Hear the term sensory hypersensitivity, but not sure what it really means? Let’s take a look at what it’s all about – from common triggers, to practical management techniques.
While sensory experiences are often enjoyable (the taste of cake, or the smell of fresh linen) there are times when they can be too much.
People with hypersensitivity are oversensitive to things in their environment. If you’ve ever been irritated by the sound of a dripping tap or a shirt that’s too tight, or you flinch if someone touches your arm, you’ll have some idea of what sensory hypersensitivity feels like.
While these things may make you feel annoyed or tetchy, it can be quite different to those who are experiencing it day to day.
For some people, they may also experience sensory overload which happens when the sensory experiences around a person are too great for their nervous system – and they are not able to process or make meaning of it. As you can imagine, this can be very stressful, uncomfortable, and at times intolerable.
While anyone can experience sensory hypersensitivity, there are some conditions that make people more susceptible – including autism, sensory processing disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
As you may expect, loud noises and bright lights can be triggers for sensory hypersensitivity – and what can be a trigger for one person, can be very different from another.
For example, the texture or flavour of food, the feel of fabric on the skin, the clatter of a spoon, the pitch of a particular song, or the smell of shampoo can all be triggers.
“When I go into a crowded area my sinuses are overloaded with different aromas and I find it very difficult to breathe,” says Patricia. “One of the worst offenders are women who wear lots of strong perfume, another is cigarette smoke. Stale popcorn in the movie theatres is another aroma that turns my stomach.”
Just as triggers can be different for different people, so can people’s responses.
Some people may find it hard to concentrate or sit still. “Everything comes at me at once,” explains one House with No Steps customer. “Every sound is like someone is in my ear with a megaphone, and I can’t focus on anything. It all becomes a blur, like there are bees buzzing around in my head.”
Others may feel irritated, restless, or angry. “It makes me feel like I have so many angry feelings and my boiler is going to explode,” described another customer. “I can’t sit still when I have a tickle in my boiler.”
And for some, they may become anxious or panicked, and even freeze or be unable to talk, “For me the first thing that I notice is the increase in anxiety levels, particularly if I am in a crowded room,” says Hannah, a House with No Step customer.
“This makes my muscles really tense up. Then if I do not get out, I suddenly feel as if there is an invisible wall between my brain and the rest of my body. I know and understand exactly what is happening to me and around me, I just cannot express anything. This cuts in just before I have a full blown panic attack. So I am a statue in a room full of people.”
Sometimes kids with hypersensitivity can seem fussy or even naughty to others – they may refuse to wear certain clothes or brush their hair, only eat soft foods such as mashed potato, cover their ears or hit their heads, or appear to have a ‘tantrum’.
But it’s important to know that this is not related to the child being naughty or poor discipline in any way. This is a child’s response to trying to resolve their distress.
For children and adults, occupational therapy can help reduce sensory sensitivity, however there are also some techniques that people can use to manage things themselves.
If you do start to feel overwhelmed, taking a break can help you to re-set and re-charge.
It’s also a good idea to take note of what can trigger you – for example, if you’re sensitive to noise, you could try blocking background noises with earplugs, and listening to calming music or white noise instead.
Or if crowds are problematic, try visiting restaurants and shops in non-peak times, and avoiding situations where you know you’ll feel out of control.
One way to think about it is to put yourself on a “sensory diet” that’s suited to your personal needs. This involves reducing sensory experiences that are potentially harmful (such as using earplugs around loud noises), but still making sure you get enough ‘nourishment’ to your senses (such as enjoying soft music in the case of our hearing sense) – much as we’d aim for a healthy balance of foods.
And if in doubt, don’t hesitate to seek support from a professional.