Trauma and the Senses


When trauma occurs in our younger years, it often affects specific areas of brain development.  The stress and fear of a traumatic experience, for example, activates the Reticular Activating System (RAS), part of our brain stem.  This is the area responsible for filtering unneeded sensory input: we don’t need to be consciously aware of the feel of the clothes on our skin, or the hum of the lights in the background, so our Reticular Activating System filters out those inputs.

Trauma, however, disrupts the function of the RAS, allowing most if not all of the sensory input to reach our brains.  This often results in sensory processing issues.  We can be overly sensitive to sound, light, smell, touch or movement.

For those of us who are parents, this explains why many of our children cannot handle the grocery store.  It stimulates all of their senses at once, in overwhelming quantities: the sound of the announcer, the brightly colored packaging, the smell of the bakery or fish section, and the movement of the cart.

As adults, it may be hard to admit that we often face very similar issues, but have simply learned to hide them.  We may be irritated by loud places, tags on our clothing, motion in a car or boat, certain smells, textures of foods, bright light, high pitched noises, light touch on our skin, etc.

The best way to help develop our senses, even as adults, is to stimulate our senses in ways that are safe for us.  Are you sensitive to certain sounds?  Listen to music that helps you feel calm.  Do you detest certain smells?  Surround yourself with natural smells that you like.  Does light bother your eyes?  Have sunglasses handy.

These seem like simple suggestions, but for many of us self care is difficult, and we feel we should simply “get over” these issues.  Issues resulting from trauma, however, typically do not heal well with more trauma.  The idea that you will simply “get over” a sound sensitivity by making yourself go to loud places is simply untrue.  Instead, treat yourself, protect yourself, know yourself.  Your brain stem must heal first, and the stress response can only be healed through safety, care, and connection.

To help with sensory issues, here are some fun sensory toys that can be very helpful in caring for yourself.  Also keep in mind that proprioception, a sense stimulated by deep pressure, is the most calming of the senses.  Low force chiropractic care, and massage, are two of the best way to get this calming, safe, sensory input.  As a matter of fact, the care that we provide can be instrumental in reducing sensory sensitivities, as well as overall stress on the body.

Dr. David Jones

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