So far, the strategies I’ve been outlining all follow an “outside-in” approach: physical activities I do to regulate my inner systems. And they are all useful activities. But at one point, I found that this approach wasn’t quite enough for me. I inserted regulating activities throughout my day and still found myself tense and exhausted by input by the end of the day. Once I got home, I could barely make decisions, and trying to figure out what sensory regulation to do in the evening was too difficult. One night, I found myself staring at a packet of Ramen noodles, trying to figure out how to follow the directions.
I needed something else in addition to the other work I was doing. Fortunately, that’s when one of the dozens of OTs I’d called, looking for anyone who did sensory integration and not just physical therapy, called me back. She told me she worked with a more inside-out approach, focusing on breathing and meditation, in addition to increasing body awareness, to work on making sensory systems more resilient to input.
She taught me to start breathing into my belly first, rather than expanding my chest. It took a bit of practice and, at first, I didn’t feel like I could get a full breath that way. When that happened, she told me I could breath up into my chest after filling my belly, and even into my throat. Then she directed me to breath out starting from my chest and emptying my belly last. The next session she had me switch, and I breathed into my belly first and exhaled from my belly first. Both are relaxing, and I don’t think one is better than the other.
I mentioned to her that I had heard that breathing out for longer than breathing in triggered the parasympathetic system and lowered heart rate. She agreed that was an effective method and suggested I breathe in to the count of three, and out to the count of six.
Then we did some exercises where I lay on the floor and moved parts of my body in rhythm with my breath. First, I opened my hand as I breathed in and closed my hand so my fingertips touched as I breathed out. After a few minutes, I switched to the other hand. I bent my legs up so my feet were flat on the floor and let them fall to one side, and then back up, and then let them fall to the other side after a few minutes. This was to increase my awareness and control of my body and the sensations my sensory system produces.
Throughout our session, she would have me focus on my breathing, then switch to focus on one of my other senses. A noise in the room, or even just becoming aware of the silence. The weight of my body on the floor, the feeling of my internal sense of my body, the places where my body is touching the floor, what my clothes feels like. And then returning to my breathing. After a while I sat up and continued the breathing exercise while I focused visually on something. I found it hard to just look at one thing, like I was getting dizzy, so I let my gaze wander around the room.
This is just an example of one session of meditation, but I’ve noticed an increased awareness of the state of my body since I started thinking about my breathing. I’ll be rushing to my next class and, suddenly, I realize I’m barely breathing. I’m not panicked, I’m just…not breathing very much. My whole internal sense of my body will be tight and tense, so subtle I barely notice it until I’m a wreck later on. Now, I’ll relax my shoulders and start taking breaths through my stomach, and start to feel a bit better.
As with my physical activities, thinking of breathing and meditation as having an immediate, calming effect rather than a long-term one helped me when I began adding meditation and breathwork into my sensory plan. Previously, when I attempted to meditate and empty my mind, it was like the old mind game of “Don’t think about a purple elephant.” Trying to empty my thoughts made all of them rise up and left me feeling frustrated with myself and the exercise. Focusing on the immediate, parasympathetic effects of the breathing exercises I’ve learned – slowing my heart rate and making myself calmer – helps a lot. I noticed just last week that the thing meditation teachers always tell you to do – focus on your breathing, empty your mind – happened naturally because I was thinking about my breathing’s effect on my body and sensory system, not whether I was thinking about something else. Little thoughts came and went, but I didn’t beat myself up for them, because that wasn’t the focus of the exercise. The focus was to breathe a certain way, not to empty my mind of thoughts. But the latter happened anyway when I focused on the former.
My sensory defensiveness and overload haven’t gone away and I still struggle to manage them, but having more tools at my disposal has helped me be more aware of how my body is feeling at a given moment and of the ways I can help myself feel better when overwhelmed. I hope my experience can help others who deal with sensory issues to find more tools for their toolbox. When I first started looking for information online, there wasn’t a lot out there to help me. Then I learned firsthand how difficult it can be to find an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration, and a that it’s a whole other challenge to find one that’s affordable. So I hope that, by sharing the things I’ve learned, I can make it a little easier for the next person looking for help.[Headline image: The photograph shows ocean waves at the beach. The water appears blue with white foam. Photograph by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg.]