Using Sensory Supports

Some of us who struggle with chronic dissociation find that we can borrow ideas from those living with autism or sensory processing disorders. Certain types of stimulation of the senses can be grounding techniques that relax us and reduce stress. People with PTSD may also find that some of these approaches can help to reduce symptoms such as hypervigilence.One that I have used with great success is ‘white noise’ when I’m sleeping. I’m very sensitive to sounds and particularly when stressed I cannot tune out my environment. A neighbour a few houses down taking in their wheelie bin will wake me up, a dog barking, birds singing, traffic passing… White noise is any non-rhythmic sound, such as the sound of radio static. You can buy white noise generators such as this one, or create your own. I like to use a fan running by my bed. In summer it blows onto me and cools me down, in winter I point it to the wall and just use the noise to help me sleep. There are also a number of phone apps that generate white noise, rain sounds, or other soothing noises to aid sleep. Some of these such as the white noise one I’ve linked also have beautiful sounds that can aid meditation such as the sound of the wind, or a Tibetan singing bowl.

Smells are often helpful, particularly once they become associated with feeling safe and settled. I have a fairly extensive collection of perfumes, aromatherapy oils, essences, and bath gels. Having my home, clothes, bed, skin, or hair smell familiar and good is calming and comforting, particularly because the smell of strangers is one of the things that makes crowded places like public transport sometimes challenging for me. I have an acute sense of smell and find the scent of a whole bus of people’s perfume, cologne, shampoo, deodorant, and sweat a lot to cope with when I’m stressed. Having my own perfume or scent handy to drown the rest out can really help.

Fidgets are another common tool that can be helpful – that is, something tactile to play with in the hands. Some people find that having something to do with their hands helps them to think more clearly, to focus, or to calm when they’re stressed and dissociating. These can be anything, I know some people who play with sprung clothes pegs, others who keep tiny soft toys in pockets and bags. I used to carry a little purse with three pebbles in it, one smooth and two rough.

Weight in the form of blankets or jackets can be settling for some people. I don’t personally use this approach as I find that prolonged weight tends to just set off joint pain for me, and I tangle in bedclothes especially if I’m having nightmares. However I know other people who find weighted blankets incredibly settling when they’re distressed and dissociative. It’s important to be a little careful about this tool, you don’t want to use a blanket that is too heavy and restrictive, especially for someone young or sick. You can buy these or make your own, this page has instructions for a simple blanket, this page has instructions for a blanket that can have the weights easily adjusted. When you feel like you’re floating or fraying apart being contained under gentle weight can be very grounding and reassuring. Another way of using this technique is having a long full body hug, or a cuddle with a pet who sits on you. Some psychiatric assistance dogs are actually trained to sit on the chest of their owner if they start to have a panic attack, because the weight and warmth and connection can be very calming and reduce anxiety.

I find it sad that because we have these labels to which we’re all very sensitive, often wonderful resources get locked up in an area and so many other people who might benefit from them don’t hear about them. There is an amazing wealth of information, tools, resources, strategies, and ideas out there about how to live more comfortably, manage health challenges, adapt to limitations, and make the most of your abilities. Don’t ever be afraid to dig into something labelled entirely differently from what you are experiencing, you might find a brilliant idea that makes all the difference to your world. 🙂

For more resources around sensory supports:

One thought on “Using Sensory Supports

  1. Wow, wish I’d just found this post first instead of figuring out the whole list by myself accidentally lol. This is the first post I’ve seen that also highlights the possible importance of an absence of stimuli, alongside the standard smells and textures (positive stimuli) list.

    I started with earplugs, then earplugs and a pair of construction earmuffs (limited to home use though, as this drew attention at work for sure) but just invested in a pair of noise cancelling over the ear wireless headphones. Sometimes I just wear them with the “intelligent” NC function activated, but no music or anything. When feeling raw and exposed or when already “spinning” from overload… they bring instant comfort. The lack of auditory stimuli does a lot to attenuate hyper vigilance too. Expensive but have already paid for themselves with peace of mind.

    Real Silence truly is Golden… which makes sense as it’s not generally on our list of triggers is it? It also helps move you back into your body as you can hear what we were supposed to hear, our breath, the sounds of our bodies functioning. The only other time I’ve been able to connect with that was in the Rain Forest in British Columbia… it was mind blowing, to hear only my being and the white noise of a distant waterfall and nothing else at all… for the first time in my 30’s.


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