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Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) And Addiction

Sensory Processing Disorder_

When we see or smell something we are experiencing those senses as a reaction to certain stimuli. Before our brain registers these stimuli, it must correctly process the information. For most people (those without SPD), this internal dialogue runs smoothly and without disconnect.

The exchange between one’s five senses and their experiences and behaviors are not so clear cut for individuals suffering from Sensory processing disorder. Day-to-day living can become very difficult and even painful. This constant tug-of-war can drastically imbalance an individual’s life to the point they begin coping with drugs or alcohol.

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Do you know someone who can’t stand certain sounds and becomes extremely agitated in response? Or maybe someone who becomes excessively upset over the feel of a shirt tag against their skin? According to The Washington Post, “SPD is a clinical label for people who have abnormal behavioral responses to sensory input such as sound and touch.”

Sensory Processing Disorder_Sensory Cues

But why do these things happen? Normally, sensory cues allow a person to respond in a suitable way in terms of behavior or motor response. Sensory processing disorder alters the way an individual’s brain and nervous system intuits messages from their five senses, disrupting these responses. The severity of this disorder can range from mild to severe.

What Are The Signs Of Sensory Processing Disorder?

A large amount of information on SPD is specific to children, however, many of the symptoms continue into adulthood. While some adults who suffer from SPD may appear not to struggle as much, many have learned to somewhat cope with or hide their symptoms. This does not mean that they are immune from the effects.

Here are examples of how a person’s senses may be impacted:

Smell: Certain smells (even mundane ones) may be repulsive.

Sight: Bright lights (i.e. fluorescent bulbs) may trigger a reaction. Certain patterns may also be problematic.

Touch: Certain textures may be very irritating like itchy, stiff, or tight clothes. Some people with SPD may be bothered by casual touch (i.e. hand shaking or being bumped into). Others may touch people or things out of turn.

Taste: Certain tastes or even temperatures of food could create an issue.

Sound: Loud noises, certain frequencies, background noise, and/or even everyday noises (i.e someone chewing) become aggravating.

A person may contend with triggers in one or more of the senses.

In teens and adults, behaviors may include:

  • Sensation seeking or avoidance
  • Being uncomfortable in group settings
  • Distractibility
  • Trouble with attention and focus
  • Processing delays
  • Difficulty performing daily tasks
  • Awkwardness or clumsiness
  • High/low pain threshold
  • High/low levels of activity
  • Covering ears and/or squinting or rubbing eyes
  • Picky eating
  • Poor self-confidence
  • Antisocial
  • Short tempered or high-strung
  • Emotional dysregulation

The effects of SPD can hamper interpersonal skills and interactions, impair your relationships and work performance, and make it difficult to learn or process certain types of information.

How Are Sensory Processing Disorders Related To Other Disorders?

While some experts argue that sensory processing disorder is simply a symptom of another disorder, others are adamant that SPD can stand on its own. In addition, some theorize that SPD is often misdiagnosed as other disorders.

In any case, SPD or its associated symptoms have been linked to:

Like other disorders, SPD may also lead to other disorders or secondary effects, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Avoidant personality disorder
  • Depression
  • Social anxiety or phobia
  • Stress
  • Intense fatigue
  • General state of poor mental and/or physical health
  • Substance abuse

Each of the aforementioned disorders or conditions have been linked to SUDs.

How Is Sensory Processing Disorder Linked To Addiction?

As SPD can be very overwhelming and difficult to handle at times, some people may try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Beyond the direct effects of SPD, the secondary effects may also lead to substance abuse. Unfortunately, as this continues, many get caught up in the compulsive patterns of addiction.

Some research also suggests people with SUDs process sensory information differently. The same findings also note that sensation seeking is linked to increased alcohol consumption. Other findings theorize that SPD could lead to and even be caused from a SUD. This study wrote that “it is hard to decide whether people with SPD are prone for substance use since they seek for a compensatory mechanism or whether SPD is a result of changes in brain of substance dependents. Both directions are possible.”

Is There Treatment For Sensory Processing Disorder And Addiction?

As sensory processing disorder is only a clinical label in some circles and not an official diagnosis, research is somewhat limited. Because of this, treatment methods are still growing and not supported across the board.

Occupational therapy, sensory–based interventions, and counseling have shown promise in addressing certain characteristics of SPD. If SPD is present due to another disorder, addiction treatment should focus on treating that co-occurring disorder as well. Currently, there are no medications approved for SPD, but some professionals believe that Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) might help. Having said that, medications for any accompanying disorders (including addiction) may help to improve functioning and quality of life.

A treatment program should be individualized and may consist of:

Similar to treatment for addiction, individuals with SPD must become conscious of their triggers and learn to adapt their life to this awareness. With the right treatment methods, care providers, and coping skills, many people find great success and lead a balanced and fulfilled life.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of an official diagnosis many insurance companies may not provide treatment for only SPD. But, in the case of a dual diagnosis with addiction, insurance may cover treatment within a rehab program. Not every treatment facility will be able to treat SPD. Fortunately, those with more minor sensory sensitivities may benefit from regular programs. If SPD accompanies another disorder, this will further influence your choices. For these reasons, it is important to spend time researching your options.

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Sources

The New York Times — The Disorder Is Sensory; the Diagnosis, Elusive
PsychCentral — Final DSM 5 Approved by American Psychiatric Association
Understood — 5 Tough Situations for Kids With Sensory Processing Issues