I knew all my life that I was “sensitive” and could pick up on things that others did not. I also knew that my body didn’t handle sensory stimuli the same way other bodies did. I could easily become overwhelmed by itchy clothes, too much noise or strange smells. High emotion in a room could send me over the edge.
Sometimes if too much input came at me all at once, it would send me into a full blown panic attack. But it wasn’t until I began studying Sensory Processing Disorder that I really came to understand that being a “empath” isn’t just some woo-woo label that New Agers made up to make themselves feel special. I learned that my nervous system is actually wired differently than most humans. Yes, it’s actually a scientific reality.
I like to think of Sensory Processing Disorder as science’s explanation for what’s been known by mystics as the “Empath”. In this space, science and mysticism come together beautifully.
Revolutionary occupational therapist, psychologist, and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D., explained Sensory Processing Disorder as a “traffic jam” within the brain. This traffic jam keeps parts of the brain from receiving and interpreting sensory information properly.
Someone with SPD receives sensory stimuli just like other people do: smelling, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, balance, and the sense of where the body is in space, but when the sensory signals reach the brain, they get scrambled. Not only does the brain interpret information differently, but the person with SPD may in fact actually be accessing MORE information than the average person.
Getting flooded with so much additional information can sometimes lead to behaviors that seem odd to other people, even inappropriate. In reality, those behaviors are completely appropriate given the experience that the sensitive person is having – which may not be the same experience everyone else is having. In other words, he is literally experiencing reality in a new way.
The Gifted Empath
From here forth, I will refer to Sensory Processing Disorder as Sensory Processing DIFFERENCE because in my view, it’s not a disorder. It’s a manifestation of human evolution. Empaths, Sensitives and those with Sensory Processing Differences may well have abilities that regular people often marvel at, including the ability to sense subtle sound, light, and energy vibration, emotional subtlety and even mystical phenomena. In recent years, we’ve seen a rapid increase in the numbers of children born with SPD. In my opinion, this is a sign that the human race is progressing toward a superior state. The ability to take in much larger amounts of sensory data is an evolutionary leap for our species.
Do you have SPD?
– Hyper-sensitive to touch: touch may be uncomfortable or ticklish, may avoid tactile stimulation
– Hypo-sensitive to touch: May crave touch or seek out strong sensory input
– Difficulty with Self-Soothing: Trouble calming self, requires lots of outside help to process life’s challenges, irritability, emotional roller coaster
– Sensory-avoidant behaviors: afraid of heights, loses balance easily, avoids fast movements, avoids hugs and eye contact
– Sensory-seeking behaviors: craves fast movement, spinning, thrill-seeking, chewing on pens, fingernails,
– Sensitive to negativity: negative talk, scary stories, violence or cruelty on TV, news, etc…
– Social Avoidance: Overwhelmed by sensory input in crowds, likes to spend a lot of time alone
– Hyper-sensitive to noise: Distracted by noise others don’t notice, fearful of noise, shock at loud sounds
– Hypo-sensitive to noise: Doesn’t respond when name is called, seeks loud music or TV, makes noise for fun
– Hyper-sensitive to smell: Offended by body smells, bathroom smells, cooking smells, can smell odors others cannot
– Hyper-sensitive to sights: Sensitive to bright light, enjoys dimly lit rooms, avoids eye contact
– Allergies: Sensitivities to food, environment, medications
– Immune Disorders: Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue, Lupus, etc…
– Extra-sensory perception: of any kind
– Mystical experiences: of any kind
– Inner Conflict: Deep sense of wanting a peaceful world but personally experiences internal turmoil – the two don’t seem to match and it may feel confusing
If you have a handful of these traits, you are probably an Empathic SPD Human.
Self-Care for Highly Sensitive People
It’s not easy to live as a highly sensitive person. The empathic brain doesn’t filter unnecessary stimuli the way other people’s brains do. Because of this, highly sensitive people tend to take in MORE movement, MORE voices, MORE flashes of color, MORE scents, MORE feelings, MORE energy.
Empathic SPDs wear out fast. Their brains use more battery power per minute than the next guy. They tend to get sick more easily than others. Being able to pick up so much sensory and energetic stimulation floods them with more information about the world than other people get – which is FUN! But it can also be exhausting.
If this is true for you, consider abandoning your attempts to fit in and be like everyone else.
You’re NOT like everyone else – you’re different.
When you find yourself in an unbearable situation, instead of forcing yourself to suffer through to the point of exhaustion, anxiety or panic, choose to care for yourself in new ways. It’s your right, and in fact – it is your responsibility to yourself to design your surroundings in a way that supports your well-being.
Examples of Self-Care
Emotions: Many Empaths feel other people’s emotion so exquisitely that it can be hard to tell who the emotion belongs to. Practice asking yourself, “Is this feeling mine, or theirs?”
Merging: Empaths have a tendency to merge with others. Some call it “leaky boundaries”, but this label proves a gross mis-understanding on the part of the labeler. Merging with, and feeling another’s experience as one’s own isn’t a weakness – it’s a superpower! Society just hasn’t caught on yet. Take care of yourself by choosing wisely who you merge with.
Sensory Overstimulation: Just living in your own body can be overstimulating. The feeling of digestion in the belly may be interpreted as a strange, uncomfortable feeling. Pain may be felt more intensely than it is by others. The sound in the ears can be extreme. Being too warm or too cold may be too much for the brain to process. Caring for yourself means learning to read the signs your body is giving you. If your internal sensations feel like too much, take a break and sit alone in a quiet place for 20 minutes.
More Wattage: Living in a body may seem simple enough for most people – a non-issue even. But for you, it may take a certain level of purposefully focused attention just to manage it. Because you are starting out the gate using more attention and energy to manage internal and external stimuli, it means that less is available for regular life.
The brain is literally running more programs than the average human being. Self-care means getting enough rest and alone time. You may need more frequent breaks or to work fewer hours than other people.
Love and care for the special body you’ve been given!
You are literally the miracle of human evolution happening right before the world’s eyes!
By: Paige Bartholomew,
Licensed Psychotherapist, Certified Hypnotherapist, Sufi Master Teacher
“My greatest passion in life is to uncover light and truth in unexpected places and help others do it too!”
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8 thoughts on “Sensory Processing Disorder: The Science Behind Being An Empath”
Paige, I love you and Thank you!
I just want to say thank you SO much for this… everything you’ve said is precisely what I need to hear… very validating because some people around me tend to act like these are problems that I have, but I know they’re not and it’s not a dis-order… it’s more like an actual order! And I totally agree that it is part of evolution and I believe that we have an extra special purpose. Love, light, insight, togetherness, unity.. enlightenment and caring for each and every being.. I think most people are focused on the wrong thing. I think it’s time that we all find peace and live with purpose not just money.. and get back to God.. love and health for our eternal souls inside these bodies :) Oh and as far as someone saying you need to “get your facts straight”.. (although in all honestly I didn’t even read past that so sorry if I’m off) this sort of offended me because I found this article so relieving. This is not a cookie cutter situation and really even using labels at all is a reach for this kind of thing because we as people with these perceptions as our every day reality are going so far beyond what a simple word can even define…. thanks again :)
This article explains so much, now I understand why I feel things more than others. It’s not nice being told that you are ‘over sensitive’ is it.
Respectfully, this article combines several different areas that Are all neurological , but are not the same. Sensory processing disorder is the brains inability to correctly interpret what is being taken in by the five senses and therefore causes children and adults difficulty with locomotion, speech and other challenges. Dr. Ayres did not at any time study the trait of empath or in any way relate SPD to that trait. Being a highly sensitive person is also different, a genetic trait for 20% of all humans born with a brain that is more open to subtle stimuli, with four common characteristics, Depth of Processing, Overstimulation, Emotional Reaponsiveness and Sensitivity to Subtleties. This is also not the same as empath. An empath is a person who is able to have a direct experience of someone else’s emotions or physical sensations. I believe a pyschotherapist has a responsibility to review all of the actual research before posting a mixed article like this, it causes more confusion around three areas where it is already difficult for people to receive support. Please check your facts!
Yeah, I have to fact check all of the articles and remove the junk when I get the free time. The only problem with that is that there is only one of me and there are thousands of articles… Time is the only issue.
Well intentioned but in many ways confusing.
I definitely have SPD. I also I am diabetic and frequently get ill. I have a extremely stressful job and I am so greatful forcoming accross this article. I would love to knw more and learn to cope with being SPD. I would love to see and feel that this is a gift instead of feeling like it is curse. Thank you for this article.
Wow, you “get” it. I’ve often said that if the majority of people were like me SPD that we as a species could not have war and crime because it would be impossible to given the way we feel. Also no hunger or homeless as you could take anyone in.