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How anxiety is related to processing and integration of sensory input

“How and why is anxiety related to sensory processing difficulties? What is the relationship? Why are they often co-morbid?” One of the parents we support through our facebook parents group recently asked this question, it made me stop and think, below is the answer I wrote to her.

Hi, this is a really good question, and a tricky one to explain as a parent. Here is what I have learned and hope it might help others develop their own way of explaining their child’s sensory differences.  Reading books and practicing telling people what is going on in his brain, has helped me advocate for him in tricky meetings.

Here’s my patter, this is how I explain it…

It’s my understanding that sensory processing and sensory integration difficulties can be underlying causes of anxiety for many of our kids and definitely, this true for my son.

He has poor tactile discrimination this means that doesn’t understand what he feels, and what or where something is touching him. This leads to him avoiding touch / messy play and eating type situations. Because he avoids them, he doesn’t learn or build up positive experience and therefore is even more anxious the next time. Add to that he has difficulties making sense of vestibular input (the sensory system in our inner ear that tells us how we are moving out head in space and helps us know how to balance). When this sensory system is out of whack, it impacts on so much, his body just wants to know it’s not on ‘dodgy ground’ but it never tells him this, and he remains agitated. His brain has tried to compensate for this, but again he needs many movement experiences to learn how to do this well. Until he started therapy he used to avoid these experiences but now he is slowly starting to seek them out. He loves swings and zip wires!

Sensory integration difficulties including poor body awareness can also lead to problems with motor planning and coordination. Not having a good idea where your body is or what it can do can increase anxiety.

We also know that the parts of your brain that process light touch information and balance movement information inform our alerting centres and those responsible for us being calm or in fight or flight. My boy used to spend lots of time existing in fight or flight mode. This is one of the reasons Ayres’ Sensory Integration therapy helps him because it taps into his neuro-plasticity helping his brain to have new positive experiences, especially in his balance and touch systems. This helps it to rewire and so be much less hyper-vigilant all the time.

Here is a fantastic infographic from BelievePHQ which explains what anxiety looks like, the symptoms will look different for each individual person.

what anxiety loks like


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