A Sens8tional Guide to Staying Calm in Anxious Times

A Sens8tional Guide to Staying Calm in Anxious Times

Many of us – both adults and children included – find it difficult staying calm in the face of uncertainty. With coronavirus spreading, events cancelled and a potential lockdown on the horizon, many of us may be thinking about what we can do to alleviate anxiety and get through this time of upheaval.

Children are always watching what we say and do, so it’s important that we consider the impact of our responses on the younger ones around us. With this in mind, it is incredibly important that we look after ourselves while we cope with changes in routine and other effects of the current pandemic.

Wherever possible, we should see it as an enhanced opportunity to connect with our children as we work to maintain a feeling of warmth and safety at home. Our suggestion is to keep as many routines going as possible, as change can make us feel worried or anxious, having a negative effect on the body, even unconsciously. 

If you or your family do need to self-isolate, getting up at the same time in the morning, getting dressed, and sticking to bedtime routines can help to maintain a sense of stability. Structured activities and a routine for the duration of your time at home (e.g. schooling time, family time, play time) may help some families. For other families a less structured routine may be more useful; be guided by your own family’s needs. Either way, using a visual timetable will help support the implementation of new or existing routines.  

A visual timetable

Below are a few suggestions for sensory activities to try while at home with your child, to help us regulate each of the 8 senses.

We hope these strategies help, and serve as a reminder, that we can use many of the same tools to keep ourselves calm as we often use with our children, while we deal with the uncertainty around us. 

It’s just as important to look after ourselves, to be responsive to our own needs during this time, as well as the needs of our little ones. The strategies above can benefit everyone in the family.

Remember to take care of your physical health too — eating healthy snacks, drinking plenty of water and getting enough sleep will all help!

Look out for more sensory strategies we will be posting in the coming weeks.

Physical Games & Activities

Senses involved: Vestibular (movement) and proprioceptive (muscle work)

Get moving and have fun! Movement, in particular anything involving working the muscles is the first thing we would suggest to help regulate the brain and our emotions. Physical activity boosts mood and improves focus, whereas heavy muscle work always has a calming effect on the body.

  • Trampette or Trampoline
  • Obstacle Courses
  • Wheelbarrow Walks
  • Sack/Pillow Races
  • Family Yoga: Cosmic Yoga or ask us about our yoga cards
  • Gardening
  • Do the Bear Walk – a favourite of ours!

Breathing

Senses involved: Interoceptive (internal sense)

There are many breathing techniques that can help us to “ride out” any uncomfortable feelings and encouraging a sense of calm. You could try:

  • Belly Buddies; place a beanie or soft toy on your belly. Take long, slow deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth, noticing your belly buddy rise and fall with each breath.
  • Bubbles; Practise controlling the breathe to blow bubbles that are big, small, fast or slow. How far can you make the bubbles travel? Try lying on your back and watching the bubbles float away.
  • Give me 5; Use your hand, tracing up and down each finger as you breathe in and out.

Nature

Senses involved: Visual (sight), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), tactile (touch), vestibular (movement), proprioceptive (muscle work), interoceptive (internal sense) 

Allow nature to work it’s magic! 

A woodland walk or some time in the garden provides much-needed space to relax and regulate with the sights and sounds of nature, while also getting some fresh air and exercise.

Nature is wonderful for helping us feel more grounded. 

Baking and Crafts

Senses involved: Olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), visual (sight), tactile (touch)

  • Bake bread, cakes or cookies; baking stimulates several different senses: the yummy smells of a cake in the oven, the tactile input of kneading dough or mixing batter, the visual enjoyment of decorating cupcakes. 
  • Make some Glitter Jars; create a calming focus for the visual sense
  • Painting and crafts; so many to choose from!

Family/Group games 

Senses involved: Interoceptive (internal sense), visual (sight), vestibular (movement), proprioceptive (muscle work)

Play, especially games that involve a little bit of silliness and a dose of laughter work well to boost our mood. Try Charades, Pictionary or act out a play. For calmer activities, reading together or snuggling up with a film and a hot chocolate is perfect.

Music and dancing

Senses involved: Auditory (hearing), interoceptive (emotions), vestibular (movement), proprioceptive (muscle work), visual (sight)

Upbeat music can work wonders to lift our mood, while dancing gives us that all-important vestibular and proprioceptive input. Dress up in costumes or dance with ribbons for extra visual input! 

Think about music that helps you wind down and relax too, music is a powerful tool to help calm the mind.

Who has Sensory Needs?

Who has Sensory Needs?

This is the second blog post in a series of four on the topic of ‘sensory needs’. For more explanation on what sensory needs are, see our previous post.

Who has sensory needs? Well, in the broadest sense of the term, everyone does!

This does not mean we should dismiss those whose sensory differences require extra support. Diagnoses such as ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), among others (Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Fragile X Syndrome, etc.), are frequently accompanied by sensory challenges. But what about those without a diagnosis?

Sensory differences vary greatly between individuals, in nature and severity. It is simply wrong to assume that we can segregate children into one of two categories: those with sensory needs, and those without. There will always be children whose neurological challenges are significant enough to disrupt their education, yet not enough to warrant a diagnosis.

In addition, there are children who are misdiagnosed with the wrong condition, or who have a condition that is never picked up on. A common example of this would be girls with ASD, who frequently fly under the radar because of better masking skills (this can, of course, happen with boys too!)

The reality is that many children will never access support for their struggles, because of subtler, and/or unidentified issues.

At Sens8tional, we see sensory differences as existing on a spectrum. As Carol Stock Kranowitz, author of The Out-of-Sync Child, has described it:

“On a bell-shaped curve of humanity, some people have a poorly integrated neurological system, some have an excellent one, and the rest of us fall somewhere in the middle”.

For most of us, atypical processing affects us only mildly, only occasionally. For others, the impact is moderate, or more severe. Because of this, all children could benefit from support at some point.

Take an example like Harry, a child with some mild auditory processing difficulties. He finds it difficult to block out background noise in order to listen to his teacher’s instructions, and struggles to hear what other children are saying during group tasks. Because of this, he is easily distractible, and perceived as “scatter-brained”.  Harry is unlikely to ever be assessed for auditory processing disorder, even though his audition affects his ability to do his work in class.

With the right support, and with a more sensory-friendly environment, (closed doors to block out noise from outside/next door, and consideration of other distractions such as noisy fans and equipment), Harry would be much more able to flourish in school.

Some children may also be able to mask or hide their struggles all day while they are at school. They may do this by staying very quiet and doing everything they are told, thereby avoiding drawing attention to themselves, or they might play the class clown, laughing and goofing around to deflect attention from their troubles completing schoolwork.

Such masking can contribute to sensory issues being missed. This is usually followed by a breakdown, or an outburst of emotion when they get home. In these cases, it is the family that bears the brunt of the child’s frustration, while their schoolteachers remain unaware of the scale of the problem. (This home/school divide can also be the other way round for some children, where parents are perplexed by reports of behavioural issues at school).

We know that challenging behaviours are most often an indicator of internal struggles, and that behind the mask there is a child who is struggling to cope. Diagnosis or no diagnosis, we want to focus more on pinpointing specific processing difficulties, so that we can support children most effectively.

Milder issues, unidentified issues, or children under stress would also benefit from our whole-school approach to supporting sensory needs. More on this in a future blog post!

Ultimately, we want to help establish an environment and a support system that minimises the struggles of these missed children. Our work is just as much for children with significant sensory dysfunction, as those with no identified special needs, who just need a little bit of extra support in stressful or challenging times.

Remember, we all have our own ways of regulating our mood throughout the day (as we saw in our previous blog), and we all have the need for certain input at different times — in times of stress, or low motivation, for instance. This is just as true of children as it is for adults.

Our approach ensures that all children, including those who might ordinarily fly under the radar, have the opportunity to receive support.

What We Mean By “Sensory Needs”

What We Mean By “Sensory Needs”

At Sens8tional, you will probably hear us talking about ‘sensory needs’ a lot. But what do we mean by this?

To define ‘sensory needs’ we must first define ‘sensory’. Why this focus on the senses? What do our senses have to do with human behaviour and emotional wellbeing? How does understanding them help to build a child’s confidence, and to realise their own true potential?

Though we often hear about “the five senses”, humans in fact have eight senses. In addition to the five most well-known, Tactile (touch), Visual (sight), Auditory (hearing), Gustatory (taste), and Olfactory (smell), we have:

  • a Vestibular sense, which makes us aware of motion, and helps to co-ordinate movement with balance,
  • a Proprioceptive sense, giving us feedback from our joints and muscles to understand where our body parts are in space,
  • an Interoceptive sense, keeping track of the internal state of our body, such as when we are hungry or thirsty, too hot or too cold, or any emotions we might be feeling.

All eight of these senses are constantly processing information from our environment. But they do not always do so smoothly.  Everyone’s processing is a little different — some to a more extreme degree than others — and this is when sensory challenges occur.

When we witness a child “misbehaving”, or seemingly unable to perform activities that her peers do with ease, usually what we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. What we do not see is the buzz of activity within the brain and nervous system, which may or may not be running as efficiently as it could be, through no fault of the child’s. The influence of the nervous system on a child’s behaviour, then, is not to be underestimated.

“Over 80% of the nervous system is involved in processing and organising sensory input, and thus the brain is primarily a sensory processing machine.”  (Ayres, 1979)

 

Any of our senses can be hyper-sensitive (over-responsive) as well as hypo-sensitive (under-responsive).

Hypersensitivity can lead to sensory-avoiding behaviour. For example, a child with hypersensitivity to smells (olfaction) may be overwhelmed by particular foods and so will gag or avoid that food completely. Alternatively, a child might find somebody’s perfume overpowering, which could be incredibly distracting for them.

A child with hypersensitivity to sounds (audition) may feel the same way about background noises. They may find it difficult to block out sounds in order to concentrate, such as somebody tapping a pen repeatedly, the buzzing of a lamp, or a plane flying overhead.

A hypersensitivity to touch (tactile-defensiveness) could mean that the feel of a pen or pencil in a child’s hand, or the feel of clothing tags on their school uniform is equally distracting, or even painful.

On the flipside, hyposensitivity can lead to sensory-seeking behaviour. These children are prone to seek out or make loud noises, may stand too close to others, or seem to constantly fidget. They may chew on their sleeves or other objects, constantly touch everything, or jump and climb on furniture all of the time. Hyposensitive children may be incredibly messy, crash into things a lot and have difficulty monitoring their volume.

Without an understanding of sensory processing as the root of some behaviours, sensory-seekers are often ostracised and punished for being “disruptive”. In the same way, sensory-avoiders may be reprimanded for their avoidance of schoolwork, or lack of participation in any activities that they find distressing.

Atypical processing can be the cause of many undesirable behaviours. What needs to be understood, however, is that these behaviours (both sensory-seeking and avoidance) are the child’s attempt to self-regulate. This means that the child is trying to help their body and mind work as effectively as possible through actions that will either make them feel calm, or make them feel alert. Either way, self-regulation is an attempt to maintain a “just right” state ready for socialising and learning.

Think about the small actions you might do throughout the day, which either bring your alertness levels up or down, such as stretching in the morning, having a hot or cold drink, humming, or chewing gum. These are all everyday examples of self-regulation.

So, returning to our original question: ‘what are sensory needs?’. A sensory need is any input a child needs to calm, or alert themselves. This could be movement (vestibular), like swinging on chairs, or tactile input, like chewing on sleeves, doodling, or ripping paper. Alternatively, a child may seek out a quiet space, daydream often, avoid physical contact, or otherwise not engage in activities that they find overwhelming.

It is important to note, too, that not all children naturally possess regulation skills. While some children may understand instinctively what it is they need to self-regulate, others may need extra help. Sens8tional aims to help parents and educators figure out how best to do this.

This is the first blog post in a series of four on the topic of ‘sensory needs’. Next we will cover the question: ‘Who has Sensory Needs?’.

Hi! And welcome…

Hi! And welcome…

We are thrilled to be here and, on our very first blog post, we thought it would be useful to tell you a little more about us 🙂

We are Sens8tional, a team of passionate and friendly individuals, focussed on raising awareness and understanding of sensory needs (more on ‘sensory needs’ in our next post!). We are also parents of some pretty awesome little ones, who continue to teach us new things every day.

With careers in Occupational Therapy and Education, we aim to support both professionals and families in understanding the root cause of behaviours. We offer further support in implementing practical strategies that will help children and young people to achieve their true potential in social, emotional and academic learning.

As a social enterprise, a not-for-profit company, we are passionate about making a real difference. Having identified a sizeable gap in support for children with a range of sensory needs, we aim to bring a unique combination of experience and empathy that will support children and young people, as well as their families. We recognise that sensory processing challenges can be tough on the whole family and we work hard to offer personalised support and signposting advice.

We seek to promote a future where a reduction in anxiety levels and general mental health issues are realised. With the guidance of our qualified Sensory Integration (SI) Practitioner, we are confident that a sensory-based approach will work towards reducing anxiety levels and promote positive emotional well being  and improvement in quality of life for all.

Please follow us on Facebook @Sens8tional and Twitter @Sens8tional_CIC or get in touch via email hello@sens8tional.com to discover the ways in which we support families and organisations.