Since I wrote my first post about sensory overload, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a few occupational therapists (OTs) and talk to them about different things I can do to become more resilient to sensory input and regulate my nervous system better. (In case you want to Google it, this occupational therapy approach is generally called the sensory integration approach.)
The first set of exercises and habits that I’ve been adding to my day have to do with proprioception, which uses “receptors located in the skin, muscles and joints to build the internal sense of our bodies” (source). Work that stretches and compresses my joints helps me regulate my nervous system and calm down when I’m overstimulated. I start my mornings stretching for anywhere from five to twenty minutes, whatever I feel I need, as well as lifting weights and doing a few core exercises. I find it helps me wake up and feel more alert and able to do things.
It helps me to remember that stretching and lifting weights are going to have an immediate effect on my sensory regulation, rather than a long-term effect on my strength or flexibility. It’s much harder for me to work out every day if I’m placing its importance on my fitness. It can bring up feelings of low self-esteem to focus so much on my body image every day; because there isn’t a lot of quickly visible change in my body shape or abilities, thinking too much about fitness can feel really frustrating and disheartening. If you struggle with these same problems when it comes to stretching and exercise, I suggest thinking of your practices as having an immediate effect on your senses and ability to regulate throughout the day, rather than long-term effects on strength or fitness.
Biking and walking also give my joints some compression and heavy work. Other physical activities that help regulate my senses include sucking thick drinks through a straw, swinging on playground swings, wrestling or rough-housing, massages, and getting rolled up like a burrito in a weighted or regular blanket. One OT suggested swimming as a great activity for sensory regulation because of the pressure of the water around the body. The same OT gave me a set of deep pressure brushes (like these), which I firmly brush along my arms, legs, and back for about two minutes, followed by jumping jacks and joint compressions. To read more about this brushing method, start here. These are just some of the ways that I calm myself, regulate my nervous system, and reduce stress.[Headline image: The graphic shows a beige robotic figure of a human body standing with arms outstretched, left leg bent, and right leg straight.]