sensory processing disorder- man covering his ears and screaming

Sensory Processing and Emotional Regulation

If you’re someone with sensory processing issues, you might also have a tough time with your emotional regulation. Emotional regulation allows us to manage and express our emotions in a healthy and adaptive manner. It involves the ability to recognize, understand, and regulate our own emotions, as well as respond appropriately to the emotions of others. 

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However, for people with sensory processing difficulties, emotional regulation can be challenging. Sensory processing refers to the brain's ability to receive, interpret, and respond to sensory information from the environment. When sensory processing is disrupted, it can impact emotional regulation and lead to difficulties in managing emotions effectively.

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Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition that affects the way individuals process and respond to sensory information. It is estimated that 5-15% of school-aged children have SPD, with higher rates among internationally adopted children. SPD can run in families, and there is evidence that prenatal stressors can contribute to its development. Additionally, a lack of proper sensory stimulation in a child's early years can impact the brain's ability to process sensory information effectively.

Sensory integration involves the brain's ability to sort and organize the multitude of sensory messages it receives. In addition to the five traditional senses, proprioception (awareness of where our body parts are in space) and the vestibular system (related to movement and balance) are also involved in sensory integration. 

For individuals with sensory processing difficulties, the world may not make sense, and sensory experiences can be overwhelming or frightening. This can lead to difficulties in emotional regulation and a preference for predictable and consistent environments.

Sensory processing and Emotional Regulation

Different Types of Sensory Dysregulation

Within the realm of sensory processing difficulties, there are different patterns and subtypes of sensory dysregulation. One proposed classification system includes three primary patterns: sensory discrimination disorder, sensory-based motor disorder, and sensory modulation disorder. 

Sensory Discrimination Disorder:

Sensory discrimination involves the brain's ability to distinguish and interpret different qualities of sensory stimuli, such as texture, temperature, or sound pitch. A sensory discrimination disorder refers to challenges in accurately perceiving and differentiating between various sensory inputs.

This can lead to difficulties in recognizing subtle differences in sensory experiences, affecting a person’s ability to respond appropriately to their environment. For example, someone with sensory discrimination disorder may struggle to identify whether an object is hot or cold, affecting their emotional responses based on inaccurate sensory information.

Sensory-Based Motor Disorder:

Sensory-based motor disorder relates to difficulties in coordinating and executing motor tasks in response to sensory cues. This pattern involves disruptions in the connection between sensory information and motor planning, leading to challenges in performing coordinated movements. 

People with sensory-based motor disorder may exhibit clumsiness, poor body awareness, and difficulties with activities requiring precise motor skills. These challenges can influence emotional regulation by causing frustration, low self-esteem, and anxiety due to perceived inadequacies in physical abilities.

Sensory dysregulation can manifest in different patterns, each impacting emotional regulation in distinct ways. For our purposes, we’re going to focus mainly on sensory modulation challenges, specifically exploring the subtypes of over-responsiveness, under-responsiveness, and sensory-seeking.

Sensory Modulation Disorder:

Sensory modulation refers to the brain's ability to regulate and filter incoming sensory information appropriately. A sensory modulation disorder involves difficulties in regulating the intensity, frequency, and duration of responses to sensory stimuli. This can result in either over-responsivity (hypersensitivity) or under-responsivity (hyposensitivity) to sensory input. 

People with hypersensitivity may become easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, leading to strong reactions or discomfort. On the other hand, those with hyposensitivity might not respond adequately to sensory input, seeking out intense sensory experiences to compensate. This pattern can impact emotional regulation, as an individual's reactions to sensory stimuli may contribute to mood swings, anxiety, or emotional instability.


People who are over-responsive to sensory stimuli have difficulty filtering out repeated or irrelevant sensory information. They may be easily overwhelmed by everyday sensory experiences and exhibit fight, flight, or freeze responses. 

For example, a simple jostle while standing in line can trigger an aggressive outburst. Over-responsive people might find situations with multiple sensory modalities, such as a crowded mall or a noisy cafeteria, particularly challenging. These sensory challenges can significantly impact their quality of life, social interactions, engagement in daily routines, self-regulation, learning, and self-esteem.

sensory processing disorder- man covering his ears and screaming


In contrast, people who are under-responsive to sensory stimuli require stronger or more intense sensory input to become aware of stimuli. They may appear to “tune out” or not notice certain sensory experiences that others would find noticeable. This can manifest as a higher tolerance for pain or a lack of response to environmental cues. 

Under-responsive individuals may seek out additional sensory input to compensate for their reduced sensitivity, such as engaging in repetitive body movements, touching everything, making sounds, or chewing on non-food items.


The sensory-seeking subtype of sensory dysregulation involves a strong craving for sensory experiences. These people actively seek out sensory input and may engage in activities like twirling on a swing or crashing into others for sensory stimulation. 

They may have difficulty attending to visual cues while in motion but can still listen and learn effectively. Sensory-seeking individuals often find comfort in being held tightly or experiencing strong, rhythmic motions.

dancing girl, twirling, dance

The Impact of Sensory Dysregulation on Emotional Regulation

Research has shown that interactions among the senses profoundly influence behavior, perception, emotion, and cognition. People with sensory processing difficulties, including those with sensory dysregulation, may exhibit differences in brain functioning when processing sensory input. 

It is not uncommon for neurodivergent people with sensory integration challenges to exert maximum effort to complete tasks successfully. However, maintaining this level of effort consistently is unsustainable. 

When tasks become difficult or overwhelming, people may exhibit behavioral or emotional responses, and their struggles may be attributed to motivational issues or lack of effort. All of this can have a negative impact on your executive functioning.

Strategies for Supporting Sensory Dysregulation

There are various strategies that can be employed to support people with sensory dysregulation. The specific strategies will vary depending on the person’s sensory profile and needs. Here are some general strategies that can be helpful:

Calming activities

Engaging in calming activities, such as deep breathing exercises, can help you regulate your sensory experiences and emotions.

Environmental modifications

Creating a sensory-friendly environment with reduced sensory stimuli can provide you with a more predictable and comfortable space.

Sensory breaks

Allowing yourself to take sensory breaks throughout the day can help you regulate your sensory systems and prevent sensory overload.

Sensory tools and equipment

Keeping sensory tools, such as fidget toys or weighted blankets, available can offer additional sensory input and promote self-regulation.

Sensory dysregulation can have a significant impact on emotional regulation and overall well-being. Remember, each person’s sensory profile is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. It may take time and experimentation to find the most effective strategies for managing sensory dysregulation. 

As always, it’s a process, and you have to allow yourself time to experiment and try different techniques and strategies to find the ones that work best for you.

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