with the discomfort for so long that we have accepted it as “normal.” I invite you to play with this information: take a baseline of your body’s stimuli responses, incorporate some changes into your sensory diet, and see what happens.
Have you incorporated any of these types of changes into your daily life? What effects have you felt?