A unique specialty at Recovery Ways is the use of two multi-sensory rooms to assist with calming the mind and nervous system. Sensory self-regulation is a foundational skill taught in the occupational therapy program. It can be greatly enhanced by using a sensory room that provides a carefully designed, saturated environment filled with calming and organizing inputs. Sensory modulation involves taking patients’ sensory input and turning it up or down to help them self-regulate. Self-regulation is extremely important when navigating and managing triggers.
Appropriate modulation of any emotional response prevents a wide range of negative social and psychological consequences and physical problems. Unprocessed trauma or excessive, prolonged sadness and anxiety often lead to attempts at modulating one’s mood with drugs and alcohol—a maladaptive coping strategy with devastating consequences.
Self-regulation is the ability to modulate arousal to meet the demands of a situation in healthy ways. That sounds straightforward but self-modulation is a fairly complex phenomenon influenced by many factors including cognition, emotions, physical state, environment, personal experience, and spiritual considerations.
In a recent webinar, Recovery Ways’ Life Skills Program Director Stormy Hill, M.D., explained the basic concepts and benefits of sensory regulation.
Sensory modulation is based on the idea that humans have eight senses instead of just the five we usually hear about. In addition to vision, smell, taste, hearing, and touch there is also the proprioceptive sense, the vestibular sense, and the visceral sense (interoception). All of these can be modulated and regulated.
Proprioception refers to the awareness of the position and movement of the body. The vestibular sense refers to the sensations of body rotation and gravitation. It arises in the inner ear where hair cells send signals via the auditory nerve. Interoception is about sensations from inside the body. It includes the perception of physical sensations related to internal organ function such as heartbeat, respiration, and satiety, as well as the autonomic nervous system activity related to emotions.
Sensory Input Drives Behavioral Output
Problems arise when “we engage in maladaptive sensory behaviors that are not aligned with our level of alertness,” said Dr. Hill. This level of alertness comes in two main flavors: high and low. “Signs and symptoms of high alertness are a frenetic demeanor, fast thoughts, high vigilance, an anxious body, and a high heart and breathing rate.” This can be counteracted with calming input such as low lighting with few contrasts, nature sounds, and earthy smells.
Signs and symptoms of low alertness—for example in cases of depression—include slow thoughts, sluggish behavior, stiff body, and a slow heart and breathing rate. This state can be modified with alerting input such as bright colors, peppermint, citrus, or even noxious smells, and sour or spicy tasting foods.
Calm and Alert
The aim of sensory modulation is to achieve a state of calm-alertness, a window of arousal in which our ability to function is maximized. It is a balanced state. Below this ideal level, we are sluggish, above it, we are overstimulated.
As Dr. Hill explained, modulated sensory processing may lead to:
- Self-awareness and the ability to self-regulate
- The ability to self-nurture and soothe
- Improved self-esteem and body image
- The ability to engage in therapeutic activities
- The ability to engage in self-care activities
- The ability to engage in meaningful life roles
- The ability to engage in social activities
- The ability to become aware of and cope with triggers
All of the above are important recovery skills. Modulated sensory processing may also benefit patients with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mood disorders. Between 58–62 percent of patients using this method report feeling less agitated and less anxious, 50 percent feel less pain, and 98 percent feel calmer.
Recovery Ways is dually licensed to treat mental health and addiction disorders. If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse or mental health, Recovery Ways can help. Our admissions coordinators can recommend a plan of action, suggest an interventionist, or speak to your loved one. For more information, please call us at (888) 988-5217.