Senses stressed

Crisis hour. The baby's screaming, your eldest child is asking you complicated spelling questions while your toddler – ominously – keeps flushing the loo.

There's a nasty smell of burning coming from the kitchen and the phone hasn't stopped ringing all day. Your head is pounding and you think you're about to lose your mind.

Not surprising, says occupational therapist Annamarie Lombard. You're in sensory overload.

Every day our brain takes in millions of messages from our senses. We all know about our five primary senses: vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch, but we also have hidden, movement senses, explains Lombard.

"Our vestibular sense, for instance, gives our brain information about our body's position and is important for balance, whereas our proprioception sense provides our brain with information from our muscles and joints."

She explains that we all have sensory receptors in our muscles and joints, and every time we move, these sensors send information to our brain about where we are.

"This is why we are able to creep down stairs at night without turning a light on and not fall." All these sensory messages are continually being fed into our brain where they are compiled to form a complete picture of the world around us.

This process is called sensory integration. Luckily for us, our brain has the ability to process the information and sort out what is important at that particular moment.

If we're in an important meeting, for example, we are hopefully able to concentrate on what is being said rather than on all the other sensory information that we're receiving at that moment.

From overload to shutdown

There are times, though, when we receive too much sensory information to process effectively and our brains go into a state of sensory overload.

Lombard explains that sensory input is accumulative, which is why the end of the day is often so stress-filled. We've been taking in sensory input all day, usually with very little "downtime" and now our brains are telling us, "Time out!"

For most of us, relaxing with a glass of wine once the kids are in bed or going for a run before supper will be enough to calm us down.

However, if we don't listen to our body's warning signs, we ultimately find ourselves in sensory shutdown, says Lombard, explaining that we'll invariably go through other states in between, namely "out of control" and "conflict".

Scientists have discovered that we each have unique sensory profiles. Each of us registers sensory input differently. For instance, some people cannot bear to be touched (they have a low threshold for touch) whereas others can't resist touching someone (they have a high threshold for touch).

Someone may simply be unable to work with the radio on (they have a low threshold for sound) while others thrive on music when working (they have a high threshold for sound).

Sensation seekers and avoiders

Experts have identified two common sensory types. Sensation avoiders are typically those with a low sensory threshold, and sensation seekers typically have a high sensory threshold.

However, most people have combinations of the two. We may, for instance, have a low threshold for sound but not be particularly bothered by touch.

Knowing how your sensory system works can be a revelation. As Lombard says, "Finally there's a tool to confirm that we're not crazy, difficult, irritable or demanding. Our threshold determines our reaction to daily occurrences: how much we can tolerate, how productive we are and how we interact with people."

She says she finds people who suddenly say, for instance, "Oh, that's why I hate going shopping on a Saturday morning. It's not that I'm just being difficult."

Which one are you?

To find out whether you are a sensation seeker or avoider, answer the questions below. Although these are guidelines only, you're more likely to fall into the category in which you answered most questions in the affirmative.

The sensation seeker

  • Do you enjoy fast carnival rides that move or spin excessively?
  • Do you like bright, colourful clothes?
  • Do you enjoy adrenaline sports (skydiving, skiing, rock climbing, etc)?
  • Do you enjoy socialising in big groups?
  • Do you like surprises?
  • Do you tend to do things on the spur of the moment?
  • Do you enjoy being close to people who wear perfume or enjoy the smells of candles and bath products?
  • Do you become bored easily?
  • Do you have a tendency to touch other people while talking to them?
  • Do you usually multitask?

    The sensation avoider

  • Do you become distracted by lots of noise?
  • Do you avoid fast, spinning carnival rides?
  • Are you very aware of odours?
  • Are you bothered by clothing textures?
  • Do you avoid getting your hands dirty?
  • Do you strongly dislike being touched?
  • Do you dislike using creams, perfumes, colognes, lotions?
  • Do you become irritated by people in the movies chewing popcorn or talking?
  • Do you need a lot of time alone?
  • Do you have a strong desire for structure and routine?

    The importance of movement

    Movement is a way we naturally self-regulate ourselves. Our movement senses all work through the regulatory systems in our brain to make us calm and organised. So if we move it helps us to feel more focused.

    That's why going for a walk can be so calming – especially after work. Even something as simple as sucking on a peppermint, doodling or twirling your hair is movement and helps you to become more focused.

    If you are battling to concentrate at your desk, get up and walk around. If you're going through a particularly stressful time, incorporating some form of exercise into your life will help you to cope more effectively.

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