What Is Sensory Stress? When Does It Happen

what does sensory even mean?

Sensory refers to our senses. Most know the main 5: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.

There are also 2 more:

1. Mechanoreception

Menchanoreception encompasses the internal sensors that tell us where our body is in space and in what position, so vestibular and proprioceptive awareness.

2. Interoception

Interoception is an awareness of how your body feels internally. For a typical person, all of these senses somewhat self-balance.

We take in the information we need, and we learn to filter out the information that isn’t significant or that we don’t need. Typically, we don’t have to think about that!

Our nervous system automatically dulls too much information and automatically amplifies information it requires. It can cause problems when we get too much, or too little.

Our nervous system requires breaks to recover.

Generally, we can deal with periods of high sensory input without much issue, as long as it’s not constant. If it becomes constant and we never get a break to re-balance, our brain stops being able to filter out the unnecessary input and generally that’s when we start to feel overwhelmed.

This is what’s happening when you’re touched out.

This is what’s happening when your kids just won’t shut up and you feel like you’re going to explode.

This is what happens when something stinks and you feel like you’re going to puke. When you spin too fast and feel like you’re going to puke.

The same is true of the opposite, if we don’t get enough we feel unsettled. We can get depressed. We go out and do things that are dangerous or risky to try and get that input.

In an adult context that often looks like risky sexual behaviour, physical risk taking like jumping out of planes, doing things like going to an excessive number of loud concerts to the point it damages your hearing…so you go to more loud concerts, etc.

Our brain uses the sensory input we receive from our senses to make sure that we’re safe and to help us make decisions. We need this input but too much or too little of it is a big problem! Especially for children because these senses develop and get stronger the more we use them.

Everybody needs different levels of these inputs.

No two brains are the same! No two bodies are the same. Some people are much more sensitive to different kinds of input, and others are much less sensitive to it.

The thrill-seekers who do stuff like bungee jump off bridges and enjoy those really extreme roller-coasters? They tend to be people who need a lot of mechanoreceptive input!

People who we typically label as introverted tend to be overly sensitive to sound, touch, mechanoreceptive input, and interoceptive input.

People who we tend to label as extroverted tend to be under-receptive of those things. The important bit here is that when you aren’t getting the level of input that is optimal for your brain and body. You have to expend energy to try and regulate that.

Energy expenditure is STRESS, right? It all comes back to stress.

We know that if our child is expending lots of energy regulating their sensory needs, whether that’s on the filtering or seeking side, that means there’s less energy available to do all of that top-level brain stuff like learning, language, and using their executive functioning skills. Which means we see a rapid decline in behaviour.

What should you do if you suspect that your child’s behavioural struggles are due to sensory stress?

Test Your Theory

If you think they’re seeking, give them some more of what they’re typically jonesing for more of. Does that result in some calm afterwards?

Chances are they’re sensory seeking.

If they get upset and triggered or avoid certain activities, try avoiding those for a few days and seeing if that behaviour subsides. If it does, chances are they’re having some difficulty filtering.


I’m not suggesting you just give them more or avoid things for them for the rest of time, this is just a maybe one-week scenario to test out your theory. Then we need to come up with a a long-term strategy of how we’re going to help our kids manage that and ultimately teach them how to self-manage that stress. This is where it’s up to you to decide where you’re going to seek your support from.

Generally when we’re talking about extreme sensory needs we’re talking about getting in with an Occupational Therapist. This is fantastic, that’s definitely someone you want to have on your team, and someone you want to have on your team that is local because OTs really need to see and interact with your child in person to assess them properly.

A lot of parents find that there’s some limitations. OT sessions are expensive, they’re rarely covered by insurance or only partially covered, and many find that the sessions are limited to the specific sensory issue their child is experiencing. Then they’re stuck because they don’t know how to generalize that information into their everyday life, into daycare or school.

This is how Parentability helps!

Sensory stress is just one kind of stress, it’s a biological stress.

There are 4 other kinds of stress!

Social, prosocial, emotional, and cognitive are the others and we may still need to address those. Once we address their stress, we have to go a step further to building those skills up so that we see that increase in capacity. They’re able to do more, with less.

ParentAbility gives you the ability to take all the information you’ve got about your child, and put it all together so that it’s usable. It’s do-able. Many parents are experts on their kids, but they don’t know what to do with all that expert information. In ParentAbility, we teach you how to put it together so that your day-to-day life becomes much easier.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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