Anxiety can often be the best friend of sensory challenges, even if the connection isn’t clear at first. Some parents notice the anxiety first and come to discover sensory challenges along with it. For others, the sensory challenges are more apparent, with anxiety tagging along behind. This is not to say that every child has with one condition always has the other. It is common though, so it’s best to be on the lookout for it.
Why is There a Link Between Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety?
Imagine you have a fear of dogs. Every time you see a dog, you start to get anxious. Your breath quickens, your heart beats faster, and you look for a way to escape. You start avoiding busy streets and parks where you know dogs may be playing. Eventually, you start to get anxious when you even think about encountering a dog.
We naturally avoid things we don’t like. Smelly foods, rush hour traffic, airplanes, scary movies. When this avoidance something we’re thinking about all of the time, anxiety comes into play. If you’re constantly worried that a dog will come around the corner, your fear of dogs is turning into an anxiety.
Kids with sensory challenges have a longer list of “things I don’t like” than is typical. While most of us can wear a jacket on a cold day with no complaints, a kiddo with sensory challenges may not be able to overcome the itchy scratchy of wearing a coat. By the end of the day (let’s be real, maybe an hour), we’re facing a big meltdown. Before long, this kiddo not only refuses to wear a jacket, but dreads ever having to. Wearing the jacket becomes a preoccupation and a source of anxiety.
Every second of the day offers an opportunity to have an unpleasant sensory experience.
It takes a lot of mental effort to anticipate and avoid sensory experiences. If you’re a kiddo with a lot of sensory sensitivities, every activity during the day can feel threatening, which is an awful feeling.
So, it’s not that sensory challenges and anxiety are directly linked, it’s that kids with sensory challenges find sensory experiences to be unpleasant, which leads to anxiety over trying to avoid them.
Imagine that your feet felt like they were on fire every time you put on socks. I would develop anxiety over putting on socks too.
Adding Depression to the Mix
Especially for kids that are still learning coping and emotional regulation skills, sensory processing challenges and anxiety can be a lot to handle. Sometimes, it’s too much.
Be on the lookout for conditions such as depression developing along with the anxiety. Of course, seek professional help should you notice even one of these conditions in your child, let alone all three.
Why Anxiety from Sensory Issues isn’t the Same as Other Types of Anxiety
As anyone who struggles with anxiety knows, the cause of the anxiety is really important. With some types of anxiety, exposure is really great and important.
I’ll slowly start to increase my exposure to dogs. Overtime, I may become more comfortable with them and find my anxiety subside a bit.
With anxiety that’s caused by sensory challenges, exposure is the exact opposite approach you want to take.
Let’s say that I find my winter coat to be really itchy and it leads to melt downs within an hour of wearing it. The exposure approach would assume that I should be forced to wear my winter coat for longer and longer periods of time until I get comfortable with it.
The problem is that I won’t simply get comfortable with it. In fact, my body will freak out even more and I’ll melt down even more quickly.
Exposure doesn’t work for anxiety that’s caused by sensory issues as it may be in typical anxiety.
Help! How Can I Help My Child with Anxiety and Sensory Challenges
If you’ve landed on this post and made it all the way down to this section, there’s no doubt you’re looking for some answers. What can you do?!
Work with a Professional
No, this isn’t a cop out. If your child is to the point where their sensory challenges are causing anxiety, it’s time to get help. Asking for help is always a “sooner rather than later” situation, but if you still haven’t connected with a professional, now is the time to do so.
The type of professional you work with depends on your child’s needs. Given that the anxiety is being caused by sensory issues, I’d suggest starting with an occupational therapist first to see what relief can be brought to the sensory side of things.
Consider the Sensory Issues
When you connect with an occupational therapist, they’ll be able to offer specific suggestions for your child. That said, if you have an appointment with an OT that’s 4 weeks down the line and you’re wondering what to do in the meantime, focus on the sensory issues that your child is struggling with.
If you know that your child’s sensory processing disorder and anxiety are connected, working on the sensory challenges is a great place to start.
Notice the Signs
Understanding the signs of anxiety and why it’s happening is one of the most challenging steps for resolving it. For example, many of us don’t realize that yawning and anxiety are linked, which can lead us down the wrong path when it’s assumed that yawning is only caused by sleepiness.
Even if you aren’t sure of how to help your child’s anxiety, realizing how and why their anxiety exists in the first place is an important first step.
Appreciate Each Step
I know, this is an annoying cliché. But, it’s really true here. By the time your child has developed anxiety and sensory issues, we have a number of hurdles to tackle. Yes, tackling the sensory hurdle will help with the anxiety hurdle, but they are both still hurdles that need to be tackled in their own special ways. If your child has also developed depression or other conditions, those need to be addressed as well.
This will be a long journey that may never end. The best we can do in this situation, and in life in general, is solve the problem in front of us and keep moving forward.
Fidgets can be great tools for kids with anxiety. Check out my favorite anxiety fidgets and how they can help.
Diana is a registered occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders and autism.