Breaking Down Sensory Sensitivities

Each person has a unique sensory profile, meaning that every individual has different sensory preferences and sensitivities. Common preferences may include observing a sunset, smelling flowers, or listening to a favorite song. Often, we call upon our preferences to self-soothe, relax, or experience positive emotions. Sensitivities tend to cause discomfort or distress and can make it difficult to manage seemingly simple tasks. Sensitivities might be the sound of nails on a chalkboard or even the feel of shower water on the body. The latter being an example of a sensitivity that poses as a barrier to a self-care and personal hygiene. 

In order to overcome these barriers to self-care, it can be helpful to first better understand the sensitivities themselves. There are two major types of sensory sensitivities: hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. When we experience hypersensitivity, we over-respond to a sense, usually resulting in some degree of discomfort. Hyposensitivity is an under-response, where we struggle to understand and process the signals our senses are sending to us. 

The example of shower water or other wet textures on the skin, aforementioned, disrupts self-care. This hypersensitivity can be managed in different ways, depending on the individual. Some ideas include swapping out the shower head for one with a more pleasant pressure, utilizing wash cloths or towels to bathe, or tending to the remaining senses in order to make the process of showering more bearable. Perhaps listening to music while in the shower or using products with your favorite fragrance can help alleviate the touch hypersensitivity. If sensory overload ever becomes too distressing, remove yourself from the sensory input, utilize distress tolerance skills, and then take time to reflect on how else you may approach the sensitivity for the next time. 

An example of hyposensitivity that can also interfere with daily tasks is struggling to understand internal cues for hunger or thirst. This relates to our interoception sense, or internal body awareness. For those that experience this hyposensitivity, this makes it difficult to stay hydrated and eat regular meals. And without proper hydration and diet, many other daily tasks become exceedingly difficult. Some ways to manage this hyposensitivity can include setting alarms for meal and water breaks or keeping simple snacks accessible.

It is important to note that sensory sensitivities can change on a daily basis, depending on mood, environment, and other vulnerability factors. So, while it may be frustrating to experience different sensitivities so frequently, needs and capacity can shift to make certain tasks more achievable. Keeping track of your sensory profile, compiled of past and current preferences and sensitivities, is a helpful way to take inventory. For moments of distress, having this profile can serve as a toolkit, aiding your future self in tolerating difficult sensory moments. Sharing your toolkit with a partner, friend, or family member is also key for having your support system help you when in need. 

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