Arousal Levels: Seeking and Avoiding Behaviors (and Strategies!)

Now that you know the eight senses, I’m going to give you a quick vocab lesson about arousal levels.

Arousal can be defined as the fluctuating level of alertness of the nervous system, and is extremely affected by sensory input. If your arousal level is too high or too low, then it could throw off your day and make it hard to focus. Think about being in a really long lecture or meeting. This is a good example of a time when your arousal level might be particularly low. Now imagine being at a theme park, and you’d probably feel the exact opposite. This time, I want you to visualize yourself trying to do long division while in each of these situations (unless you’re a math wiz, then think of something harder for you to do, smarty pants). It would probably be pretty difficult. That’s because you’re not in your optimal state of arousal, the sweet spot where learning happens, and when you’re the most calm and regulated.

If you have sensory processing difficulties, this can affect your ability to get to that optimal level even more. It often can manifest in sensory-seeking or sensory-avoiding behaviors. Sensory-seeking happens when you are under-responsive to certain stimuli, and sensory-avoiding happens with you’re over-responsive.

So what do seeking and avoiding behaviors look like?

People who are sensory-seeking are drawn to more intense sensory input, by way of…

  • bright lights
  • loud sounds
  • spicy/salty/sour foods
  • pushing too hard on writing utensils
  • excessive chewing/biting objects
  • preferring tight clothes
  • poor personal space
  • poor body awareness (bumping into things)
  • constantly moving, swaying, spinning, or running
  • disrupted sleep pattern
  • over-eating/drinking

People who are sensory-avoiding can be overwhelmed very easily by even minimal sensory input. Some characteristics include…

  • preferring bland foods
  • avoiding contact with objects/people
  • frequent motion sickness
  • fear of taking both feet off the ground, and/or not being in an upright position
  • sensitive to sounds, lights, smells
  • not eating/drinking enough
  • needing complete silence/darkness to sleep
  • bathroom issues/incontinence

Luckily, there are some strategies that can help with both sensory-seeking and avoiding, to help bring the body back to an optimal state of arousal.

When overwhelmed, overstimulated, or high arousal:

  • decrease sensory input
  • find a quiet space
  • limit talking, using gestures or a lower voice
  • dim lights
  • try headphones
  • give alone time (as safety permits)
  • use yourself as a model with deep breathing
  • STRUCTURE (“put these into that bucket 10x”, “take 5 deep breaths”)
  • tell them calmly what will happen next once calmed down
  • give less demands (this takes patience!)
  • pushing or pulling something heavy to a destination
  • carrying weighted/heavy objects
  • giving high fives
  • deep pressure with a pillow for (x) seconds

When in a state of low arousal:

  • increase sensory input
  • use upbeat, rhythmic music
  • aerobic movement
  • chewing gum, crunchy snacks
  • drinking water
  • deep breaths
  • using a fidget
  • pushing or pulling something heavy to a destination
  • carrying weighted/heavy objects
  • giving high fives
  • deep pressure with a pillow for (x) seconds

Another great resource to check out is The Alert Program. It’s a program that helps individuals recognize what state their bodies/minds are in, to better support reaching an optimal state. After all, knowing how you’re feeling is the first step to self-regulating.

Have you tried any of these? Come up with some strategies of your own? I’d love to hear your success stories in the comments!

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