These past few weeks I’ve had a sensory comfort zone the size of a postage stamp. There are a few things playing into my increase in sensory sensitivities* and one of them is definitely the change of seasons. Transitioning from summer to winter or vice versa is surprisingly demanding.
I think the biggest factor is the constant sensory adaptation. During the winter and summer, the days are pretty consistent from one to the next. It might be uncomfortably hot or cold, but at least my body knows what to expect each day and dressing appropriately doesn’t require a lot of forethought.
Spring and fall, on the other hand, are filled with unpredictable days. Yesterday was t-shirt weather. Today I have on sweats and a thermal shirt. Three days ago I left all of the windows open overnight because it was uncomfortably warm in the house. This morning I dashed out of bed to close the kitchen window, which was open two inches and letting a cold draft in.
With each temperature fluctuation, I find my body struggling to adapt. Too hot. Too cold. Over dressed. Underdressed. It’s hard to find that sweet spot–a consistent, comfortable environmental and body temperature. For the average person, this probably isn’t a big deal. I imagine things like dressing in layers and putting on or taking off clothing as needed is a good solution.
The problem with that strategy is that thanks to wonky interoception I often don’t notice when I’m too hot or too cold until it reaches a level of mild to moderate physical distress. At that point, doing something about it requires not just taking off or putting on a layer, but lowering or raising my body temperature to a comfortable level again. Simply putting on a sweater isn’t a complete solution to whole-body shivering.
Spring and fall bring many days in a row where the temperature is putting a lot of demands on my sensory system and eventually I think that just makes my senses feel ragged and raw.
Add that to having to adapt to a “new” set of clothes for the new season and suddenly everything feels scratchy or tight or just plain weird. For the past two weeks, each time I wear my oldest, softest pair of jeans, I find myself wondering what the heck is that annoying scratchy thing in the waistband? Every time it turns out to be the same soft worn tag that’s been there for all of the years (5 years? 7?) I’ve owned those jeans. It’s never bothered me before, even when they were new, but suddenly I can’t stand the feel of it.
There are other issues with switching to a different set of clothes too. The change in routine requires a mental shift–instead of the set of shorts and t-shirts I’ve grown used to choosing from all summer, I now have to decide which of my long-sleeved shirts and long pants I still like and find comfortable.
If my body shape has changed since the previous year, that will complicate things further, making previously comfortable pants too tight or too loose. Last summer I found that all of my shorts were too big and ended up wearing pants well into June before I found a couple of new pairs of shorts that I liked. Then, of course, I wore one of those two pairs every day until it was too cold.
Having to decide what clothes to put on the morning shouldn’t be as hard as all this, but it is and who wants to waste spoons on agonizing over what to wear? Routines and habits around dressing conserve resources and make it easier to get started with the day.
Another sensory drain during this time of year is adjusting to the feel of “new” clothes. After spending all summer with bare arms and legs, in looser fitting clothing, winter clothes can feel heavy and restrictive. Too many layers. Tight waistbands. Sweaty gloves and lumpy winter hats. Socks.
The weird thing is that when next summer rolls around, I’ll find it hard to give up my comfortably heavy hoodies, thick warm socks and sturdy hiking boots for bare feet and t-shirts. It isn’t the clothes themselves that are the problem, it’s the transition from one kind of sensory input to another.
All of this, the physical discomfort and disruption of routines and all the rest, exists as background static. It took me weeks of sensing that something was “off” to pin down that the something was my sensory system and then yet more time to realize that I needed to actively do something about it.
Coping Strategies Anyone?
I’d love to say that I’ve found some great solutions for making seasonal transitions easier, but mostly I’ve just spent a lot of time whining about it to The Scientist.
We do have a season changing ritual where we take out the bins with the clothes for the upcoming season just as the weather starts to change. Having appropriate clothes handy makes it easier to dress for the fluctuating temperatures and arranging everything in my drawers reminds me that there are some clothes I’ve missed wearing. I’ve been especially looking forward to cool evenings when I can wear my super heavyweight hoodie for dog walking.
I’ve also been working on paying attention to the thermometer more. If the weather forecast on my phone tells me that it’s going to be in the 40s overnight, I know that I need to close the windows before going to bed. If it’s in the 50s in the morning, a long sleeve shirt and jacket are a safe choice. Going by the thermometer is a more reliable system than going by how the ambient temperature feels or how I think it should feel based on the date (most ridiculous system ever, I know).
Being extra conscious about fulfilling my sensory needs helps to smooth out some of the rough edges. I’ve been using my weighted blanket a lot and doing other things that provide positive sensory inputs.
The other useful strategy has been recognizing that my sensory comfort zone is very small right now and sticking to my most comfortable clothes. That way I’m not causing an unnecessary drain on my already maxed out sensory resources.
If you have strategies that you use to cope with seasonal change or increased sensory sensitivities, I’d love to hear them. I’m sure The Scientist would appreciate them too. He’s probably tired of all the complaining.
*In part, I think it’s also related to an unwelcome resurgence in perimenopause symptoms. The summer was wonderfully dormant in that area and I’d gotten tricked into thinking maybe the worst was past, but clearly my doctor was right. There’s an ebb and flow to this menopause thing and it ain’t over ’til it’s over.