Exploring a Sensory Diet for Emotional Regulation: Sensory Processing Disorders

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Most people don’t know how to manage their sensory diet to help with emotional regulation. This is super important with children, and with the neurodiverse community –ADHD and Autism Spectrum folk- but anyone that doesn’t understand their sensory regulation needs often struggles with emotional regulation.

When someone comes in with anxiety, overwhelmed, burnout, or they’re struggling to function- sensory needs are one of the first things I assess for. And when kids have attention, learning, or behavior problems, they desperately need someone who can understand their sensory needs, because your sensory diet directly impacts your brain’s ability to process stimuli and emotions in a healthy way. 

So in this video, I’m going to teach you about sensory regulation and how that can relate to managing our emotions as well. 

And I’m going to tell you a story about a young woman who thought she might be psychotic, but when she figured out her sensory needs, she said “Everything suddenly makes sense. “I’m not broken, I just had all these needs that I didn’t have words for”

Learn How To Process Emotions

If you’d like to learn more about how to process and regulate emotions, check out my How to Process Emotions Online course. It’s got 30 video lessons teaching the fundamental skills no one ever taught you about how to work through difficult thoughts and feelings, how to know what to do with them, and this can be super helpful not only with depression or anxiety, but really in helping you live a rich and meaning ful life. Check out the link in the description to learn more. 

A Client's Story

My friend and fellow therapist. Lindsy Cabrera,  recently told me about one of her clients, she was a 16 year old girl, she was super intelligent, attended a prestigious private school, but she wasn’t living up to “her potential”, she was actually getting into tons of trouble with her teachers. She couldn’t focus, she was always squirming in her seat, she wondered if she was psychotic because she felt like her skin was crawling and she just felt like ripping off her clothes. Certain fabrics drove her crazy, making her anxious and irritable. She couldn’t get comfortable in her bed, she couldn’t sleep.She had no problem doing her homework at home, but couldn’t even hear what the teachers were saying at school.  She was always fidgeting in class and just constantly getting in trouble because it seemed like she was being rude because it didn’t seem like she was paying attention. She was stressed out and depressed, so they started her on an antidepressant, but that didn’t seem to help. Eventually she switched schools, got a neuropsych eval, got diagnosed with ADHD, and thanks to that, they were able to get her some helpful tools. One tool was the right medication, but the other is that someone who specializes in ADHD is going to help you develop sensory regulation. 


So Lindsy worked with her to help her regulate her sensory needs, and as they did, things just started clicking into place. With a sensory assessment, they found out she was hypersensitive to touch, but sensory seeking with vestibular and proprioceptive, so when those needs were met she didn’t feel so jittery all the time. She was able to focus better. Her grades went up, but the best part was, she wasn’t getting chewed out by the teachers all the time anymore, so her stress levels went down, she was healthier and happier. 

So, there were three points to her treatment plan- 1. getting an accurate diagnosis- she wasn’t truly depressed or psychotic, she had ADHD and unmet sensory needs, 2- getting her on the right meds and 3- Balancing her Sensory Diet

So let’s back up and talk about what the heck are “Sensory needs”

The 7 Senses

All of us are familiar with our 5 senses- Sight, touch, hearing, smell, and touch. We also have 2 additional senses that are not always highlighted- vestibular and proprioceptive. 

Vestibular relates to our sense of balance and movement. And Proprioceptive relates to knowing where our body is in relation to our environment. 

How Sensory Stuff Impacts Our Emotions

We interact with the world around us with our 7 senses at every moment. Sensory processing is how we are able to interpret and react to the stimuli we receive from the world around us. 


When processing the stimuli through our senses, we generally can have either positive or negative reactions to those things. For example, have you ever seen something that was so captivating that you can stop looking at it? Or prefer a certain texture when choosing a snack? Conversely, have you ever been at a concert and the volume was just too loud? Or have you felt the tag on your clothing feel too scratchy on your neck?

Sensory Seeking/Sensory Avoiding

So if you crave the feeling of a crunchy snack or hate the sound of a loud concert, these positive or negative reactions to your sensory experience can be understood as either sensory-seeking or sensory-avoiding behaviors. 


When we are seeking sensory input we enjoy and want more of stimuli to that sense. Sensory- seeking may look like someone wanting frequent physical touch, gravitating to certain scents or smelling food closely, touching the wall while walking down a hallway, or spinning around and not dizzying.


When we are avoiding sensory input, we are overwhelmed by and want less input to that sense. Sensory-avoiding may look like covering one’s ears when something is too loud, using sunglasses to avoid bright lights, avoiding eating certain textures of food, or being sensitive to rides at an amusement park.


One thing to note is that no one person is entirely sensory-seeking or sensory-avoiding. We may enjoy and seek input to one sense while avoiding input to another sense. 


So when we are constantly out of our sensory comfort zone, it takes mental and emotional labor to regulate ourselves. If we don’t know how to manage our sensory needs, this can lead to anxiety, meltdowns, and exhaustion. 


Let me give you an example.  Imagine it’s the end of the stressful work day. You transition back into your home and you are prepping dinner in the kitchen. You’re cutting vegetables, cooking on the stove, have the hood vent on, and your family is in the next room watching tv. The kids are trying to talk to you and ask you for things. There’s a lot of sensory stimuli going on, plus you’re trying to read the recipe. Do you feel a sigh of relief when you turn off the hood vent? Or do you get frustrated when your partner or kids try to talk to you over the environmental noise?  The sensory overwhelm creates a perfect storm for your brain to shut down a little bit. 


Sensory overload impacts and exacerbates your emotional state. Maybe you snap at your partner or kids. I’ll be honest, this is the time I’m most likely to blow up at the kids. Or you decide dinner doesn’t taste good to you after all that prep. When our sensory needs are not in balance, it’s hard to regulate our emotions. 


When we can learn to identify our sensory needs, and balance them, it can help us regulate our emotions. 


With the 7 senses, we all have our comfort zones, and we may need to add in or reduce sensory stimuli for our brain to regulate. 


With the cooking example, you might be better regulated if you can ask your partner and kids to go play in another room while you cook, removing the extra sound stimuli. Or if you’re sensory seeking- you might do best with a lot of loud music playing in the background while you cook. With each of the 7 senses, we can modify our environment to create an optimal sensory diet, and this can help us regulate our emotions. 


Client Example

So with the client I mentioned earlier, she didn’t know it, but she was a proprioceptive seeker. With therapy and education she learned that for her nervous system to feel soothed, she needed more deep pressure. And when she added in things like weighted blankets and compression clothes, she was finally able to relax. She realized that she didn’t have hallucinations of bugs crawling over her body, she just needed more deep touch. As she met that sensory need, she was able to get emotionally regulated too. Now she’s doing great at a very prestigious university doing a graduate degree. 


What Do We Do About It?

So let’s talk about how you can integrate your sensory regulation with your emotional regulation.

Self Awareness

Start by taking an inventory, learn what sensory experiences are positive or negative for you. Try to raise your own awareness about what you find calming or overwhelming. This can be as simple as writing down a column of activities that you enjoy and activities that you avoid. Or check out my other video where you can take a little quiz to see what your sensory needs are. 

Sensory Diet

Once you have a good awareness of your sensory needs, you can create an individualized plan called a sensory diet. A sensory diet is a group of activities that you engage in to balance out your sensory needs. You balance the interplay of needing alerting activities to keep you engaged and organized in your daily activities, as well as taking breaks when you’re feeling overwhelmed or overloaded. You might be doing some of this naturally- like if you’re getting drowsy at work- you take a short walk or if you know you’ve got a busy, loud event coming up, plan some quiet time afterwards for yourself to recharge. 

So you gain some self-awareness about the areas you are sensory seeking or sensory avoiding and build those needs into your day. 

I’m going to talk a lot more about options for interventions and accommodations in the other video I’m making, but here’s some examples. 

  • If someone is a taste/smell sensory seeker- they may be able to study longer if they have some sour patch kids or spicy chips to eat while they study. 
  • If someone is a proprioceptive or vestibular avoider- they may hate long car rides, roller coasters, walking on uneven ground, and they may benefit from doing other activities that are more solid, walking with supportive shoes, holding handrails when they walk, or avoiding carnival rides. 
  • If someone is an auditory seeker, they may feel calmest doing computer work in a busy coffee shop or with background music at home, but an auditory avoider may love the quietest environment possible. 
  • If someone is a visual avoider, they may work best or feel calmest in minimalist environments, a visual seeker, soothing activities might include hunting for shells on the beach or walking through an exciting mall or covering their walls with posters.


Let’s give an example of a sensory diet for a 9 year old kid, she’s a sensory seeker with proprioception, touch, and vestibular, she’s an avoider with sound. She has some symptoms of ADHD/Anxiety and some rude behaviors at home. 

So we add in big movements and lots of hugging to her day,

Morning- gentle wake ups, hugs and cuddling.

Getting ready for school- a little roughhousing. 

During school- work with the school to make sure she gets physical activity, and can take a break and go for a walk if she’s getting fidgety.

She has requested using earplugs to dampen the noise of assemblies

And if there’s a fire alarm, she often needs extra time to relax afterwards.

So after school she either takes some quiet time in her room- 30-45 minutes of her own choosing or she wants to run around and play outside.

Near bedtime she wants lots of rough housing, stretching, tumbling type play. She’s also in an gymnastics class and dance class each week. 

As we adapt to her sensory needs, her anxiety goes down, and she is visibly calmer. Her rude behaviors also decrease. 

So, become aware of your sensory comfort zone and the sensory experiences you seek and avoid. Then, structure your environment and schedule to support emotion regulation. Typically, if we are sensory-avoiding, any emotional trigger will be felt more keenly. If we are sensory-seeking, we may be less reactive to emotional triggers.

If you or a loved one really struggle with balancing your sensory needs, occupational therapists are the skilled clinicians to help determine the right balance of seeking and avoiding activities that feel comfortable for you. Additionally, individuals with diagnoses like ADHD or Autism can have ongoing sensory needs that they learn to manage with more tailored interventions or accommodations. 

If you’d like to learn more about specific ways to manage sensory needs, I really like the book “A Buffet of sensory interventions”. K, I hope this is helpful. Please check out my other video to learn about your individual sensory needs, the link is in the description. If it’s not out yet, make sure to subscribe and hit the bell so that you’re notified when it does come out. 

Take care!

Check out the course, How to Process Emotions below.

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