Which of your senses do you think you would be using if you entered a school dinner hall?
You might think about the sights, sounds, and smells that bombard you upon entry into that environment. Maybe you thought of how close other people are and being bumped or touched. While you probably know about 5 senses, did you know there are actually eight? Here are the other three:
- Balance (Vestibular) – This sense tells you where your head is in relation to the ground. Things like roller coasters, swinging and walking all activate this sense. In a dinner hall , this sense would probably notice how quickly you enter the room or how you move around to find your seat.
- Body Awareness (Proprioceptive) – This sense tells you about your body, joints, and muscle positions. It is often discussed in terms of pressure and tension. In the dinner hall this sense would feel the weight of your lunch tray, leaning on a wall while waiting in line or the pressure you feel if you sit on your feet.
- Internal sense (Interoception) – This sense communicates the signals coming from inside your body (e.g., hunger, thirst, pain, needing to go to the bathroom). These all might be factors in your dinner hall, too!
If you don’t have a sensory impairment such as blindness or deafness, you notice information from the environment and your body through all 8 of your senses. However, we are all different. Some of us are very sensitive to sensory information and some of us are not sensitive at all. Your brain decides how important a sensation is, how much you need to pay attention to it and if you need to do something about it.
Would you find the sound in a dinner hall loud, confusing or cluttered? If you would, you are likely to have higher sensitivity to sound (e.g., supersonic hearing) and busy environments with lots of different and unpredictable noises may be uncomfortable and at times painful. Your brain thinks all these sounds need your attention. It can be overwhelming, it may cause huge spikes in your energy and you may feel you need to leave.
Would you even notice all the different types of sounds in a dinner hall? If you don’t think you would be bothered by the sounds in a dinner hall, you are likely less sensitive to sounds and may even have lower sensitivity than most people. Sound may not change your energy level at all and noisy environments are probably comfortable for you.
Why does our level of sensitivity matter? Sensory sensitivity has A LOT to do with our energy levels, how comfortable we are in an environment, and how easily we can focus in it. You may have heard people talk about this in terms of how regulated they are. If a person’s energy allows them to focus and be comfortable in an environment, they are well regulated. If they are struggling and have too much or too little energy for their current activity/environment, they are dysregulated.
So if the sensory environment is either TOO MUCH or NOT ENOUGH for the person’s brain, it may cause them to have too much energy or not enough energy for what they are trying to do.
Why can a dinner hall make such a difference to how you feel? If you have higher sensitivity to sounds, sights, smells, and touch you may be easily overwhelmed by all the sensory information in the dinner hall and experience a huge surge of energy and become dysregulated. This might lead to you having a difficult time waiting in the lunch line, eating your food, chatting with classmates, or even just staying in the room.
Information from any one sense or any combination of the eight senses can change how we feel, but the good news is that sensory information can also make us feel more comfortable and regulated! We can use our senses to help us shift our energy so we can focus more in an environment, too.
How can we make our senses work for us in a smart way? Often people talk about sensory strategies, fidgeting, and/or stimming. Here are some ideas that might work for you:
Low motion sensory strategies – This is when the sensory input is provided by something in the environment (e.g., listen to music, watch water flow, lay under weighted blanket, sway in a hammock, experience smells in the environment, watching video, etc.). In the dinner hall these strategies may include using noise canceling earbuds, watching a stim screen on the phone, and or pulling up your hood to block out sights and sounds.
Active sensory strategies – This is when we seek out some sensory input which requires effort and energy (e.g., running, using a fidget tool, jumping, doodling, rocking, flapping, etc.). In the dinner hall these types of strategies might include standing to eat, fidgeting with a straw, and chewing gum when finished eating.
Changing the environment or the activity – often there changes that could be made to the sensory environment to provide more or less sensory input based on a person’s needs. When these adjustments happen it reduces a person’s need to use extra strategies to stay comfortable and regulated. In a dinner hall this could include dimming the lights and, setting up quiet areas for eating.
How do you work out what sensory regulation strategies might work for you?
- Think about what sensations feel good in your body and what activities you seek out. Make a list and note if they power down or Power UP! your energy, or if they help your energy stay steady. This will help you start to create your menu of “go-to” sensory regulation strategies.
- To add more ideas to your list, it might be useful to think about activities that you enjoy and think about what it is that you like about them. For example, if you like running, what is it about running that feels good to you? Is it the rhythm, the pounding, the speed / movement, the wind brushing against your face? All of it? Does running Power you UP or down? Add that information to your sensory regulation strategy menu too.
- Try to notice what other strategies you seem to use throughout your day. These might be things you do automatically without thinking about them, so it might help to ask someone close to you to help with this part of the list. How you move your body during the day? Do you stand when you are reading? Do you bounce your foot when listening to a teacher? Chew gum or your nails? Always turn on music? Scroll on your phone? Fidget with your hair? etc.. Write down those things and think about what they do to your energy. Add them to your “go to” sensory regulation menu as well.
Your menu will help you start to focus on the types of sensory strategies and tools that you may find useful when your energy is too high or too low and you could benefit from a sensory regulation tool to Power UP! or Power Down.
Sometimes when you are feeling dysregulated you may need to make a change to the environment. For example, dimming the lights in the room rather than having to put up your hood to block out the brightness.
If you are feeling very dysregulated , particularly in a busy place, the best and quickest strategy may be to just move away. If you are already very overwhelmed you probably need to power down, before you can think about using the ideas on your list.
For more information about how our senses work, take a look here.