I don’t like pistachios.
I have a sensory sensitivity to bright lights in a dark room.
What’s the difference between the two? I can eat pistachios if I have to. I won’t enjoy it, but if I happened to be served something that had some pistachios on or in it, I could eat it without having a negative biological reaction.
On the other hand, I can’t watch TV or look at a computer monitor in a dark room. The brightness of the screen is painful and my instinctive reaction is to look away or close my eyes. If The Scientist and I are watching TV at night, I need a small amount of ambient light to reduce the contrast between the television screen and the darkened room. Without it, I’ll squint at the screen and quickly develop a headache.
I know this because, like the t-shirt incident, I’ve tried to acclimate myself to watching TV in the dark.
I can see how someone who doesn’t know that I have sensory sensitivities might assume that I dislike watching TV in the dark in the same way that I dislike pistachios. If you’ve never experienced sensory sensitivities, it can be hard to believe that they’re real and that they have a biological component to them. But my body’s reaction to those two scenarios is very different.
To understand how, think about the difference between chicken nuggets and a nice juicy slab of raw chicken breast. One is something that you might dislike and the other is something that I don’t think any of us could eat under any circumstance without a strong physical reaction to the texture, taste, and smell of the raw meat. Having a sensory sensitivity is like eating raw chicken. It’s beyond a preference. Your body reacts to the sensory input in a way that signals danger.
Please don’t anyone try to disprove my analogy by actually eating raw chicken because eating raw chicken is really dangerous and would make you very ill. Which brings me to my next point . . .
Our Senses Keep Us Safe
When you think about the function of the sensory system, it’s easy to see how our senses protect us from harm. Eating raw chicken would make a person really really sick. It might even be fatal, if someone were particularly vulnerable to salmonella or other foodborne illnesses. I bet when you read that sentence above about eating raw chicken you had a visceral reaction and recoiled at just the thought of what putting it in your mouth would feel like. That repulsion is a protective mechanism.
One of the things our sensory system does is keep us safe. Even if we didn’t know that garbage was harmful to ingest, we wouldn’t eat it because it smells and tastes so repulsive. Our senses of taste and smell actively prevent us from eating repulsive dangerous things. The same goes for smelling toxic chemicals, seeing an out-of-control car coming our way or sensing an intense heat source via our skin. Each of these “sensory inputs” is a signal that we need to act to keep ourselves safe.
Thanks to our sensory filtering system, incoming sensory data that is perceived to be harmful gets sent to areas of our brain that both help us make judgments on how to react and turn on our “fight or flight” response system so we can escape the impending danger. The garbage, the raw chicken, the noxious chemical smell–our limbic system says “yikes–get that away from me” and our rational thinking brain says, “hey, that could make you sick if you eat it.” Then we act or react accordingly.
This combination of brain functions helps us navigate our environment, spotting potential hazards and formulating logical reactions to them.
Except when it doesn’t.
Here is where atypical sensory processing can go from being a nuisance to being a major source of stress or a threat to our health.
Sensory sensitivities can mean that we have the same reaction to eating spaghetti or jello as we do to (hypothetically) eating raw chicken. Beyond simply disliking a food, we feel a physical repulsion–our body reacts as if the food is harmful. It’s a natural sensory reaction, but to the “wrong” kind of input.
This is why telling someone to “just try a bite” can cause a meltdown. Even a tiny bite of raw chicken would be intensely repulsive. The same is true of anything that triggers a person’s sensory sensitivities.
Sensory sensitivities aren’t about resistance to change, control, stubbornness, irrational fear, avoidance, oppositional behavior or any of the other things that our negative reactions are often blamed on. They are a real and very unpleasant biological phenomenon triggered by atypical sensory processing.
What’s next: Part 3 of this series covers sensitivities versus filtering problems and what the wrong way to react to a person’s sensory sensitivities is, Part 4 is going to be a post on sensory diets and it quite possibly will be my first video blog *nervous stimming*