sensory integration therapy

Sensory Integration Therapy A Paradigm Shift for Substance Abuse Treatment

“There is no feeling in a human heart which exists in that heart alone—which is not, in some form or degree, in every heart.”



There is a new paradigm of healthcare and wellness that is qualitatively different in the approach to the interaction of the mind, body, spirit, and environment.  When it comes to the well-being of a patient suffering from addiction, this is especially true, by examining the impact which addiction has caused to the physical body, mental health, emotional health, and spiritual health.  Therefore, when considering getting help for someone with a substance abuse problem the treatment program should focus on integrating the “whole person.”

Sensory Integration Therapy

Recovery Ways, a residential treatment center in Salt Lake City, Utah offers a cutting-edge treatment called, “Sensory Integration Therapy.”  The bombardment of the nervous system from multiple forms of environmental stimuli can be overwhelming, and often dominates the lives of individuals with mental illness and substance use disorder.  “Life involves a constant encounter with the sensory world” (Brown, 2001, p.125).

We all have challenges in the day to day business of life. However, for someone who has a substance use disorder the day to day business can be overwhelming and they feel trapped inside the addicted brain. The daily life stressors provide a perception of out of control and shifts to the need for substance use to cope.  

When someone you love follows a life path of addiction, it brings with it many complications and heartache for everyone.  Many painful thoughts and feelings go along with observing a loved one struggling with substance abuse. You see it in their eyes the fear which encompasses their being as they wake up every day to the darkness of confusion.  The thought they go asleep with they also wake up to – the constant need for substances to get through another day. Sometimes the decision to use drugs and alcohol is linked to someone who is running away from life, trying to forget, or “numbing out” from exposure to a traumatic life event(s).  However, many times, drugs are used to mask symptoms from mental illness, i.e., depression, anxiety, or PTSD, along with other risky behaviors, such as self-injury and risky sexual encounters. The use of sensory integration therapy provides the patient with additional options for recognizing and reducing their level of “self-perceived” distress and for modulating behaviors.

Sensory integration rooms are created and designed to be used specifically by an occupational therapist who is trained in sensory integration techniques.  A multi-sensory room offers a nurturing, patient-centered, sensory supportive, and interdisciplinary treatment space. This room then provides patients an opportunity to recognize and reduce their level of self-perceived distress and anxiety. In addition to self-regulation, these interventions also provide opportunities for learning and social interactions based on trust and mutual understanding.  These spaces contain very specific types of equipment and intervention processes to address substance addictions impact on the brain. These rooms are referred to as the Snoezelen rooms and are utilized to help people with moderate to profound cognitive impairment (e.g., people with pervasive developmental disabilities or dementia). However, substance addiction (especially alcohol) can cause temporal lobe damage by initiating atrophy and shrinkage of the lobe. Because the temporal lobe is responsible for organizing sensory input, speech production, auditory perception and memory formation, substance abusers will suffer noticeable deficits in these areas. The Snoezelen rooms, offer a multiple of sensory stimulation for patients to make them more comfortable as well as more aware of their body and their feelings.  

The goals of treatment are to improve sensory modulation related to behavior and attention and to increase abilities for social interactions. This self-regulation process allows patients to feel more control over their addiction and their everyday life. While patients are at Recovery Ways, they will have scheduled times for the sensory room therapy, but they will also have access to it if they need it at an unscheduled time. Also, the sensory integration helps the nervous system modulate, organize, and integrate information from the environment which has been impacted by substance abuse.  The results should be improved adaptive responses (Baranek, 2002).

Understanding Addiction

When you begin to understand the nature of addiction and the complexity of this relapsing brain disease you know the importance of finding the right treatment program and getting your loved one help.  Substance use disorder is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain—they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long-lasting and can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs. The term addiction is equivalent to a severe substance use disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5, 2013).  Addiction is a lot like other diseases, such as heart disease, and other diseases which disrupt the normal, healthy functioning of the underlying organ.  The impact of daily functionality due to substance abuse have serious harmful consequences which are preventable and treatable. According to research and the National Institute of Drug Abuse, most drugs of abuse directly or indirectly target the brain’s reward system by flooding the circuit with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. When activated at normal levels, this system rewards our natural behaviors. Overstimulating the system with drugs, however, produces euphoric effects, which strongly reinforce the behavior of drug use—teaching the user to repeat it.  The brain reward dopamine pathways become wired to the desire to use again to increase the brain’s pleasure center as illustrated in the diagram below. The addiction then becomes wired to the brain’s natural chemical release of dopamine from the brain’s pleasure center. Therefore, to reach that feeling of “euphoria,” the substance use will have to continue to increase due to increased tolerance levels.








This repetitive pattern of addiction and the brain’s pleasure center response wherein the drug is in control, and the dopamine increases are exaggerated making the communication altered.  When the addiction has reached this level, it will take more than talk therapy to address the changes in the brain. The use of the sensory integration therapy is based on the understanding that interferences in neurological processing and integration of sensory information disrupt the construction of purposeful behaviors (Scaaf & Miller, 2005; Watling & Dietz, 2007).

Where to Begin

Because substance abuse and mental illness both carry with them a “stigma” many times, people will not get help.  Therefore, you may suggest that the person goes to their primary care provider to get a physical and discuss their concerns about their overall health.  Most primary care providers work with various screening tools for substance abuse. The AUDIT-C can help identify individuals who are hazardous drinkers or who have alcohol use disorders (including alcohol abuse or dependence). The AUDIT-C is a 3-item alcohol screen and is a modified version of the 10-question AUDIT screening instrument. The CAGE-AID Questionnaire has just four questions and has the potential advantage of screening for alcohol and drug problems conjointly rather than separately.  Also, most integrated primary care offices have a care coordinator available who works with patients on referrals to the appropriate type of treatment.

The “Whole Person” Approach for Recovery

Recovery Ways’ Sensory Rooms provide an environment that nurtures the body and invites the person to engage in activities that help them to feel good and to focus on their strengths, interests, and personal self-care. “Sensory approaches are not all that mental health occupational therapy practitioners provide, but it has helped to create a leadership role for us, and many clients and caregivers report that “sensory” approaches are giving them hope and helping them and their families in their recovery (Champagne, T., 2003).”

Einstein said, “Human beings have a kind of optical illusion.  We think ourselves separate rather than part of the whole.” Through the use of sensory integration therapy, the patient finds a “safe” environment in the Snoezelen rooms which can either stimulate or calm their senses. Helping someone from a place of compassion who is struggling with substance addiction, whether you are a friend, family member or treatment care provider, ultimately transforms this illusion that we are separate from one another.  Recovery begins with the paradigm shift of healthcare and wellness finding ways to focus on health from a mind, body, and spiritual perspective. This focus offers new hope, as it sees beyond the visible surfaces of our existence into the spirit of our unique gifts integrated within the collective being.    

Recovery Ways

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Cinthia McFeature, Ph.D.




Baranek, G.T. (2002) Efficacy of sensory and motor interventions for children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 397-422. doi:10.1023/A:1020541906063

Brown, C. (2001). What is the best environment for me? A sensory processing perspective. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 17(3/4), 115-125.

Brown, C., & Dunn, W. (2002). The Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile Manual. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.  

Champagne, T. (2003). Sensory modulation and environment: Essential elements of occupation. Southampton, MA:  Champagne Conferences.

  1. McFeature & C. Herron-McFeature (2017). Integrated health – HeartPath practitioner assessment and intervention for the trauma-exposed patient. Melbourne, FL: Motivational Press, Inc.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse




Recovery Ways

Recovery Ways

Salt Lake City's Premier Addiction Treatment Facility at Recovery Ways
The addiction treatment approach at Recovery Ways is about Reclaiming Your Life. The program is tailored to meet the needs of the individual and provide each patient with the emotional, physical and spiritual tools to achieve a productive, joyful, and sober lifestyle. Our approach is a collaborative effort that empowers our patients to heal mentally and physically. We provide a nurturing environment that supports an individual’s unique healing process.
Recovery Ways
Recovery Ways

The addiction treatment approach at Recovery Ways is about Reclaiming Your Life. The program is tailored to meet the needs of the individual and provide each patient with the emotional, physical and spiritual tools to achieve a productive, joyful, and sober lifestyle. Our approach is a collaborative effort that empowers our patients to heal mentally and physically. We provide a nurturing environment that supports an individual’s unique healing process.

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