Sensory Triggers for Moms and how to get a handle on them before you become “Angry Mom”
Have you ever thought past your emotional response to “the witching hour” and considered that you as a mom are experiencing sensory triggers?
Our sensory systems are SO much more complex than whether we like to play with slime or not.
Imagine if the reason for you losing your cool with your kids was actually because of your body saying “Hey, hi…I can’t have this loud noise in my ear anymore. It’s too much and we need a moment to pull ourselves back to ourselves!”.
Imagine you knew some tools on how to recognise your sensory triggers and actually calm your senses without becoming an “angry mom”.
Or not walking away from your kids fussy moments feeling like you messed up again.
Yip, that is what understanding your sensory experience can mean for moms.
What is your sensory system
Everything we experience is filtered through our sensory system. Sensory processing is the body’s system of receiving sensory information from the environment and responding appropriately.
For example: I touch a hot stove top, my brain signals to me to lift my hand. Our response may be emotional or physical but it all starts with our senses.
I’m sure you have heard of the 5 senses (seeing, hearing, smell, touch, and taste) but there are actually 8 senses.
- Visual (seeing)
- Auditory (hearing)
- Olfactory (smell)
- Tactile (touch)
- Gustatory (taste)
- Vestibular (sense of head movement in space)
- Proprioceptive (sensations from muscles and joints)
- Introception (sensations related to internal organs)
Each of us have our own individual sensory makeup. Yes on the outside, physically my skin may look the same as yours but the way you feel sand on your feet may be different to the way I do.
Similarly, some people concentrate best with music playing in the background while others find it very distracting. There is a large spectrum of “normal” interpretation/ processing of each sensory experience.
Each of our brains can tolerate a certain amount of each sensation– this is known as our neurological threshold. Each of our sensory systems has its own threshold and they can all be different. You could be sensitive to sound but crave and need touch.
Sensory Dysregulation in motherhood
Just like each of us has the capacity to stay in the sun for a certain amount of time before we burn our skin, or eat a certain amount during the day before we feel sick, so each of us has our own specific capacity to take in sensory information.
Have you ever wondered why you feel over touched and like you just need silence so often as a mom? Especially if these are things you never felt before you became a mum.
The reason is two part:
1. Our brain’s capacity to process and regulate the sensory information around us (sensory threshold) fluctuates. Some of the things that decrease this capacity and increase our sensitivity to noise, touch, bright lights etc. are aging, sleep deprivation and mental load or stress. I’m guessing you feel these just a tiny bit more now, right?
2. As mothers of young kids we take in a TON of sensory information all day long with very few breaks.
- Touch: During your time with your young children does an hour go by that you are not being held onto? Cuddled? Picking up? Unlikely. Over-touched is the norm with toddlers.
- Sound: Giggles, crying, from babbling to speaking in full sentences young children naturally fill the room with sound. And also don’t forget the toys that sing!
- Sight: Not much staring off into the distance happening when you are watching a daredevil toddler hey? And then there is also the toy clutter
- Vestibular: Any mama that suffers from back pain or headaches will tell you- small kids involve an excessive amount of bending! Whether it’s to put on shoes or kiss boo-boos or pick up toys, all that bending is activating your vestibular sense around the clock.
The list goes on and I think you get the point. Being a mom of small kids sure gets our senses working and can have us in a constant state of dysregulation.
Sensory dysregulation means your brain is constantly interpreting sensory information. Like it is a full cup, really hard to empty and always teetering on the edge of overflowing.
I want to be clear- our kids being noisy, playful, and cuddle loving is a good thing. That’s how they are supposed to be!
BUT We need to recognise that just like an athlete HAS TO train for a race if he wants to win, we as moms HAVE TO recognise our sensory triggers and regulate our sensory systems in order to parent the way we want to.
What are your sensory triggers mom?
We were on our morning walk a few weeks ago and I could just feel myself getting irritated, I could hear myself being a little snappy and my thoughts were focussed on getting home. A beautiful early morning walk in the forest, why was it putting me in a bad mood?
Breathe, re-centre… focus my thoughts. This is my favorite part of the day. Why am I feeling like this?
It was my pants. You know those pants that always feel like they are slipping down and seem to limit your movement in some way while scratching you with a stiff tag?
The silliest thing! Almost unnoticeable except for the fact that it was dysregulating me.
One of the keys to regulating our sensory systems is pinpointing exactly what is overwhelming our senses and when it is happening.
I have a challenge for you
Recognise your sensory triggers mom!
Find a time when you notice yourself feeling a little flustered like you can’t imagine yourself having a conversation with another adult at the same time. Perhaps you are thinking-
- “I just need a moment to myself”,
- “I can’t gather my thoughts”,
- “I can’t take another question or request”,
- “I can’t stand this noise”,
- “Can everyone please stop touching me”
Now stop, breathe, move away from the situation for a moment if you need to.
- What is dysregulating you?
- How many sounds are you processing right now?
- What are you trying to do at this moment? Are you feeling time pressure to finish a task?
- How much mess/ clutter is around you?
- What is touching you? How comfortable is your body position and clothing?
- If you could take one thing out of this situation in order to get back to calm, what would it be? If you weren’t cooking dinner right now would the noise be so hard to process? If your toddler wasn’t jumping on you would nursing your baby while reading a book bother you so much?
Sensory Overload in mothers
When the sensory information that our brain is processing becomes too much for our brain to handle we move past a state of sensory dysregulation, into overload.
This is not just a woo woo concept. Your body literally releases stress hormones and the blood flow into your brain moves to the primitive or lower centres of the brain.
It is literally saying to you- “I need something to change and quickly”.
Maybe it sounds a bit extreme to you but have you ever left a fussy time with your kids feeling:
- Extreme irritability
- Difficulty focusing
- An urge to close your eyes or block your ears
- You want to escape
- “wound up” and taking a long time to get back to your normal self
- Uncoordinated or off balance
Yes? That could have been sensory overload. And yes, sensory overload can happen even to people that don’t have SPD or a sensory processing problem.
Sensory overload is a real, legit thing!
When we tell ourselves the only reason that I get angry is because “I don’t have enough emotional control ” or “My kid made me snap. It’s his fault”, we limit ourselves to strategies that may not fix the problem.
Two truths about sensory overload that you need to know:
1. When you are in sensory overload your brain isn’t functioning using its higher centers of reasoning and emotional regulation. It’s very focussed on keeping you safe. It means you can let go of that guilt about becoming “angry mommy” and rather care for yourself using sensory strategies so that “grumpy” doesn’t come out.
2. Your kids need you. They make noise, they get hangry, they spill, they cry- It is part of their development. It is not that they are trying to overwhelm us. They need you to find a way that your brain can still feel safe in their moments of need.
Easy sensory strategies for dysregulated moms
- Switch off non essential noises during “fussy times” like washing machine, TV, cellphone
- Play games like “loud & quiet” to teach your kids volume control
- Avoid big conversations during times that the house is generally loud
- Quieten your voice
- Step outside- noise travels differently and even a baby crying can be easier to process outside
- Put calm music on headphones or hum to yourself
- Limit your screen time
- Teach kids to clean up
- Establish areas in the home for different types of play so toys aren’t all over the house
- Use lamps or a dimmer for lights if necessary
- Close your eyes for a moment
- Step outside or move to a window- natural light calms our visual sense
Tactile (touch) Overload:
- Are your clothes comfortable?
- Make sure your kids have moved their bodies enough during the day (recommended 3 hours)
- Engage your kids in physical play time like roughhousing at a time that you are not overstimulated
- Take a mental note of your body position and temperature- fix if needed
- Sit down for a moment
- If your kid need physical contact ask them to give you a tight squeeze instead of soft touches
Sensory self care for busy moms
Our nervous system is truly wonderful in its design. Although we may find ourselves in a stage of life that bombards our senses- our body is designed to regulate itself.
We have 3 very special sensory systems – the vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile (specifically deep pressure) that can act like that sweet “chill pill” we are craving.
The best news is that you can use these SENSORY NINJA TRICKS even if you are busy and have tiny humans following your every move.
Choose 1 or 2 of these and consider them daily 2 minute self care practices.
Sensory mama ninja trick 1: Activate your vestibular system
Move your head
- Do a headstand
- or hang upside down off the couch
- Swing- in a hammock or on a swing in the playground
- downward dog
- Dance or sway
- Bounce on an exercise ball
Sensory mama ninja trick 2: Activate your proprioceptive system
push, pull or squeeze
- Push ups- even if they are on the wall
- give someone a tight hug
- wheelbarrow while resting on an exercise ball
- run, jump or dance
- pull on a rope or play tug of war
- squeeze a stress ball
Sensory mama ninja trick 3: deep pressure
- lie on your tummy and have your kid lie flat on your back
- cuddle deep into a beanbag
- go for a swim
- get long, tight hugs from your kids
- weighted blanket
By activating these sensory systems you are effectively emptying that overfull sensory cup that is always feeling dysregulated.
Best news- you can do these with your kids!
These sensory moves essentially press re-start and calm on your sensory processing pathways. Yip, it is pretty amazing!
- Each of us have a specific sensory makeup and threshold for different sensory experiences
- Mental overload, lack of sleep and stress increase our mom sensitivity to sensory triggers
- When our sensory systems are constantly at work we can experience sensory dysregulation and overload
- We can use simple tricks like moving closer to natural light to help prevent sensory overload
- Our sensory systems can also help decrease dysregulation by moving our heads, getting proprioception and deep pressure.
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