Last month’s article, Neuro-Sensitives and Sensory Overload, focused on how parents and professionals can reduce the sensory burden that neuro-sensitive children and adults experience every day of every week during various activities in their lives: medical, social, entertainment, school, shopping, etc.
As a continuation of that information, this month’s article will focus on the resulting behaviors that occur when the Sensitive, or their parent/professional, cannot adequately reduce the overwhelming level of sensory input. Certainly different individuals have different tolerances, but sensitives and empaths who understand this phenomenon, and can communicate it, have all described their meltdowns, or of recognizing its approach.
For non-Sensitives, even those who conceptually understand empathy, it may be hard to understand that someone can experience this extent of sensory sensitivity. As a result, since many parents and professionals can’t see it coming, they don’t know how to recognize these sensory meltdowns. In fact, frequently it is assumed that the individual is having a temper tantrum. However, tantrums and meltdowns are triggered by different things and require different responses.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TANTRUMS AND MELTDOWNS
STEP ONE: UNDERSTAND SENSORY OVERLOAD
Sensitive children are hyper-aware of their surroundings. To better understand their experience, think about the input that they receive from all five senses, and realize that they have minimal ability to decrease or minimize it. Additionally, they are often intuitive, and as empaths they are highly aware of others’ emotions to the point that they feel these emotions in their own bodies.
Unfortunately most empaths don’t realize this is occurring. They either assume they are feeling an intensification of their own emotions, or they just react. Empaths who understand what’s occurring describe their experiences as more than empathy. (Empathy is described as, “I can imagine how it must be for you.”)
Here are some statements that empaths have told me to describe being an empath:
- I’m in a room with others and I feel their feelings.
- My anxiety (or worry, sadness, anger) becomes so intense that I need to leave the room.
- When I look in their eyes I feel like I see their soul.
- I’m exhausted whenever I am with others, especially in groups.
- When I look in their eyes, I know everything there is to know about them, and I feel it in my own body.
- I feel like it’s my job to take away their problems or ‘hurts’.
- Being an empath helps me do my work because I know things that my client, student or patient has not verbalized.
- Being an empath helps me because my child cannot verbalize what s/he needs, but I somehow know, and now I can explain it to others.
STEP TWO: MELTDOWN – THE PHYSICAL EFFECT
When sensitives or empaths don’t understand what is happening, and haven’t yet learned sufficient skills for modulating their experiences it is quite overwhelming. Remember that their sensory bombardment is continual and for the most part unrelenting.
Meltdowns are a sensory response occurring at a physiologic (physical body) level and occur when the body is overwhelmed by multiple stimuli and cannot cope with one more entry.
STEP THREE: WHY IT LOOKS LIKE A TANTRUM
What makes it especially confusing is when there are verbal overlays that sound like what our society has taught us are tantrums. For instance, the Sensitive child who is screaming for one more candy, or 5 minutes more time, is doing so because that issue became the one experience that they can identify or recognize (as opposed to a myriad of unrecognized sensory experiences), and they are hoping to control this one thing because they know subconsciously that they just can’t handle one … more … thing.
This is such an important part of understanding meltdowns, because meltdowns are NOT tantrums. Tantrums are willful and potentially tactical.
To recognize meltdowns, and not assume tantrum, it is important to learn about your individual’s sensory experiences. Think about how they usually respond in various environments: sounds, lights, activity, smells, tolerance of clothing and other tactile experiences, and even human touch. And remember that to the amygdala, that part of the brain that evaluates every type of sensory input to keep us safe, one’s emotions – our own and those of others – are also evaluated to assess potential threats.
STEP FOUR: WHAT TO DO WITH A MELTDOWN
The best advice is prevention. As you become more adept at being the detective of your individual’s sensory experiences, you will become better able to reduce their overload experience and thus the subsequent meltdowns. When that is not sufficient or possible, realize that the meltdown is the body releasing energy and tension and has to run its course. Provide a safe and supportive environment for your individual.
For generations our society has taught that children should listen and follow directions and that any counter-response should be met with consequences or discipline. Looking at things differently allows us to realize that meltdowns are a Sensitive’s unconscious and unplanned way of responding to a physiologic need to reduce their physical tension.
STEP FIVE: THE AFTERMATH
Apologies are heartfelt and real. Since this is a physiologic response, there’s no need for punishment. Be careful if you try processing what has occurred. Many Sensitives are unable to recognize the buildup in their systems and can re-trigger easily and quickly.
Professionals, families and neuro-sensitives are striving to find ways to reduce sensory receptiveness and increase sensory tolerance. Diets, education, cognitive behavioral therapy, energy work, craniosacral therapy, prismatic lenses and noise-reducing headphones are just a few of the things that are being tried. I hope to bring more information about options and successes in the future.
Judy Lipson is a Licensed Professional Counselor and educational strategist in West Bloomfield, MI. She helps clients of all ages who have learning difficulties, work or school related anxiety, ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorders, and those who wish to Remember and Become ‘Who You Really Are’. Contact Judy at 248.568.8665 and firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit www.SpiralWisdom.net for more information.
This article is for informational purposes and is not meant to replace medical care.