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Sensory defensiveness

Posted: 20 May, 2016

By: Annemarie Lombard

Section: Corporate, General, Relationships, Wellness


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!!!