Living with a dysregulated nervous system
Having sensory input balance is essential for our body’s nervous system to function, regulate, and process information. So, when our senses get overwhelmed, overstimulated or under stimulated there is often a physical and emotional reaction which results in stress and burnout.
Fight, flight or freeze
The human body’s senses are designed to act as messengers to our brain. When they get overloaded, researchers and patients alike recognize disproportionate reactions like restlessness, irritability, emotional outbursts or anxiety. Some people experience mental and physical fatigue, digestive distress, eye strain, heart palpitations and lightheadedness. They also report problems focusing on fabrics and textures feeling uncomfortable to the touch.
More often associated with conditions such as PTSD, Tourette syndrome, autism and ADHD, sensory challenges can also be associated with fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and post-concussion.
It’s increasingly common in today’s world of bright lights, flashing screens, loud noises and busy workplaces for children and adults to become overstimulated. Common triggers may also be: Poor sleep, feeling hungry and/or substance abuse.
Under stimulation, on the other hand, can lead to a person feeling physically uncomfortable, having difficulty concentrating, stimming (repeating repetitive actions or sounds) and episodes of depression.
How to find relief
Navigating the journey to a regulated nervous system is no easy task and requires dedication and a strategy to reach your goals. Here’s what experts suggest who work with both adults and children:
Identify: Recognizing triggers and behaviours is a vital first step. Suggestions include keeping a log to assess reactions in context and watching for patterns.
Regulate: Anticipate and avoid known triggers so that you can reduce their impact. Set boundaries. Make it a priority to arrange days in a way that reduces potentially overwhelming situations.
Restore: Plan recovery time and the practice of self-calming by using sensory assistive devices and finding a safe, quiet place away noise and distractions.
Other ideas include:
1) Unplugging devices and taking a small break from screens and technology
2) Find ways to ground yourself. Try the 54321 method. 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can hear, for instance.
3) Practice deep breathing
4) Use your headphones
No matter what the clothing item, sensory responsiveness can interfere with neurodivergent people’s daily lives and their ability to function comfortably. Depending on the person, certain textiles will cause overload and anxiousness while others can give support and comfort. Aside from awareness and regulation, selecting sensory clothing and accessories can make life easier. In case you’re not aware, here are some of the latest options:
Weighted clothing: Can work wonders for anyone who needs deep-pressure input to help regulate their sensory perception. A weighted blanket, vest, or collar can give a soothing hug like feeling while being calming and gentle. These garments help the wearer feel safe and secure while also having a comfortable amount of pressure.
Compression clothing: While similar to weighted, compression clothing can be slightly more discreet, coming in undergarments, socks and regular shirts. The stretchy breathable material is snug-fitting, moisture wicking and quick drying.
Sensory friendly footwear can make all the difference on a family outing or school field trip. The lack of seams, extra cushion on the insole, and non-binding uppers make shoes and boots easier to wear and provide security with every step. They are usually designed to be slip on as the laces and Velcro might actually be deregulating.
Accessories like weighted belts, pocket scarves and itch-free winter beanies help keep wearers feel more secure while other items like munchables can provide oral sensory input.
Natasha Way, Ahki Odayin, a two-spirit person of the Ojibwe People of Wikewemikong First Nations, and Bonnechere Mètis Nations of Ontario. They are an editing assistant, indigenous and disabilities rights advocate, community organizer and artist.