Published on 28th July, 2020 by Dr. Sanveen Kang
Over the years, I have found time and time again that the mind and the body function very much together. This would not come as a surprise to many of us. However, this view is integrated only to a small degree when treating mental health disorders. Contrary to popular belief, mental health conditions across the lifespan may be due to an underlying sensory processing disorder.
Clinicians and researchers have long grappled with the challenge of categorizing, describing, and understanding mental disorders, with imperfect results. Mental health symptoms are complex and dimensional in nature; making it a very perplexing task to simplify these experiences in simple categories.
Jagiellowicz and colleagues (2010) along with Aron and colleagues (2012) stated that sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is defined as a genetically determined personality trait described by “social, emotional, and physical sensitivity”. As studied by Jagiellowicz et al. (2010), variation in this trait is associated with neurobiological differences. Jagiellowicz et al. (2016) demonstrated the link between those high in SPS and greater activation of brain regions involved in high-order visual processing when images with subtler alterations were shown. Acevedo et al. (2014) found a positive correlation between higher SPS, and activation of brain regions involved in attention, empathy, and action planning. SPS has been shown to have overlapping features with sensory processing abnormalities present in range of disorders such as ASD, schizophrenia, mood disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research has also shown that mental health disorders impact sensory perception and vice versa.
It is important to recognize that sensory sensitivity would be one part of the overarching concept of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). However, SPD is not listed in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5 (2013). Instead, the DSM-5 includes sensory concerns as criteria for Autism. It is also important to note that not everyone with Autism has sensory processing disorder.
The sensory system is a part of the Central Nervous System (CNS). Therefore, it is safe to assume that it affects many domains of its functioning including the Autonomous Nervous System (ANS). Affective processing also activates the ANS. More specifically, Anxiety activates the ANS whilst autonomic function affects risk depression.
Let’s take the example of anxiety. For many people with SPD, anxiety comes as part of the package. SPD and anxiety work together to cause mayhem. They play off each other, and create a spiral effect of symptoms.
When you or your child has anxiety from sensory issues, it presents itself the same way non-sensory anxiety does; the symptoms are virtually the same. It can be hard to distinguish between sensory overload and anxiety. Most commonly, SPD anxiety can look like this and mimic a freeze response:
In my work with clients, I have also found that incorporating sensory processing into psychological therapy helps with regulating emotions and behavior (through the understanding and incorporation of the role of the sensory systems in processing information from the body and environment). As a result, clients (children, teens and adults) appear to be more receptive to psychological input and treatment outcomes appear to be reached much quicker. Improvement in daily functioning, especially in terms of the ability to focus, concentrate and be ready for engagement in the task at hand, have also been observed. Therefore, a sensory room or materials and sensory-based treatment has positive outcomes.
Should you be keen to learn more about Sensory-Based Treatment Approaches for Anxiety and Depression, contact us at Psych Connect for a chat. At Psych Connect, we are committed to providing therapy without barriers to our clients and are always developing new approaches to reach positive outcomes. When engaging in Sensory-Based Treatment Approaches, our mental health team collaborates with our occupational therapists; embodying the TAC approach to treatment (Team Around a Child).