Tag Archives: Pain

What Sensory Overload Is Like

Today on The Mighty, there’s a story about people’s misguided perceptions of sensory overload. Mandy Farmer, the post author, describes several situations involving her son that are well-known to me. Though I’ve come to tolerate a grocery store, I still cover my ears when the music in a store is too loud. I still fidget and, though I don’t (usually) scream, I still react with frustration at my hair being cut. I still don’t attend many social events, because I find a baby’s crying or loud music or even lots of conversation overwhelming.

Overwhelming, exactly. But you see just behavior. I’ve actually had some nurses tell me that “this is behavior”. Duh! Every single action a person exhibits is behavior. You mean it is willful misbehavior, but 1. you don’t say so (this is my literal-mindedness acting up) and 2. I don’t think that it is.

People often see sensory overload as attention-seeking, as depriving the noise-making people of the right to make noise. *Yes, I’ve seriously been accused of that!) At best, like Farmer also seems to connote, they see it as anxiety, and anxiety is to be overcome with exposure.

I once, many years ago, read a description of what it is like to live with autism. The description of the sensory experience went something like this: imagine noise at the highest volume blasting in your ears, insects crawling under your skin, and bright lights shining in your eyes at the same time, while you’re having to eat the hottest type of peppers and the smell of rotten meat penetrates your skin. I bet those last two weren’t in there, but sensory overload affects all five senses. Now imagine not being able to escape any of these sensory experiences. Imagine what it’d be like having this experience 24/7. You’d go freakin’ nuts!

Sensory overload doesn’t always involve a cognitive appraisal of the sensory stimulation, like: “I don’t think people should be playing loud music.” It doesn’t even always involve fear-related appraisals, like: “This noise is a threat, I feel like it will damage my ears.” When it does involve these types of cognitive processes, we aren’t always aware of them. Older children and adults can learn to become aware of what is going on in their minds and register any fearful or angry thoughts they may have towards the sensory stimulus. Then they can begin to learn to adjust these thoughts. But when there are no such thoughts, or when the person is unaware of them, how will attributing their reactions to some type of willful behavior help them?

If noise were blasting at the loudest volume, bright lights were shining into your eyes, insects were crawling under your skin, etc., wouldn’t you feel pain? You would! Think of sensory overload as pain. And while cognitive and behavioral strategies can help people manage pain, attributing their pain-related behaviors to willfulness is not only insensitive, but ineffective as well.

Everyday Gyaan

Calm: The Power of Mindfulness

This week, I’m participating in #theprompt once again. I am rather late, because I was quite busy with other things over the week. For example, on Wednesday, I had an intake interview at the country’s top notch autism center, which happens to be in my town. They are hopefully going to assess my needs and provide recommendations for when my husband and I will be living together.

The meeting was quite intense. However, I have been able to feel relatively calm lately thanks to practising mindfulness. Since this week’s prompt is “calm”, I am going to share some information about mindfulness and how it’s helping me.

Mindfulness is, as far as I understand, more or less a western, popular term for meditation. This is at least one type of mindfulness, the type that I practise when stressed. It involves trying to sit with my thoughts, feelings and bodily sensatiosn without judgment. You can try to focus on one aspect of your experience, such as your breathing. When distracted, you should not waste energy on fighting the distraction, but simply notice it and return to paying attention to your breathing.

Any activity can be done mindfully. For example, you might notice that you start eating and suddenly the entire plate or packet is empty and you didn’t realize you ate this much. Mindfulness teaches us to be aware of what we’re doing, feeling or thinking.

Mindfulness does not eliminate life’s pressures, but it helps us look at these pressures with more clarity and less judgment. For example, when you’re eating, you might think about all the calories you’re consuming rather than simply noticing the act of eating.

Mindfulness will also teach us to respond more adequately to experiences. This is achieved by creating a gap between the experience and our reaction to it, as in the example above. Mindfulness can help me actually enjoy food rather than binge on it.

In the example of the autism center meeting, I was constantly worried about what if I had to be re-assessed for autism all over again and what if my parents had to be involved and what if they were going to convince the professionals that nothing was wrong and what if… You get the idea. By being mindful, I would look more objectively at the meeting, which went quite well. However, I’d also sit with my present thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations without judgment. For example, I’d be conscious of my butt touching the chair or bed, my breathing, my current emotions, etc.

At this very moment, I am relatively calm. My fingertips touch the keyboard as I type this blog post. My bum and back touch the chiar as my toes touch the floor (my chair is too high for my entire feet to touch the floor). I could be thinkign about how the car broke down again yesterday. I could be worrying about all the stress of possibly buying a new one. Instead, I let these thoughts go by without judgment. I don’t fight them, but I don’t give them extra special attention either. It doesn’t mean the car isn’t broken or that we don’t have the pressure of buying a new one, but what use is there in worrying about this now that I’m writing?

Mindfulness can be useful in dealing with emotional stress, as in the examples above. It can also help in dealing with physical symptoms, such as pain. After all, we often tend to make the symptoms worse by worrying about them. If I feel an ache, the ache is usually not so all-encompassing that it in itself overpowers every other sensation. There are exceptions of course, but in most cases, the effects of pain get amplified by our thoughts about this pain. Again, what use is there in thinking about an ache? Will it lessen the ache? Quite likely not, and it will distress me. So I notice the ache but don’t give it more attention than it deserves. Of course, we do need to pay just enough attention to pain to take appropriate care, but particularly for chronic, largely untreatable and/or intractable pain, mindfulness can definitely help lessen its impact.

mumturnedmom

Pain Doesn’t Have to Be Visible to Be Real

“I always hated when my scars started to fade, because as long as I could still see them, I knew why I was hurting.” – Jodi Picoult, Handle with Care

I am a self-injurer. Have been since childhood. Part of the reason has always been to feel something other than emptiness, loneliness, or emotional pain. However, part of the reason has also always been to make my pain be visible. Not even necessarily to others, but to myself.

It feels kind of odd to admit this. After all, wanting to express pain is seen as overreacting, attention-seeking. We are taught to hide and numb out our pain.

I once read a Dutch book on psychosis which started out by eplaining that today’s psychiatry is aimed at ignoring people’s inner experiences, or altering them with drugs. According to the author, we live in a kind of brave new world, where everything is aimed at individual and social stability. Take some soma, baby! And I can relate, having resided in a psychiatric institution for almosot seven years. When I feel stressed, the first response from the nurses is usually to ask if I need a tranquilizer. In fact, when I resided on the locked ward, I’d call oxazepam my “shut up pill”, because nurses would tell me to take it whenever something irritated me.

Please note that psychiatric drugs have some place in treatment of severe mental illness. I take various medications for anxiety, irritability and emotional instability. Sometimes though, I’ve wanted to quit my medicaiton because it numbs me out.

Psychiatric drugs aside, many people are taught that to feel pain is to be weak, and to express it is to be even weaker. Most survivors of trauma feel guilt for the pain they experience, because, you know, others have it worse, it wasn’t that bad after all, you name it. I am still working on admitting that what I suffered was real, and the pain I feel is real as well. Just today, I saw another quote. Something along the lines of: “Your struggles are valid even if others are struggling more.”

Another common misconception is that physical pain is somehow more real than emotional pain. There is a huge stigma associated with mental illness, more so than with physical illness (I’m not saying there’s no stigma associated with physical illness). People all too often think that we can “just get over it” when we’re experiencing emotional turmoil, whereas if there’s something physically or at least visibly wrong with us, it’s real. I am not immune to this, and in my case, this idea perpetuates symptoms such as disordered eating and self-injury.

If you want to get over emotional pain, the first step is admitting it is there and that it is real whether it is associated with visible scars or not. You should not have to convert emotional pain into physical wounds to be taken seriously. Expressing pain in a healthy manner should be allowed, encouraged even, and should be enough to deserve support.

Linking up with Inspire Me Monday and Motivation Monday.