Heart to Heart is excited to announce that we have a new sensory room for clients of all ages! Read more to learn how a sensory room is rooted in the trauma research and can help your family.
Connecting the Senses After Trauma
People interact with the world by using their senses. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures can dramatically impact an individual’s experience of a situation. As a result, people are constantly using their senses to determine if situations are enjoyable, neutral, or dangerous. The senses are used to remind us of things we like and to warn us of things we dislike. Senses are our primary modes of gathering information. We then use our sensory experiences to create neural connections in our brains that help us categorize and store information. For example, the scent of freshly baked apple pie may elicit warm memories for one person which makes them want to snuggle under a blanket, read a book, and eat pie when they smell it in the future. For someone else, the smell may remind the person of an awful Thanksgiving gathering at an uncle’s house where abuse occurred. When this person smells apple pie, they become dysregulated, anxious, and cannot sit still. They want to escape the smell at all costs because it reminds their body of traumatic experiences.
Our brains use initial sensory information to quickly access our memory bank of past experiences to determine if the current situation poses a threat. For the person that connects the smell of apple pie to their experience with abuse, the smell serves as a warning to try to protect the individual from a repeat negative experience. The exposure to such a stimulus is often called a trigger. The smell activates an automatic reaction in the brain. Now in many situations, the warning bell is meant to be just that, a warning bell. However, when trauma has occurred, people can get locked into a repetitive pattern with specific sensory information. For instance, every time a person smells apple pie does not mean that every time this individual will experience harm. But for the individual that has created an association in their brain connecting the smell with trauma, that individual is likely to continue to react to the smell unless the trauma connection is broken.
Some sensory associations can be helpful while other associations can interfere with a person’s daily life. For example, one person sees flashing lights from a police car and it reminds them to move to the side of the road to let the police car pass. However, if another individual that has been in a terrible car accident or has witnessed a terrible car accident remembers seeing flashing lights and hearing people screaming at the time of the crash, seeing a police light flashing may trigger that individual. The sensory association may even become strong enough that the triggered individual becomes immobilized due to fear, has flashbacks, or acts out in terror. It is also common that the triggers extend past the initial event and cross into other areas of the person’s life. For example, the individual triggered by police lights is also likely to become triggered when they see other flashing lights or hear loud yelling. This can be especially confusing for some people because the triggering sensory stimuli might be at fun event. For instance, a baseball game that shoots off a few fireworks after a winning game. However, to someone with a strong sensory association to flashing lights and yelling due to a traumatic experience, what started as a fun sports event can suddenly turn into full body terror.
When children have problems with sensory stimuli, their behavior may be confusing to caregivers. The child responding to a sensory trigger may be seen as disobedient when really the child is trying to regain a sense of calm within their body. Often it is not a matter of a child wanting to control their sensory responses, but rather, it is that the child cannot control their sensory responses. This is because the neural networks in the child’s brain have been hardwired to respond to certain situations differently because of the child’s trauma experiences. The behaviors may look different for each child. One child may hide in a corner and rock back and forth in an attempt to escape the sensory experience. Another child may actually seek out certain sensory experiences by crashing into furniture or walls. Children can be sensory avoiders, sensory seekers, or a combination of both.
The good news is that utilizing sensory materials in a therapy setting can drastically help the child break the old trauma connections in their brains and rebuild them with healthier connections. A sensory room is a great tool for helping children process their current sensory reactions and explore new sensory connections in a safe and regulated environment. Utilizing tools in a sensory room can help individuals learn to self-regulate, feel grounded, repair attachment relationships, understand emotions, and recreate healthy brain patterns in response to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. See photos of our sensory room under “Our Office” tab.
~Tasha Lehner MA