February 16, 2012

Sensory Overload:The Importance of Downtime In a Sensory Stimulating Society. ~ Rachel Gray-Safyurtlu

Which of the above photos calms your nervous system? Sometimes life feels like too much. We live in a day and age that thrives on stimulation and sensory input, especially in the United States. We live in a society that believes that more is more.

As parents, we feel like we are doing a good job as long as we are stimulating our children’s brains. We want our brains to be active. We want the synapses to fire. Stimulate stimulate stimulate.

There is no time for stillness, for silence, for calmly bathing in the natural light of our moon. We have artificial light, televisions, and iPods. Why would we sit quietly and stare at the moon when there is Facebook?

When my son was an infant, I was unable to soothe him. He had food allergies, reflux, and was a disorganized feeder. He choked during every feeding. He was unable to eat unless the room was silent, dark, and empty. The popular book Happiest Baby on the Block made my son the unhappiest, over-stimulated baby on the block.

I noticed that the only time he slept was when we were on the go…when he had constant sensory stimulation from the movement of the car or stroller, noise from the engine, crowds of people, television, or radio, when the light was too much that he closed his tiny squinty eyes, and I’m sure way too many smells for his immature olfactory system. He dissociated or “habituated” as Sammon, author of The Self Calmed Baby, calls it. His tiny nervous system shut down from sensory overload.


As soon as we got home and his environment was calm, still, and quiet, he became colicky. He cried non-stop. No amount of shushing, rocking, or swaddling did any good. It just made his reflux worse and upset him more. It wasn’t until I turned the room pitch black, put him in a still baby swing (the angle of the swing helped his reflux), and left him completely alone that he was able to finally unwind and fall asleep.

This marked the beginning of understanding how his itty-bitty nervous system worked. His life and my life became much more pleasurable once I was able to recognize his limits, signs of overstimulation, and the environment he needed to thrive.

Our children are our mirrors. My son had sensory issues just like I did as a child. Just like I do, still as an untreated, sensory defensive adult. It is no surprise that I gravitated toward yoga and meditation at the young age of 11.

I have said it many times –– yoga saved my life. If I don’t have dark, silent, stillness, I’m miserable too, but I don’t cry and tantrum. Instead I get migraines, depression, rigidity, anxiety, and fatigue. When I am over-stimulated my brain shuts down, my energy plummets, I become irritable, and unhappy. For most of my life, I was so ashamed of these problems that I hid them from the world. I faked that I was “normal”. The jig is up. Quiet, still, dark, down time is a huge part of my life and a huge part of my children’s lives.

We all have that nagging voice, that some call ego, in the back of our head that likes to judge us. My inner critic calls this necessary down time laziness and unproductively. My wiser self knows that this sacred time is what my soul craves. This withdrawal of the senses or informal pratayahara (Sanskrit for withdrawal of the senses) is also an act of what the Buddhists call maitri, or loving-kindness.

I am a better mother, wife, and person when I respect my nervous system and my babies’ nervous systems. My mind becomes clear, my mood becomes calm, and my soul feels at peace. Ditto for my little ones.

Some people substitute alcohol, food bingeing, or drugs to numb out from sensory overload. I used to do that in high school. Many teens learn to self-medicate if don’t get the help they need. There are many destructive ways to numb out.

When will the American culture –– if that’s what you would like to call it –– realize that solitude, stillness and silence are just as important as stimulation, socialization, and sound? Most nervous systems are on overdrive and most people are unaware of it. Our bodies, minds, and souls need a balance of both. Our mental, physical, and spiritual well-being depends on finding such a balance. Sometimes less is more.

Edited by Lindsay Friedman


Rachel Gray-Safyurtlu’s passion lies in helping women overcome suffering. Rachel’s approach addresses the mind/body connection. As a survivor of one of the most traumatic forms of loss, she is whole-heartedly committed to helping women work through and guide them along their own grief and pain journey. Rachel lost her baby, Dylan, at seven months of gestation. Following her loss, she developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Mind/Body techniques have helped her heal and find peace. She is determined to help other women heal from pregnancy loss, stillbirth, and grief. Rachel is a Yoga Alliance registered yoga instructor with over 11 years of teaching experience. She also has an undergraduate and graduate degree in psychology/counseling.

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