Being mindful about the positive and negative of sensory integration

A man dressed in an orange robe stands before me. At my back, a snow-capped mountain disappears into the clouds. The man hands me a cooling vest, walking stick, sun, and heart. He points behind me and says, “Climb.”

August 2007. With Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 in A, K.201 playing in my ear and crayon in hand, the dream I have during a previous acupuncture session comes to life. My Tomatis session at The Listening Centre is quite productive. The peaceful vision, captured on paper, is soon surrounded by swirling red ribbons. Anger. I clench my jaw, tighten my grip, and pour out my frustrations onto the piece of paper. More ribbons of anger appear. I relax.

I re-visit my drawing a month later, adding the following note: “Ribbon of anger. Instead of coursing through my body, externalize and swirl it around to protect me. Used anger to protect me.”

October 2010. Midway through my first semester at graduate school, I reach for the drawing.

I’m climbing again.

A couple of weeks ago, I dissolved into tears after reading a passage from The Psychology of Human Strengths: Fundamental Questions and Future Directions for A Positive Psychology, edited by Lisa G. Aspinwall and Ursula M. Staudinger.

“That people deliberately accentuate the positives in life to better deal with the negatives is surely a human strength. That people can draw on these strengths without diminishing the negative realities of their situations is also important (17).”

Anger followed my tears. It’s been 10 years since my aneurysm rupture, but there are still times when I rage against how I was treated. How other people are still treated. I was told that I was normal, that I didn’t have a brain injury, and that my issues were psychological. My ability to look at the positive and negative was judged to be a character flaw – a defect in personality.

Learning how to turn the anger into a ribbon, or an external force, protected me. I took the anger and frustration generated by having to deal with health care professionals who denied “the return to me” and used it to fuel my recovery. I’ve also worked hard to heal the hurt and anger; I turned the negative emotion into something positive by starting a brain injury support group. Wondering when I would no longer be angry, I brought the subject up at a recent counseling session. I questioned my negativity.

“What’s wrong with me?”

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” my counselor said. “Given how you were treated, you will always be angry. You had a brain injury – they said you were normal; you had Ehlers Danlos Syndrome – they said your pain was psychosomatic; you had sensory integration dysfunction- they said you had anxiety and depression. They were wrong.  When you are reminded of it, you get angry about it. That’s okay.”

My counselor’s words echoed my professor’s words from a week prior. We’re exploring human potential in class and using Eastern thought patterns like mindfulness to connect with our environment.

“I’ve worked so hard to get rid of the anger.”

“When you externalize it, you can’t really accept it,” she replied. “Western thought says we have to fix things. Eastern thought says to accept the emotion, don’t fight it, and it will no longer be detrimental.”

When I started graduate school, I thought I would put my brain injured days behind me. I looked forward to being normal. I realized, as the class progressed, that my unique life experience, though not defining who I am, will always be a part of me. The same is true for my sensory integration issues. Although I collapsed in tears last winter as I said the words “my sensory system is immature,” I have learned to accept this reality.

Back to my drawing. A man dressed in an orange robe stands before me. At my back, a snow-capped mountain disappears into the clouds. The man hands me a cooling vest, walking stick, sun, and heart. He points behind me and says, “Climb.”

Months after my dream comes to life on paper, I stand in the cold, looking at the leaves oscillating in the wind. Realization. The material aspects of all the Dalai Lama gave me fade away; they morph into the more powerful aspects of the healing power within me.

The cooling vest that I wear in the summer to help regulate body temperature represents the life force of water. The walking stick given as an aid on my trek up the mountain turned into my spine, with the reminder that my posture, and therefore my character, should always be kept upright. If I keep upright, then my body will balance itself and my life force will flow evenly. With my feet firmly planted, I will always feel the earth’s energy beneath my feet. I will always have a clear head. The sun is the element of fire, giving me life’s vital energy. And the heart is the wind – as the energy of love is carried from my body and meets with all the energy of beings outside of myself. My heart allows me to dance with all the other souls I meet along my journey.

Now when I look at my drawing, with the red ribbons of anger surrounding me and the Dalai Lama, I know that all the positive can co-exist with the negative because my core personality is self-healing and positive. I acknowledge the difficulties I’ve faced throughout my life and get bogged down in the pain sometimes, but let it go. By saying – I see you – I am not overwhelmed by all the negative things that have happened. By acknowledging the difficulty, life continues, positively.


Mindfulness and sensory integration

Because sensory integration challenges present many obstacles, being cognizant of the following points  can help chart the path for success:

  • The outside world, or environment, can be over stimulating. This excitation of the immature sensory system does not come from anxious thoughts. It is an overreaction of the nervous system. Realizing how the environment can affect you and using coping strategies to deal with sensory overload is secondary to finding a sensory integration therapy that can desensitize, or reprogram, the nervous system.
  • There is a psychological aspect to sensory integration dysfunction: when the world is over stimulating, it literally feels as though it is beating you up. Irritation, anger and defensiveness are generated, but using relaxation lessens the negative aspects. There are times when the negative will outweigh the positive. Acknowledge those feelings.
  • Sensory integration challenges are ameliorated by mindfulness techniques. Some exercises might need to be adapted to fit one’s sensory issues, e.g. using a walking meditation rather than a sitting one, but generally speaking, people with sensory integration challenges are primed for mindfulness. Feeling connected to the environment and paying attention to the surroundings is a large component of being mindful. Learning to turn the negative aspects of over stimulation into a mindful exercise is a good way to remain positive.


The Psychology of Human Strengths: Fundamental Questions and Future Directions for A Positive Psychology

The Relaxation Response

Letting Everything Become Your Teacher

Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 in A, K 201

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