content warning: this post contains discussion of mental health and has self harm mentions
I’m a sensitive guy
When I say I’m Sensitive, I really mean it, in its most literal sense. Certain noises make me flinch and squirm, certain lights make me nauseous, and food is a textural minefield. Wagon wheels (a biscuit with chocolate and marshmallow- a terrible terrible combination) must have been on offer one week in primary school because they showed up in my lunch box out of the blue. I cried every lunchtime that week at just the idea of having to eat them. Ten years later I held back tears in a Subway eating a sandwich with two different crumbly textures that just didn’t work together. It’s kind of embarrassing being a teenager crying at a sandwich in front of your new uni pals. Especially when you can’t explain why and are not even sure if an honest explanation would even improve things. Little old ladies shaking tins and handing out charity stickers were a childhood enemy; to this day I still can’t deal with stickers, sticky labels and certain types of plasters (I’ve made a lot of progress with this one). Light touch can set off a jarring metallic sharpness that runs through my whole body, it can trigger a sudden intense anger and distress; a total mood killer. There is an ingredient in certain cosmetics and toiletries that I’ve narrowed down to being in ‘berry scented’ things, it makes me feel overwhelmingly nauseous and disgusted. I once dated someone who had a raspberry lip balm, it took me a while to figure out what was going on, but whatever the underlying reason, it turns out no one wants to hear “I really like you but sometimes kissing you makes me want to vomit”.
I could go on (and kind of want to because this is pretty therapeutic) but what I’m trying to get across here is that while sensory processing issues can be unpredictable, wide-ranging, bizarre and effect every area of a person’s life they can, perhaps most importantly, be intensely emotional. I’ve noticed that when we talk about things like sensory overload or challenging behaviours being a response to sensory stimulation we have a tendency to emphasise the physical side of things. Being hypersensitive to noise is often explained as being physically painful, and I’m not saying this is untrue, but for me it’s the emotional impact of noise that causes the most pain*.
Sensory processing and mental health
Let me give you some context; I’ve experienced problems with my mental health for at least the last ten years (before that I don’t really have much emotional memory other than particularly strong points of distress or joy) I’m a chronic depressive, I have ongoing anxiety and occasional panic attacks, I have experienced intrusive and obsessive thoughts, this effects my sleep and tiredness levels, digestion and eating. This is just a part of my life and its okay, it really is, whilst these things are inseparable from my day to day life they are also not fixed, they change and I change. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve slowly realised how intrinsic my sensory experiences are too my mental health. And it frustrates me that had I understood and the people around me acknowledged that sensory issues have an emotional impact I may have had to struggle a whole lot less.
For example when I have been in noisy environment, particularly one with many layers of noise such as a pub or busy supermarket, and move out of that into a quiet one I will immediately feel relief but then following that will often fall very quickly into a depressive and sometimes even suicidal state. In the past this has manifested in compulsive self-harm and related behaviours. It’s taken me a long time to recognise this as a pattern but now I can try to manage this in a healthier way. I can’t always prevent or avoid this state but I can understand it and take steps to look after myself. This is when I haven’t even got to the level of what I’d describe as sensory overload. When I hit that level I just stop working. My thoughts can’t organise themselves, I can’t speak or communicate properly, it can feel like I’m internally screaming, I feel helpless and all I can do if just desperately try to will myself out of existence. The comedowns from this are usually slower to happen but can last a lot longer. It’s very rare that I hit this level but I’m constantly aware that I can and the constant low-level stress of existing in an unpredictable world like this can be just as damaging as those moments when it peaks.
Lack of Control
So there’s that immediate emotional impact but there’s a more subtle long term force at work; the emotional impact of an ongoing lack of control. It begins with being a kid and feeling constantly on the verge of distress, you don’t have the communication skills to explain what’s going on or even the ability to understand it. You probably just have very strong ideas about what is okay and what you desperately need to avoid. You create games and rules to try and control these things the best you can but they never work all the time. Not only can you not control the environment around you but you also can’t control your own reaction to it. You keep trying and as you get older you develop new coping mechanisms, these have different shelf lives, some things might work for days, some for months, years. You have different options, you can become the centre of the universe as you know it, from this point you can make the most noise and draw the most attention and gain control over your environment that way. Or you can withdraw and create a smaller world that just has you in it. Either way you still can’t find sensory balance that other people just don’t seem to need to think about it. It’s a mystical superpower because no matter how hard you try you feel under attack from the world and you keep crashing. You might find it difficult to connect with others, go to new places, and do new things because you’re constantly working to keep your mind and body safe. No experience stands alone, they all happen in the context of both your memories and current emotional state. The impact this has had on me is huge and I meet so many children who seem to be experiencing something similar.
Why am I telling you all this
We all work every day to find balance between the information our senses are constantly receiving and the energy and time we put into understanding and reacting to it. For some people they never have to think about this, it more subconscious behind the scenes kind of stuff, for some it may occupy every moment and use every resource they have. I see this in children I work with who have to limit and control their every experience in order to function or children who find their way through the world using repetition and constant sensory stimulation to create predictability and safety. My experiences is neither of these but it’s also not fixed and will change.
I’ve focussed on hypersensitivity to noise in this article because it is very common amongst people with sensory issues and is perhaps the most widely acknowledged cause of sensory distress. This may be because its impact can be particularly obvious and the problematic stimulus is often easy to identify for people outside of the experience. Effective interventions can be pretty easy to achieve by either removing the noise or changing the individual’s experience of the noise through the use of headphones, white noise, ear plugs/defenders etc. However unlike something like sensitivity to different food tastes or textures where the individual can control what they eat, you can never have full control over what you hear. And this becomes more problematic the more someone goes new places, experiences new things.
I strongly believe the emotional impact of sensory issues needs to be acknowledged and explored; especially by those in caring roles such as mine. Sensory processing issues are super common in people who are autistic, have ADHD, learning disabilities and/or fit under the umbrella of neurodiversity but they are hard to understand. Because of this we often look at them in a simplified way, for example, thinking if you simply get rid of a noise that was distressing someone then that experience is over for the individual. Now there is ‘no reason’ for them to behave in a way you find challenging. We need acknowledge the broader impact of these experiences if we want to support people kindly and effectively.
Let’s let people be complicated and be willing to not always understand but to keep trying. And if I ever appear physically repulsed when you offer me food, please try not to take it too personally.
* I want to note a couple of issues at play here. Firstly the idea of pain being either physical or emotional is false. Pain is complex and I don’t believe it is ever solely physical or solely emotional and to force this separation is to oversimplify and ignore parts of an individual’s experience. Secondly with this in mind, we broadly consider physical pain to be more legitimate or important than emotional pain. Again I don’t believe in this idea and will be writing more on this issue in the future.