I used to work as an occupational therapist for children with autism, ADHD, and other types of neurodivergence. One of the most effective treatment tools we had was the sensory profile because it allowed us to look at how school and home environments conflicted with their brains’ own natural sensory needs.
I think this tool is valuable for all of us. Knowing your sensory profile is immensely helpful, because no matter who you are – neurodivergent or not – your unique sensory profile affects how you interact with your world on a daily basis. In addition, sensory profiles can change after a period of trauma, and knowing how trauma has affected your profile can help you take better care of yourself.
But, let me backtrack for a minute — what is a sensory profile anyway? Let’s start with looking at our senses. Each of us has 8 senses (sorry, M. Night Shyamalan) connected to our nervous system:
- Visual (sight)
- Auditory (hearing)
- Olfactory (smell)
- Gustatory (taste)
- Tactile (touch)
- Vestibular (sense of head movement in space)
- Proprioceptive (sense of body position in space and feedback from joints and muscles)
- Interoception (sensations related to the physiological/physical condition of the body like hunger, heart rate, breathing, and more)
Each of us has different likes and dislikes when it comes to each of these senses. For example, some people may love the smell of perfume while others find it overwhelming. Some people may love a big hug and for others that may feel suffocating. Your particular collection of likes and dislikes for each of your sensory systems is your unique “sensory profile.”
But really, it’s too simplistic to say likes and dislikes. This stuff is so intimately tied to your nervous system it can activate either your “happy place” nervous system (parasympathetic) or your “get me the hell out of here” nervous system (sympathetic).
Imagine an environment in an idyllic location, maybe a beach, the forest, or a busy Parisian cafe. You’re wearing the most comfortable clothing you’ve ever found, you just ate some of your favorite foods, and you feel perfectly satisfied — not hungry but not too full. There’s a smell of something (Is it the ocean? Coffee? Petrichor?) That immediately makes you feel happy. Got a good image of all of this? Fantastic — you’ve just described something that fits your “sensory seeking” profile of things you like to have in your environment.
Now let’s do the opposite. Imagine you’re in an environment that you hate —it’s way too loud, or so quiet that you can’t hear anything but your own spiralling thoughts. It’s so hot that sweat is dripping in your eyes. Your clothing is awful. It’s either too tight or way too baggy and the material is creating the most uncomfortable itching sensation you’ve ever felt on your skin. You haven’t had anything to eat or drink in hours and you’re officially hangry. But also, something smells really gross and you just lost your appetite. Got that image in your mind? That’s a scenario that fits your “sensory aversion” profile, or a group of sensations that you’d try to avoid in the world.
When we find ourselves in a situation that fits with our sensory seeking preferences, our whole nervous system relaxes. That sets off a wave of other chemical and energetic reactions in our body that signals safety, security and happiness. When we find ourselves in a sensory adverse situation, our nervous system gets tense, and releases all sorts of stress chemicals that cause feelings that range from discomfort to panic.
(Side note: the reason that this awareness is so important to the neurodiverse community is that sensations that would only cause a mild nervous system reaction for neurotypical folks can cause a panic reaction in someone with an atypical nervous system. This often includes sights, smells, and sounds that are quite common and would go unnoticed by most of the population.)
So, you can see why knowing your unique sensory profile could help you navigate the world with a happier nervous system by seeking out things that make you calm and avoiding those that cause you distress.
But how does trauma affect your sensory profile?
Let’s start with a pretty classic example. If you look at someone who has PTSD, let’s say from fighting in a war, they might now have a panicked reaction to an auditory sensation like fireworks or a car backfiring. It’s something that might go unregistered or only cause a mild awareness in people without PTSD, however for someone with PTSD this could cause a full-blown panic attack. Similarly, a woman who has been sexually assaulted may feel panic when she senses someone walking behind her in the supermarket, while for the rest of us we’d just register that there was another human shopping in the same crowded store and our nervous system would interpret it as no big deal.
With complex trauma, it’s more… um, well… complex. If you need a good primer on what Complex PTSD (CPTSD) is, I wrote about it here. Complex trauma happens over the course of years and as a result, our nervous systems, which includes our sensory systems, can slowly change and start to “hardwire” as a response to these small, daily traumatic events. Let me give you a few examples from my own sensory profile.
I have insanely acute hearing. This comes as a result of listening to my abusive mother’s movements around the house. If I heard her come in the front door, move around the house or start talking, I would freeze and listen carefully so that I could ascertain what kind of mood she was in, and therefore what the potential danger level was at that moment. Because of my acute hearing and careful attunement to background noise, I now can’t work in noisy environments. I need absolute silence to work because my sensory systems are hard-wired to listen for danger in any background noise.
Another example would be my high pain tolerance. (Pain is part of your interception and tactile sensory systems.) I didn’t even realize I had a high pain tolerance until I was in the emergency room one night with what turned out to be a kidney stone. The nurse asked me what my pain level was on a scale of 1-10 and I answered that it was a 7 or 8. My boyfriend then added, “If she says 7 or 8, that’s a 10 on most people’s scale.” That was news to me! Afterwards, I realized that my interoceptors had probably been altered by my traumatic experiences. When I felt pain or felt unwell as a child, there was usually one of two reactions from my mother: either rage that I was bothering her with my needs, or an overly dramatic trip to the doctor where she would be in complete hysterics and insist that I undergo every medical test under the sun, and I would be poked and prodded in myriad painful and uncomfortable ways. So, I learned to keep it to myself if I felt pain. Eventually, my nervous system acclimated to that and turned down my pain receptors.
Even though I’m no longer living in that dysfunctional household, both my auditory and interoceptors were wired in a different way via these experiences in my formative years. They are now part of my unique sensory profile.
So, what’s the takeaway here? Now that you know all this cool, new stuff about your sensory profile, how can you actually use it? Well, there are three main ways:
First, make a list of the things that fall under the “sensory seeking” category for you. What are the things that you love to smell, eat, or hear? What kind of fabrics do you like? Do you like big hugs or light touch? What kinds of art do you like to look at? What’s your favorite natural setting — desert, rolling hills, or dense jungle? Then make yourself a “sensory toolkit” where you can have these things handy if you start to feel stressed.
Second, what are your “sensory aversions”? What are the things that make you feel like you want to crawl out of your skin? What smells, sights, noises or environments make you feel stressed out and exhausted? Make sure that you only get these things in small doses or use strategies to help you tune those out. For example, I use my noise-cancelling headphones with no music on when I’m working in noisy environments. That way, I get my own little cocoon of quiet in the middle of a noisy place.
Thirdly, practice self-compassion. (I mean, my advice when dealing with any kind of trauma fallout is self-compassion, really.) If you get stressed by certain sensory experiences, I want you to practice listening to your inner caregiver. Listen to them tell you how smart and resourceful you were to be able to have a system in place to sense the danger coming. Feel them send you so much love and acceptance for who you are, regardless of what your body and mind may be doing at the moment. Imagine what your ideal parent or caregiver would say or do for you to calm you and help you feel safe and sound in this situation. Know that you deserve all of this love and care and more.
I’d love to know what you’ll take away from this post! Did you figure out anything about your own sensory profile? I hope this info can help you care for yourself in the most exquisite and loving way — you deserve nothing less, my friend.