Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a medical disorder where the brain finds it difficult to organise and sort the information it is getting from our senses.
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by your environment? Do sights, sounds, smells or textures sometimes exhaust you and make you feel anxious? You could be suffering from Sensory Processing Disorder.
Our brains take in information from our five senses through our eyes, nose, ears, skin and taste buds. We use this information in order to be able to function in the world. However, if during the intake of information our processing goes awry, it can then affect us in different ways.
For instance, a person suffering from SPD might find loud noises especially frightening, or they might not be able to tolerate a certain smell or feel of an item of clothing. This causes them to feel anxious.
Typically, the condition starts in childhood and is usually a marker for a developmental condition such as autism but could also be attributed to anxiety in adults.
Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder include:
- Picky eating
- Hypersensitive to noises
- High tolerance to pain
- Extreme response to change in environment
- Lack of social skills
- Poor self-control
The symptoms of SPD, like autism, exist on a spectrum, so a sufferer might experience any of the above but in varying degrees. Some might complain that their clothes are chafing them whilst others could find the noise of a hairdryer intense and frightening.
How is Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety linked?
Anyone who feels their environment so acutely is likely to be overwhelmed by the sensory information they are receiving. As a child begins to learn what triggers this anxiety, they start to change their behaviour. This could lead them to avoid crowds or not want to try new foods, they could worry about loud noises or not want to be touched.
Children who have Sensory Processing Disorder and are not diagnosed or treated can often then grow into adults who do not have the capacity to then accurately interpret the information from their surroundings. They might grow up and have problems maintaining significant relationships, or their work could be affected. They could experience depression, isolation from society and live in an anxious state for most of their lives.
Adults who experience this condition often describe it as being assaulted on a daily basis by their surroundings.
Symptoms in adults can vary but usually consist of similar issues such as these:
- You prefer loose clothing
- You hate thunderstorms
- You can’t bear the feel of sand in-between your toes
- You don’t like big hugs, even with your partner or family
- You don’t like bright lights
- You can’t bear the smell of perfume
- You have to spit food out sometimes because you hate the texture
- You’re always asking for the music to be turned down
- You hate crowded places
Adults with Sensory Processing Disorder have an emotional response to all these unwanted symptoms and can get incredibly frustrated and anxious doing seemingly normal things like the rest of us. For an adult with SPD, it feels like the whole world is working in overdrive.
For those with SPD, these emotional and behavioural responses can appear to others as being fussy, constant moaning or worrying, inflexible and even rude. I mean who really cannot bear to go to a live gig? Who worries about going out to dinner? How can someone not like a cuddle?
Treating Sensory Processing Disorder in Adults
The way to treat an adult with SPD is to first allow them to acknowledge the difficulty they experience with their senses. Once this has been established, the goal is then to get them to lead fulfilling lives that are happy and productive.
The way to do this is for them to understand which senses they are having problems with and to find ways to make life easier. This could be practical treatments such as wearing headphones during a thunderstorm or implementing different strategies for when needed.
Talking and counselling often get adults with Sensory Processing Disorder to realise that they can perceive the overwhelming stimulus in a different way so that they can diffuse the intensity once a trigger has been established.
Unfortunately, as SPD is hard to diagnose, many children grow up into anxious adults. Receiving early treatment is key, but with specialist help, adults can learn to live with this condition.
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