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Jun 29

Could a sensory processing glitch be contributing to your drive to overexercise?

I like sharing what has been helpful for me. Somatic movement has been helpful, so Angela has been sharing gentle, somatic movement videos with you and will be sharing another one next week. I hope you’re enjoy them as much as I am. Another tool I’ve had in my tool belt lately has been a sensory technique.

I attended a training on Sensory Processing Disorders and Eating Disorders, run by Michelle Fee, RDN, LD and Kathy Gray, LPC, LMFT, OTA, and I wanted to share what I learned. I had been working personally with Kathy (an occupational therapist) for some sensory issues and decided to attend the training so I could get a greater understanding and support clients who have sensory stuff going on. In the training they discussed, “to be effective, a person must actively organize and use sensory input to act on the environment, or to play or learn. When sensory inputs hit a traffic jam, it will produce anxiety or lead to dysregulation. Sensory techniques nourish the nervous system to enable meaningful and lasting changes in physiological state and quality of life.” Here is a checklist to help determine if sensory processing disorder work may be beneficial for you.

The big three sensory input systems are: 

  1. Vestibular: input from inner ear about where you are in space – balance, speed, gravitational changes, and movement experiences
  2. Tactile: input from skin/touch
  3. Proprioceptive: input from joint compressions. Proprioceptive input causes a release of serotonin and dopamine. Self-injury causes a release of serotonin and this may be a reason people bite, hit, cut, head bang, etc.

The sensory technique I have found helpful is Gray’s Three, which helps set up the big three sensory input systems mentioned above. Below is a video of me doing it. It takes about a minute to go through, when I’m not talking through it. I do this about 3-5 times a day.

Proper processing of sensory inputs, which Gray’s Three supports your brain in doing, lets the brain know you are safe and calm. This sensory technique calms the limbic system and re-wires it, therefore helping regulate one’s brain. It is key to get the sensory system set up as “the big three” sensory input systems are the base of many things. See the below pyramid.

Along with proprioception, another sensory input system particularly relevant in the eating disorder realm is:

  1. Interceptive
    As discussed in the training, interceptive inputs are those that help us “feel” our internal organs and skin. It gives information regarding our internal sensory inputs. It plays a role in influencing our mood, emotions and a sense of wellbeing. Without good interceptive awareness, good self-regulation cannot exist! How do you know what action you need to take, if you don’t know what the signs mean? Trying to understand your emotions would be very difficult. This can result in a person becoming overwhelmed by emotions and reacting in inappropriate ways – physical aggression, emotional shut down (i.e. shutting down just to survive through the moment), or inappropriate laughing or smiling are common.

What I have found especially interesting is that a person’s sensory needs and eating disorder behaviors/symptoms can become entangled. One of the roots of a person’s struggle may be a Sensory Processing Disorder, but if over time an eating disorder develops, the eating disorder behaviors (unknowing to the individual with the ED) may partly serve the function of getting sensory needs meet. Let me offer up two examples to better explain:

Example one: Movement
Joint compression regulates/nourishes the proprioceptive input system. It is regulating to exercise from a sensory processing lens, so this could contribute to one’s drive to exercise. Originally, the movement has nothing to do with a drive to create body change, but overtime an eating disorder could develop for a number of different reasons and now, while the sensory system is being regulated by movement (a good thing, unless it dips over into an excessive level of movement), the eating disorder is being fed by the movement (a bad thing). The idea here is to figure out how to have your sensory needs met without overexercising. Or for some, how to have sensory needs met without exercising at all.

It is tricky navigating eating disorder recovery, while also working to get sensory needs met. Movement is incredibly helpful in organizing the brain, but if part of one’s eating disorder has been misuse of exercise, movement needs to be stopped and then brought back in very thoughtful and cautious ways. The idea is for those with some level of SPDs and eating disorders to find ways to meet their sensory needs that doesn’t involve physical activity. The training I attended discussed, “What am I getting from that movement and can I get that in a different way that isn’t harmful to me?” Gray’s Three is one option for getting sensory needs met without movement, until one is in a place in their recovery from their eating disorder where they can experiment with bringing some types of movement back in. Gray’s Three offers a path to regulate one’s nervous system without having to move one’s body with exercise.

Example Two: How you feel in clothes

If clothes are too tight, one can overtime blame their body size as the issue and it could led to fear of body and size when it’s really a sensory issue of touch. Certain touches can feel like nails on a chalkboard to those with sensory processing glitches happening.

What I’ve noticed for myself.

I won’t say Gray’s Three magically allows me to manage everything well 100% of the time (since that’d be unrealistic), but it’s been a nice tool to have access to that helps me live a reasonable and realistic life (that is, a life with up days and down days). For me, I feel like the energy flows more evenly through my body after using Grey’s Three and I can breathe easier. I do immediately feel more regulated. Prior to using it I’d feel like my skin was crawling (maybe a presentation of anxiety?) and Gray’s Three has been very helpful in relieving that.

For me, I’m not sure if this will always be the case (but right now it is), the synergistic effect of consistent talk therapy, EMDR as needed, Gray’s Three, a monthly massage, mindful/wise/fun movement, having/investing in community, showing up for worship on Sundays, and an SSRI has been the best combination for getting me and keeping me feeling well and liking my life. Taking an SSRI helps me, in a biblical sense, get some of my “flesh” out of the way so I can actually let my “sighs give way to songs that sing about His faithfulness“/do what I need to do to be in relationship with Jesus. Without the SSRI, I don’t want to do Gray’s Three. I don’t want to read my bible. I don’t want to track my mood in the evening. I don’t want to reframe all of the inner critical thoughts, because there are too many and they feel crushing. In my experience and based on where I’m at right now, the cynical thoughts can drown out the Holy Spirit. But with it, everything feels a lot less exhausting and effortful and I’m really grateful to have access to a number of different tools that help me not be depressed and overly anxious the majority of the time.

9 comments on “Could a sensory processing glitch be contributing to your drive to overexercise?”

  1. I love your last statement about what the SSRI does for you in a Biblical sense. When I’ve struggled with the idea that I “shouldn’t need medication,” I remind myself that the medication doesn’t make me who I am; rather, the medication just enables me to engage in an active and productive relationship with God, which enables me to be (at least to the extent that is possible as a human with a sin nature) the person who He made me to be. 

  2. Thank you so much, I am excited to try Gray’s 3! 

  3. Wow, just did those exercises and they were so helpful! I struggle with restless legs and a compulsive need to run or jump or do some sort of intense movement when I’m stressed (even if I’m physically tired and have done lots of movement that day, so I know my body doesn’t actually want exertion haha), but i love how gentle this was. It just got me out of a bad mood and into reading my Bible, so thank you Kylie❤️

  4. Kylie, I have been a long time reader, but have never commented before… but that last paragraph just did me in! Thank you for your words! Our various regulation skills are so important, but I think sometimes (especially in the Christian community) we forget medication can be necessary to *access* these skills. So grateful for you and your voice!

  5. Wow this was so eye-opening for me! I know I have some tactile sensory things, but now I see other ways sensory processing affects me, and I am very excited to have some regulating techniques! Thank you for sharing this!!

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