Sensory Processing Training for Stress and Anxiety Disorders in People with Sensitisation
Sensory sensitivity, sensory processing and stress and anxiety problems are closely linked, according to recently completed qualitative research through Manchester Metropolitan University UK. Concurrent clinical practice is demonstrating that stress and anxiety can be significantly diminished by improving sensory processing in sensitive people. Two important aspects for discussion here are sensory processing and sensory sensitivity.
Sensory processing: The brain is continually being informed through our many senses, and has to interpret them and make meaning of them in order to respond accordingly. The brain must 1) receive, 2) integrate, 3) interpret and 4) execute responses. These sensory processing functions are dependent on a working inter-relationship between the body and brain (receptors, spinal cord and brain for sensory reception and integration) and the mind and unconscious brain (meaning making, threat evaluation etc.) for interpreting and executing responses.
Each individual has different levels of sensory processing efficiency. Many people are likely to have some degree of processing deficiency and they learn to compensate around these for functional ability. People with more significant sensory processing disorders exhibit poor memory and concentration, specific learning difficulties such as with visual processing in reading, auditory processing in listening and comprehension skills, and/or they may have movement problems such as clumsiness, stiff muscles and injury proneness in sport.
Sensory Sensitivity: Sensory sensitivity can be general as part of a natural character trait (a highly sensitive person), or specific as a result of trauma (physical or emotional). Sensory Sensitivity is a person's heightened arousal by general or specific stimuli due to sensitisation. Sensitisation is reduced sensory dampening or inhibition of stimuli deemed irrelevant. A person with sensory sensitivity can feel overwhelmed with sensory "overload" due to constant or excessive arousal by stimuli that are not being screened, dampened or inhibited.
Sensory processing disorders can cause sensory mismatches where different senses are not interpreted cohesively. Sensory mismatches and sensory "overload" (disinhibition) can lead to interpretation problems and other central symptoms such as foggy headedness, confusion, poor concentration, attention and memory. When sensory processing disorders are combined with sensory sensitivity in a person there appears to be a greater likelihood that they will experience more stress and anxiety. The diagram below (Fig.1) illustrates how these body-brain-mind functions inter-relate with the combined outcome of sensory hypersensitivity, stress and anxiety.
Sensory processing help for people with stress and anxiety:
Sensory processing is developed sequentially from infancy through to adulthood. As the infant brain receives sensory information about movement through primitive reflexes the baby begins to develop his/her own voluntary movement through a series of developmental processes including rolling, crawling, stepping, walking etc.. Concurrent brain developments occur such as visual acuity during crawling, and language with auditory discrimination so as the child develops the brain, body and mind functions integrate and mature. Understanding these processes enables sensory processing exercises to be designed to help bring the person's brain to a level more capable of organising information. This is done using a combination of neurodevelopmental motor control exercises, primitive reflex inhibition and sensory integration exercises. Home exercises are suggested for daily practice in order to achieve the necessary brain changes (neuroplasticity). Programmes can be expected to take up to twelve weeks to complete.
When these exercises are combined with psychological desensitisation strategies anxiety and overwhelming feelings of "overload" can be significantly diminished.
(Fig.1): How these body-brain-mind functions inter-relate with the combined outcome of sensory hypersensitivity, stress and anxiety: