Tips to reduce stress over the holidays

The long-awaited summer school holidays are here and with that the Festive Season. It is traditionally a time to spend with family and to make new memories. It is a time for fun in the sun, family gatherings and parties, shopping till you drop, and loads of festive food and activities. However, it is also a time of great anxiety and stress for people with low sensory thresholds, especially children. While everyone else is getting excited about the people you will see and do things with, anybody with low sensory thresholds is ready to bolt in the opposite direction.

The hypersensitive child can become overwhelmed by all the sensory input from the lights, decorations, music, food and crowded shopping centres. Being away from home interferes with the carefully structured and routine life one has, and going to new places and meeting new people bring about changes that make the child with low sensory thresholds anxious.

Here are some useful tips to help prevent overload and meltdowns:

  • Have a clear understanding of the child’s sensory needs and dislikes. Take note of behaviour while on the beach, at family gatherings and when eating different foods. Also, go back and recall the past events where sensory overload happened.
  • No new clothes. Pack clothes that your child has worn and approved. New clothes must be tried and tested before you even leave home.
  • Holidays mean no school or homework, and little to no work commitments for most of us, and thus there goes the need for routine. This could be cataclysmic for the child with low thresholds. The hypersensitive child needs routine and structure during the holiday season too. Have a schedule and stick to it as much as possible.
  • Keep to your child’s sleep routine. Prepare your child for the fact that he will be sleeping in another bed. If you have to, pack his linen and his pillow in.
  • Be prepared to deal with the unexpected. Summer is generally a great time to try new things.  Some of these new experiences can however be overwhelming for the child with low thresholds. Give them as much warning as possible beforehand whenever there are changes to the planned schedule.
  • Discuss events or activities that could be overwhelming – break it down and help the child do a sensory breakdown of the activity.
  • Let the child try a new activity in a safe and contained environment. Many outdoor activities have intense multi-sensory input, and the child will be less likely to explore their boundaries. For example, if you are going to the beach, fill a tray with sand and shells, and encourage the child to play with it. This way, the child has a way to get used to a tactile sensation before he even gets to the sandy and wet beach.
  • Allow your child to wear water shoes when walking on the sand and grass – it will decrease the tactile input and it will also protect those sensitive feet from the hot sand too.
  • Apply sunscreen before you leave the house. This will allow it to dry, therefore reducing the amount of sand that will stick to the body
  • Give your child sunglasses and a hat to protect his eyes from the intense and bright sunlight.
  • Have an umbrella or tent to create shade and to protect from the wind and bugs.
  • Have earplugs or earphones handy for when it gets too noisy. This will help decrease the intensity of the multisensory input.
  • Have wet wipes or hand sanitiser on hand.
  • Maintain your child’s diet and keep your child hydrated. Food is fuel for our bodies and our brains. Too much junk food and holiday foods can throw our bodies into disarray.
  • Consider meal options when you are away from home. You know what your child’s food likes and dislikes are, and if need be, take his favourite food with him to dinner. Prep your family and friends in advance, and do not force your child to eat something that he does not like.
  • Have an escape plan – identify a room or have a small tent that your child can retreat to when it all gets too much. Have his sensory tool kit (e.g. fidgets, chewies, plush toy, earphones, water bottle, a book to read) nearby, so that he can regulate with the things that bring the most comfort. Have someone else in your family that can help you make sure that the safe place is ready for when it is needed.
  • Avoid shopping trips with your child. Shopping malls are overwhelming and full of stressed-out people, different sounds smells, and long queues – the perfect place for a sensory meltdown.
  • Add sensory-friendly things to do – visit the museum, go to the aquarium or go watch a movie.

At the end of the day, remember to have fun. Holidays are there to make new memories and to spend quality time with our loved ones. Be flexible –  looking out for and taking care of our loved ones are important, so it’s okay not to do that scheduled activity if one of us is not in a good sensory space.

Happy holidays!

Learn more about your own sensory style: do your Sensory Matrix™.

Sensory defensiveness

Sensory defensiveness is the result of aversive or defensive reactions to what most people consider non-irritating sensory stimuli. Due to a low threshold/low tolerance the brain over-responds. It often leads to tension, anxiety, avoidance, stress and anger. Basic sensations have the potential to put the brain in a “high alert” state, which coincides with a stress response.

Degrees of sensory defensiveness can be mild, moderate or severe.

Defensiveness can be evident in one or more sensory systems e.g. if someone is auditory defensive, sounds and noise will potentially overload the brain. Although largely unrecognized, sensory defensiveness is not uncommon. USA studies showed that 15% of normal adults have a nervous system that is overly sensitive to sensation. They can become irritable and distracted as their brains keep on going into fight/flight responses. Sensory irritations can be as simple as:

  • Someone opening a bag of chips
  • The odour of a new car
  • The flashing pointer on a computer screen
  • The hum of an air conditioner
  • The feeling of clothing labels

The following “labels” or descriptions can potentially indicate a sensory defensive person….difficult, picky, perfectionist, anti-social, demanding, fussy, finicky, fastidious… Understanding these behaviours and their origins are key for implementing appropriate strategies.

A South African pilot study of 70 people who completed the Adult Sensory Profile indicated the following:

  • 27% had mild to moderate sensitivity
  • 17% had severe sensitivity (sensory defensive)

These people all complained of loss in concentration, increased stress and reduced performance in the workplace.

One way of addressing sensory defensiveness is having coaching sessions with a qualified practitioner.

COACHING for sensory defensive individuals include:
* Identifying sensory thresholds and degree of defensiveness
* Identifying sensory stressors
* Implementing self-regulation strategies
* Implementing sensory diets
* Creating best-fit environments in the workplace and at home

Let’s stop criticizing each other’s weaknesses and start focusing on the positive characteristics that come with our “labels”.

Celebrate your strengths!!!