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Sensation and Regulation

Updated: May 8, 2023

But what do these mean?! And how does it relate to me?

We all experience sensations all day long, whether we’re aware of them or not. Our brain is processing sounds, smells, sights, touch, and movements constantly, leading to both physical and emotional reactions. Imagine walking your dog down a familiar block at a familiar time. The neighbors water sprinklers are on, per usual, and you hear the “click click click” of the sprinkler system and feel the splash of water on your ankles as you quicken your steps. The sound doesn’t startle you because it’s familiar and, in fact, its rhythmic quality may even provide you with a sense of calm. If it’s a hot day, the droplets may bring cool relief but on a cold day it might cause discomfort, making you eager to just get home and dry off rather than enjoy the remainder of the walk with your dog. There’s so many ways this seemingly simple, everyday activity could play out and impact how you’re feeling. If you weren’t on a familiar street and were lost in thought and suddenly someone’s sprinklers started, you might startle, albeit briefly, as you are consciously able to quickly determine there’s no danger. And it’s all because of our brain’s ability to process our sensory filled world, which leads to both conscious and unconscious reactions that effect our regulatory state.

But what is our regulatory state? Simply put, it’s the state we’re in, whether it be calm and alert or frantic and disorganized. And it can be thought of as a multi-dimensional system impacted by our:

  • bio-physiological systems (heart rate, breathing rate, etc),

  • sleep-wake cycle,

  • hunger, thirst, or satiation,

  • body movements,

  • ability to calm ourself,

  • ability to engage and interact.

Let’s return to the the dog walking scenario and think about how it could play out differently if your sensory systems aren’t processing information from your surrounding world accurately or efficiently.

If you have difficulty with auditory processing, the sudden sound of the sprinkler starting leads to a startle reaction or even puts you in a state of fight or flight. Alternatively, if you don’t process the sound of the sprinklers, you don’t move quickly out of the way and get quite wet. This might mean a change of clothes once home and being late to school or work, which further disrupts your day, making it more difficult to recover and re-focus attention to tasks at hand.

If you have difficulty with tactile processing, the feeling of the water splashing against you, the sensation of wet socks, or the sensation of wet feet against sandals all can send a tingling feeling through your body. This discomfort may resolve with a change in socks and shoes at home, but it may also leave lasting feelings for a portion of the day. Like an itch that you shouldn’t scratch.

If you have difficulty with proprioceptive processing, the sound or feeling of the water may not trigger a reaction in your muscle and joint systems quickly enough to jump out of the way. Or you might jump so quickly that coordination and control is lost, resulting in a twisted ankle. This will effect anyone’s mood, acutely and ongoing through at least the rest of the day, and if a bad enough twist, will impact your ability to move and retrieve items to care for the injury and even food and drink. Furthermore, it will likely impact your interactions with family, friends, and co-workers.

This one, seemingly simple sensory filled event in our day can lead to a domino effect of reactions, all of which contribute to your regulatory state. Now imagine how many sensory filled events we have throughout the day and how easily it can be disrupted. We constantly rely on our ability to self-regulate otherwise these events will continue to impact our nervous system functioning. The quick startle or even the slow build up of frustration can lead to excess stress hormones and adrenaline being pumped through your body. This “excess” can lead to anxiety and discomfort causing major disruption to everyday life.

Recommendations on how to self-regulate:

  • Deep breathing

  • Slow counting of numbers

  • Grounding oneself (e.g. foot squeezes, rocking back and forth, gentle forward/backward swinging)

  • Give yourself words of affirmation or ask a loved one for some

  • Provide deep pressure (e.g. laying underneath a heavy pillow, receiving a bear hug from a loved one)

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