What You'll Learn
- General Info About Sensory Processing Disorder
- People Have Different Triggers
- Noise Is Triggering
- Coping With Overstimulation In The Moment
- Bubble Wrap Ways To Manage Overstimulation
Do you ever feel yourself snapping at your kids or partner when you’re not even angry, you’re just overwhelmed. That’s called overstimulation and it happens when your brain has 50 tabs open and trying to move back and forth is both frustrating and overwhelming. I find myself wanting to wear ear plugs around the house just so that I can hear myself think. Noise is one of the many sensory factors that contribute to the sensory overload that many parents experience. Larissa Geleris, an occupational therapist and mother of two with extensive experience and training in Sensory Processing Disorder in children, uses that experience to support parents in understanding their own sensory triggers. And today, she’s going to help us understand our own sensory issues and how to cope with them in parenting.
General Info About Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensory processing disorder impacts function consistently and impacts multiple areas of your life.
“But we all have sensory systems that work hard,” Larissa said. But when we have a sensory system that may be sensitive to certain stimulants—like noise—but wasn’t really a problem in your life until parenthood, that’s more overstimulation than sensory processing. We’ll all deal with overstimulation at some point, motherhood is just ripe with overstimulation, so it’s a time when many of us experience overstimulation.
The sensory systems are like a backstage crew. They all work behind the scenes. You don’t see it happening, but you will see the product! Your body is handling things well, turning out the right and tuning into the right things.
The celebs of the system are things you know like touching, seeing, hearing, but there are a lot of other members who are kind of unknown but work just as hard. And if any member of your backstage crew goes down, it affects the whole team.
Everyone thinks they know the tactile system like I’m so touched out—that feeling you get when your kids have been climbing on you, pulling on you, or otherwise touching you the whole day—but there is more to it than that.
The tactile system has two parts.
“The protective system alerts us to danger and stimulates the fight or flight response,” Larissa explained. This is activated through light touch like a mosquito landing on us or a tap on the shoulder. Your tactile system then has to decide if the touch is harmful or helpful.
The discriminant system allows us to feel nuances in how and where we are touched. This is the system that allows us to reach into our bag and grab our keys without looking. It’s activated by deep pressure like a big hug or holding something in our hands.
But both of these systems need to work independently and collaboratively to keep us safe.
The vestibular system is located in your inner ear. “It’s your primary sense of movement and balance, and it tells us where our head is in relation to gravity,” Larissa said. Your vestibular systems know when you’re upside down, and if you’re falling and how fast we’re falling!
This one is a foundational system because it allows all other systems to function. The vestibular system supports attention, regularrion, and our feeling of safety since supporting the head is an instinctual necessity.
The proprioceptive system is located in your muscles and joints. It knows when your muscles are being stretched and also where the different parts of your body are located. This is the system that allows you to reach behind you and scratch your back without being able to see it.
This system allows us to automatically adjust our body position to prevent falling, and it also helps us know how much pressure or force is needed to complete a task like picking something up from the ground. But if we use this system effectively it can be one of the best tools during a moment of overstimulation.
Then there is the interoceptive system. “Interoception is sensations of the body from internal organs,” Larissa said. Hunger, thirst, and bladder pressure are all alerts from the interoceptive system. But the interoceptive system also knows when your heart rate changes. This is another system that can be a tool in coping with overwhelm.
It can really help to identify your triggers in your routine, so you can turn off some noise before you hit your limit.
People Have Different Triggers
My middle son likes rough and tumble play. He likes to climb on me and play in a way that can be really fun at times and draining at others, because I’m just touched out. Larissa explained that this is an example of an under-responsive, interoceptive vestibular system.
Some people crave peace and quiet and to be left in a corner alone. This could be an example of an over-responsive interoceptive and vestibular system.
There is nothing wrong either way, but people have different triggers. In a family dynamic, different triggers can be helpful. If something really just pushes you to your limit but your partner is unbothered by it, that might be a good time to rely on your partner for help.
Noise Is Triggering
Noise almost scrambles my brain signals, and as soon as I can get the noise under control, I can think clearly again.
Our auditory system is directly linked in our ear to a branch of our nervous system responsible for the fight or flight response, so it makes sense that if the auditory system is overstimulated, we’re going to fly or fight.
It makes sense that if the auditory system is overstimulated, we’re going to fly or fight.
The first step here is to just recognize noise is overstimulating, because it’s triggering my fight or flight system. That is validating.
Our auditory system should be able to filter useless sounds from useful noise—think about when you hear someone call your name in a loud crowded room—but in parenthood we can’t turn off our auditory system even when we want to.
“Even when they're quiet, we have to have an ear out. There is nothing more suspicious than a quiet toddler,” Larissa said. If the kids are engaged in quiet independent play, we still have to be able to hear a scream or a fall. And evolution has made sure we have the ability to do so.
Because of that, our auditory system never gets a break. It’s like the backstage crew analogy. It’s getting tired, because it’s working all the time.
But we can find things in the environment to turn down the low frequency sounds. Low frequency sounds register as dangerous, so things like the dishwasher, washing machine, air conditioner, or heat aren’t dangerous in our home, but they’re in that same frequency.
“Run the dishwasher at night so that it’s not bothering you in the day,” Larissa suggested. Depending on where you live you might not be able to turn the heat or air off for the whole day, but you can give yourself five minutes without it. “The days I parent in a way I wish I hadn’t are usually when there is a background noise,” she said.
You may want to get noise cancelling or noise diminishing earplugs or headphones to help cope with auditory overstimulation. Some people are afraid to wear noise cancelling earplugs, because they’re afraid they may not hear the child. If this is you, you could start with noise diminishing earplugs.
Some people wear noise canceling headphones and still hear the noise, so anything less wouldn’t be as helpful.
Coping With Overstimulation In The Moment
Larissa’s first suggestion is to take a deep breath, hold it in, and exhale. This was advice given to her in college and grad school as she tried to manage her own anxiety. Her response at the time was, “Yeah, okay. Give me something real.”
But as she continued to read and learn about sensory issues, the science behind deep breathing became clear.
An intentional extended exhale literally resets your nervous system.
“An intentional extended exhale literally resets your nervous system,” she said. It overrides the flight or fight response, so it’s a tool that is always with you. When you’re in the fight or flight mode, you’re usually breathing short, shallow beats. Your rib cage might even become rigid.
You can place your hands over your rib cage, place a slight amount of pressure, and you can breathe into that. And if you’re applying a little pressure to your rib cage, you're telling your ribcage what to do, but also you’re giving yourself that interoceptive pressure.
“Another really good quick strategy you can do is called palming, and this is something I learned in my rehab,” Larissa said. (She recovered from a concussion in 2019. That’s how she discovered the importance of overstimulation strategy for parents.) Palming is when you cup both of your hands and place one over each eye. You’re applying the interoceptive pressure that we’ve talked about, but you’re also cutting off visual input.
This makes it easier to process the auditory overload, because your brain isn’t getting visual and auditory input at the same time.
Each eye should be completely covered by one of your palms and from there you can go into your deep breathing. And this is another tool you always have with you. “But the first time I did this my son thought we were playing peek-a-boo,” Larissa said.
Peek-a-boo can become a tool to co-regulate, because as we're getting stimulated, our kids may be too.
But peek-a-boo can become a tool to co-regulate, because as we're getting stimulated, our kids may be too. And this gives us all a way to reset our system.
Parents are often overloaded by light touch which we said alerts us to danger, so it’s no wonder we get overwhelmed. Usually, we can filter out insignificant light touches from actual danger but as a parent, our tactile system may be overloaded reducing our ability to filter out non-dangerous light touches.
If you have the ability to go stand in a corner and press your back to the wall, you’re giving yourself the deep touch that activates the discriminant system. “It also blocks out visual auditory from behind you, so then it’s not all around,” Larissa said. “Deep pressure is both deep tactile pressure and proprioceptive pressure. You can’t really separate them out,” she explained.
A lot of “in the moment” strategies are about cutting off some amount of sensory input to give your brain a chance to slow down and process.
Bubble Wrap Ways To Manage Overstimulation
A bubble wrap strategy is a self-care strategy that we can implement as part of our routine to help us start to prepare for and cope with overstimulation before it’s a problem. Bubble wrap strategies set you up for success.
The first thing is to recognize your sensory triggers.
“The first thing is to recognize your sensory triggers. I’m really overstimulated by sound,” Larissa said. Touch can be really overwhelming. Movement can be really overwhelming. Or the opposite can be true too.
“Some people really need to get their morning run in the day to start off feeling like they’re doing well,” Larissa said. But knowing these things about ourselves can help, because then in a moment where you’re feeling overstimulated or not parenting in a way you’re proud of, you can analyze the situation to figure out what’s missing.
“I missed my morning run. I’m not a bad parent. I just need to make sure I get my run in.” Larissa pointed out that we talk about parenting and mental health a lot, but we don’t talk about sensory issues and parenting much. And it’s equally important. Mental health and sensory overload can be intertwined and also separate.
Another thing you can do is think about your most overwhelming part of the day and take a three minute break before it’s time to start.
Practice mindfulness and body scans. Sometimes this comes off eye rolley like when someone tells you to take a deep breath without explaining the science behind it. But if you’re in tune with your body, you can notice the slight changes. “I’m breathing faster,” or “my stomach is rolling.” Overstimulation can seem like it’s coming out of nowhere but if you’re attuned enough to your body, there is usually a physical indication first.
That gives you the chance to implement an in-the-moment strategy before you’re already overstimulated. But if you don’t pay attention to your body in the peaceful times of the day, it might be harder to recognize when you hit those harder moments.
If you feel like you need more support coping with overstimulation and sensory processing or sensory overload, you can join register for our workshop, Managing Overstimulation in Motherhood to learn why it happens and the practical tools and skills you need to manage it.