Feeding The Senses Helps Regulate Emotions: Part 1

By Ashley Patek

Sensory Play

I feed my kids food to nourish their bodies, but I don’t think of feeding their nervous system. 

If you are anything like me, you’re left scratching your head (or near pulling out your hair) as your child explodes because they didn’t get that toy they wanted, bounces off the walls after a busy day of school, or becomes a heap on the bathroom floor because they don’t want to brush their teeth before bed.

Ever do a mental check and ask yourself, what is the unmet need? Hungry, tired, mad, wanting attention, or just downright locking horns in a power struggle? Sometimes I just don’t know. 

One day, in the midst of my son’s full-blown tantrum after a particularly busy day, it hit me. The mama part of me was forgetting what I knew as an occupational therapist. And there, in my kitchen, I found the answer in the most unexpected place … something that rarely crosses my busy mama mind ... sensorial input. Was my child over- or under- stimulated?

As adults, this happens to us, too. It is in the moments that you feel touched out and tired of someone needing or wanting you around the clock. Or when you feel overwhelmed by the background noise of your kids arguing as you try to take a phone call. And those moments when you can’t unsee the mess around the house and it knocks you off your center. This is sensory overload. And the good news is, you’re not alone. It is totally okay - and normal - to feel all of it. And it is okay and normal for our kids to feel it, too. 

Sometimes our nervous systems are overstimulated and need a break so we can calm and manage our bodies. And other times, our nervous system needs a good boot to jumpstart it with activities that alert and organize input. 

Just as we get hangry when we are hungry, our nervous system fights, flights, or freezes when it needs to calm or alert. Through playful engagement, we can practice noticing our body and giving it the input it craves. And we can help our children do this, too. 

A safe and nurtured system is often a well-functioning system, which means fewer power struggles and whining, and more connection and learning. 

Sensory Loop

Our senses help us understand the world around us through a feedback loop. 

The loop looks like this: Sense receptors detect sensations and send them to the brain via nerves. The brain interprets those sensations and sends orders to different parts of our body through the nervous system. Ever touch a hot stove? It is this sensory loop that tells us to remove our hand quickly to avoid getting burned! 

Here are 7 ways our bodies speak to us:

  • Sight: The ability of the eyes to focus and detect images. Visual perception is how the brain processes these impulses and interprets them. 
  • Sound: Our ability to detect sound through vibrations. 
  • Taste: Our ability to detect the taste of a substance. 
  • Touch: Our ability to feel through receptors in our skin. 
  • Smell: Our ability to detect scent. 
  • Vestibular: The perception of our body in relation to gravity, movement, and balance. 
  • Proprioceptive: Our ability to know where our body is in space to help us plan our movements. 

Sensory Thresholds 

Everyone has different thresholds for sensory stimulation. Some people react when just a little stimulus is given and some people need a lot of stimuli to respond. 

Hypo-Sensitivity

Children and adults with a high threshold tend to be hypo-sensitive or under-responsive, which means it takes more stimuli for them to react. These children may be sensory seeking and look for many sensory experiences to help them regulate their bodies.

These are some examples that may indicate hypo-sensitivity for each sense:

Sight

  • Fatigues easily while reading
  • Writes at a slant (up or downhill) on a page
  • Often loses their place while reading
  • Difficulty tracking objects with their eyes
  • Bumps into objects often/difficulty with spatial relations
  • Difficulty differentiating between similar letters such as p and q, b and d

Sound

  • Often speaks in a loud voice and/or excessively
  • Likes the TV or music excessively loud
  • Needs instructions repeated frequently
  • Talks self through a task out loud
  • Disoriented to where a particular sound comes from

Taste

  • Likes food with strong flavors
  • Eats inedible objects such as chalk, crayons, dirt, rocks  
  • Often chews fingers, sides of cheeks, clothes, straws, toothbrushes
  • Constantly puts objects in the mouth, even past the toddler years

Touch

  • May crave touch, wanting to be touched or to touch everything
  • May be self-abusive; pinching, biting, cutting, or head-banging
  • Has a high pain tolerance
  • Often is not aware of being touched/ bumped unless done with extreme force  
  • Unknowingly hurts other children or pets while playing
  • Repeatedly touches surfaces or objects that are soothing

Smell

  • Excessively smells new objects, toys, people
  • Has difficulty discriminating odors

Vestibular

  • Craves fast movement
  • Appears to be in constant motion
  • Seeks swinging or to spin for long periods
  • Tends to rock, shake legs, or move head when sitting
  • Likes jumping, running, or being upside down

Proprioceptive

  • Likes deep pressure, being squeezed, or hugged tightly
  • Likes to push or bump against others
  • Likes jumping and crashing activities
  • Prefers tight clothing
  • May clench or grind teeth
  • Likes to chew on their lip, straw, or shirt collar
  • May often fall on the floor intentionally

Hypersensitivity

Children and adults with a low threshold tend to be hypersensitive or overly responsive, which means it takes less stimulus for their body to react. These children may be sensory avoidant and may be unwilling to try new things or to participate in unpredictable situations. 

These are some examples that may indicate hypersensitivity for each sense: 

Sight

  • Often avoids eye contact/looks down
  • May dislike bright lights - may squint or cover eyes
  • May notice tiniest pieces of fluff on the carpet
  • May notice the flickering of and feel triggered by fluorescent lighting 
  • Easily distracted by visual stimuli such as clutter or busy decorations
  • Rubs eyes, has watery eyes
  • Gets headaches after reading, writing or watching TV

Sound

  • May be light sleepers
  • Feels frightened by unexpected or unpredictable sounds and may cry or run away
  • Often covers their ears, especially in loud environments
  • Easily distracted by sounds others do not notice
  • May make repetitive noises to block out dysregulating sounds
  • May dislike getting a haircut

Taste

  • May have strong food preferences
  • Often picky eaters
  • Often finds sucking, chewing, and swallowing difficult
  • Resists trying new foods
  • Easily gags on foods

Touch

  • Often dislikes being touched
  • May arch their back or pull away as a baby
  • May be sensitive to certain textures and refuse to wear certain clothes
  • Tags of shirts may bother them
  • May dislike walking barefoot on grass or sand
  • May dislike getting messy
  • May fear standing close to others
  • Displays big reactions to minor cuts, bug bites
  • May not like having hair brushed or body washed

Smell

  • May easily take offense to smells
  • May reject food due to the smell
  • May gag easily with foods or only eat certain foods
  • May like wearing the same clothes or refuse to wear certain clothes
  • Irritated by the smell of soaps, perfume, or cleaning products

Vestibular

  • Difficulty or fear of walking on uneven surfaces
  • May fear going up or downstairs
  • May feel fearful of feet leaving the ground
  • Often feels disoriented after spinning, running, jumping
  • Gets motion sickness often or easily
  • May not like being on stomach
  • May move slowly, cautiously
  • May avoid activities that require balance such as bike riding, running, etc. 

Proprioceptive

  • Often has low tone
  • Fatigues easily
  • Demonstrates poor body awareness
  • Often bumps into things, trips, or appears clumsy
  • Often has poor fine and gross motor skills

The Sensory Continuum

While there are polarities of the spectrum, it is important to note that we are all on a neurological continuum. We all have sensory needs and benefit from sensory experiences throughout our day. This can be done playfully through small, intentional moments. Five to ten minutes can go a long way in nourishing the nervous system, which in return helps regulate our emotional and behavioral systems, too. 

(((Click here for part 2)))

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