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Different ways of managing a sensory overload in a world full of instant information.

Sensory overload is something I don’t think that we give enough attention to. The world we live in has evolved massively over the last 50 years, each year seems to accelerate the speed of that change. The more technology advances, the more it speeds up, and the more we then have to run to keep up.

If we go back 50 years, back then we barely had computers. There weren’t any mobile phones or even colour televisions, let alone ‘digital’ anything. The speed at which we communicated with each other was slower, we weren’t looking at bright LED screens. Life was slower, not so bright, maybe quieter in some respects. There were more family businesses and less huge shopping centres. With all change there are different pros and cons, but as humans we have had to do a lot of adapting in a short space of time.

All the information we take in is through our senses, through our sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. This information is what we use to make sense of things, to communicate and to regulate our nervous system. When we consider this, then it’s not hard to see how sensory overload could be a real thing and could affect the way we feel, how functional we are and our general wellbeing. Some fast food chains deliberately use brash colour schemes, which initially looks inviting and attractive but quickly makes customers feel uncomfortable and like they want to leave soon after they finish eating. Specialist autistic schools have only pastel colours in their classrooms, as primary colours are dysregulating for children with autism. This obviously does not stop when these children leave school, but they have to learn to live in a very bright sensory jangling world.

I have many clients who are becoming aware of their own sensory overload. It makes sense when we live with the effects of trauma, as we are used to being on edge, or hyper vigilant, taking in all kinds of information at a high speed. We are likely going to be super sensitive to sensory stimulation. I know how disorientated I get inside shopping centres and sometimes supermarkets. I lose my already poor sense of direction, I go offline and begin feeling very tired and confused, especially if it’s busy.

If we are looking at screens, our mobile phones, our laptops or TV’s for several hours a day, that’s a massive amount of sensory information coming at us. Maybe what we need to do is be more mindful about taking a proper break from these sources of stimulus. With so much amazing technology available, we expect each other to be available 24/7. If we don’t get a text back within minutes, we wonder what’s wrong. It’s almost unheard of to not carry our phones with us everywhere. It’s an immediate world, where we don’t have to wait for anything. We get immediate replies, we can order food in minutes, we get next-day deliveries and can access any information instantly. Time out needs to be the opposite of this so we can give our brains, bodies and our nervous systems a break, and time to just settle, not having to constantly work so hard.

So how can we manage a sensory overload?

In order to slow down and avoid a sensory overload, we need to start doing things slower. Starting with something simple like walking slower, deliberately taking our foot off the accelerator so we can take our time. If we go for a slower walk, it means we can take in more of our surroundings, be more curious and in the moment. We could also try eating slower, or drinking slower and savouring what we are actually eating. That way we can feel the process of eating and pay more attention to it.

We could try looking at only natural things for a while, studying things like the grass around us, or plants, trees, stone, wood or water. We can study them with our eyes and touch them with our skin. We can smell the different smells they bring. Children love playing with water, we could learn something from them and just see what it’s like to swish our hands around in cool water, or put our feet into a bowl of warm water. We can close our eyes and just feel some objects lying around the house, soft things, hard things, cold things and rough things, just to heighten the sense of touch.

If we all gave our senses a 15 minute break every day, it would be interesting to see what affect this would have on us. If we put it at the top of our priority list and made a point of looking after our senses, it might help us to feel calmer, more settled and not in such a rush all the time.

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How to put yourself first: Meeting your own needs

Meeting our own needs is something that we all struggle with. For some people it’s just mystifying, for others it gets messy when they are in a relationship. It can be really difficult to put ourselves first. The first question we need to ask ourselves is, how were our needs met when we were growing up?

Our needs are the fundamental things in life, the way we were fed, the comfort, the support we were given and how we were treated when we were frightened or upset. It’s also how we were encouraged, or allowed to make choices for ourselves. For instance, if we were always told what to do, what to eat, denied an opinion, had our choices ignored or worse, we were belittled, then we become very used to others making the decisions and providing for us. We might even start to become fearful about making a choice or expressing a need because of the reaction we might get from someone. These patterns then become ingrained in us, they become second nature and we don’t realise how we’re operating. It means that we start to rely on others to either make these decisions or choices for us, or we learn to read others and second guess what they might want. The problem with that is, is that other people can be very unreliable and we end up feeling frustrated about not having a say, without really knowing why. Sometimes we might actually know what it is we want, but instead we give clues to other people hoping that they will pick them up. If they don’t, it then becomes frustrating and it reinforces the idea that we are invisible or we don’t matter, suddenly we don’t know how to put ourselves first.

It can be really infuriating when we are actually presented with a choice, but we have no idea what to say or do. We really beat ourselves up about it. It can also make things quite limiting, if we can’t make a choice and always defer it to others, then we can’t protest if we don’t like the outcome. When we can start to recognise this and notice what our patterns of behaviour are, then it becomes easier to spot them and it gives us an opportunity to work on them. Some people find that they are quite good at meeting their own needs when they’re on their own, but this then gets disrupted when other people get involved.

So how can you put yourself first and start meeting your own needs?

Our needs cover so many different areas of our lives, so it’s easier to break them down into smaller chunks to explore. Emotional needs can feel a bit daunting as a starting point, they can also be more complicated and affected by a lot of different things. If we start with a need that’s easier to pin down and quantify, this can be a good place to begin working on them.

If it’s not too much of a triggering subject, then you could start by looking at food and your relationship to feeding yourself:

  • Firstly, you can look at how you can tell when you’re hungry. Are you eating at set times, because that’s what you’ve always done, or are you eating when your body is actually telling you it should eat?
  • Do you eat differently when you are alone? If so, how differently and is it the way you like it?
  • Do you cook more and make more effort for others, more than you do for yourself?
  • Are you making what others would like?
  • Are you eating the amount that is right for you, and at a time that suits you, or are these things regulated by others? In other words, are you putting others needs before your own? If so, then you are minimising your own needs.

We can take a moment to just be curious about that

  • Consider what it would look like if you put your needs first. What reaction do you have to that prospect?
  • How much sleep do you need?
  • What time would you like to go to bed and what time would you like to get up?

What’s getting in the way?

If the reality of what you actually do is long way off from what you would like, then it’s worth wondering about what’s getting in the way.

  • When it gets to the time at night you have identified, what stops you going to bed?
  • If it’s cold, do you put the heating on exactly when you need to, or do you wait until it’s freezing? Would you put the heating on earlier if someone else was there?

If we really struggle to identify our own needs, knowing what is right for us and why, then putting boundaries in place is going to be really difficult. If other peoples needs take priority, then we will have our boundaries dismantled really easily. It’s very easy to get lost and end up feeling controlled, or even just insignificant, which does nothing for our self worth or self esteem.

It’s really beneficial to consider what our needs are and what our relationship to ourselves is like, it allows growth in so many different areas. We often do things in a certain way just because that’s how it’s always been, when we take some time to consider different options and choices, it can open up all kinds of possibilities.

Some people express a worry that this will be seen or lead to selfishness, it won’t. It’s not self-obsessed or self-indulgent, it’s about getting the right balance and getting a say in what is right for us. It’s about taking responsibility for ourselves and not needing to be so reliant on others. It’s never selfish to discover more about ourselves and grow in confidence, it just makes our lives and the lives of people around us easier.

Our body work course that recently went live is packed full of different ways you can learn to recognise your own needs and build a strong, connected relationship to your body. It’s the best way to learn how to put yourself first and meet your own needs. We designed it to make it accessible and easy for everyone to use and do, and we wanted to create something affordable for everyone. To check it out, click the button below.

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Why we need more than just affirmations to set a boundary

We all know that boundaries is something we all need in life. I often read articles about setting boundaries, where they give tips and advice on what to do. It’s actually quite a complicated process, if it wasn’t then we wouldn’t struggle with it. There is no point just deciding on a boundary we need to set, then trying to do it only to find the minute someone pushes against it, it crumbles and we beat ourselves up or feel defeated.

Like everything else in life, it’s a process. If we have very low self-esteem or a lack of self-worth, then it can feel inconceivable that we even deserve to have a boundary, or have any idea what it would look like. If we have had our boundaries walked all over, or we grew up in a household where there were very few boundaries in place, instead there was chaos and unpredictability, then it’s hard to even have a concept of a boundary. If we grew up with super rigid and inflexible boundaries, we may have an aversion to them as we perceive them as suffocating. Therefore, the first part of the process is identifying what our response to a boundary is, what happens if we start exploring what one would look like and when we would need to use it. Once we can do this, then we can look at how we would build and use our boundary.

We also have to be aware of how we react both emotionally and physically when someone challenges our boundary, because they will, especially if it’s something new or we are doing this to stop or change unhealthy behaviours. We all have an achilles heel, some of us cave in when we are made to feel guilty, some of us fear a negative or angry response, some of us fear rejection, or we dread being accused of being selfish. If someone is determined to get us to do what they want, they will likely use all of these to get us to dismantle our boundary and not try it again. This is why we need to know how we respond and what we need, both as thoughts and answers but also physically, so we can stand solid and not feel wrong for putting this in place.

In order for us to do this effectively we have to know for certain that this boundary is necessary for us and we are not doing it to cause anyone any harm or upset. If we can be really sure of this, it makes it much easier to keep it intact. What we don’t want to have to do is apologise for having a boundary. This erodes our acceptance of it and instead of coming at it with positive energy, it comes with less-solid energy and will not be respected in the same way by others.

The really good thing about having firm boundaries is that when we can own them, others sense them before we even have to actively do something. If you say no to something with total conviction, people are much less likely to try to get you to change your mind as they hear and feel the solidity of the ‘no’. Children usually only have tantrums if they know they work. They scream loud enough, for long enough and the parent will change their mind. If the ‘no’ stays a no regardless, then children learn quickly that a tantrum won’t work. Adults, in a less dramatic way, (hopefully) are the same. If we can be fully confident of our boundary, then instead of others taking offence, the opposite happens, it just gets accepted.

People who have good, solid boundaries actually feel safe to be around. We like to know where we stand with people and we like to know what the rules are, whether these are spoken or unspoken. We actually feel more unsafe on a subconscious level with people who don’t have boundaries, as we feel unsure or can perceive these people as unpredictable and difficult to navigate or be around.

We’re all very different and we’ll all have different boundaries. This is fine, so long as the ones we have are right for us and enough to keep us safe or in control, but not so much that we use them to keep everyone out. We can all respect each others boundaries and live very harmoniously together. We all have different measures of personal space, for example, some people are happy in close proximity, while others need more space. We usually sense this in a somatic way through our body, by either picking up signals or energy, we rarely have to ask someone to move back, we navigate this unconsciously.

The clearer our boundaries are, the easier it can be to navigate all sorts of situations, it’s really worth starting to be curious about it, as the benefits are huge, but we have to start at the beginning of the process. We can’t jump to the end and hope for the best. Like most things, we have to work at it, but it’s worth it in the end.