Everyone knows about the five senses: vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. But, there are three other senses which might help to explain everything “weird” about you which has gone previously unexplained.
If you have a history of trauma, sensory sensitivities, neurodiversity, or just have a medical profile which doesn’t fit neatly into any diagnostic boxes, knowing about the vestibular system, proprioception, and interoception might address questions which have gone unanswered your whole life.
The Vestibular System
The vestibular system is found in the inner ear and tells us if we are moving or stationary, in what direction we are moving, and how fast we’re going. It is also responsible for our balance and awareness of gravity.
Since this sense is automatic and subconscious, you typically don’t need to pay much attention to it unless it’s malfunctioning, over-responsive, or under-responsive.
If you have heightened sensitivity to vestibular senses, you may have a fear of movement that involves swinging, spinning, or any activity where your feet are off the floor. You may be more clumsy, have difficulty with slowing down or stopping abruptly, or feel dizzy upon standing.
Psychological or medical conditions may affect your vestibular function. Some research has demonstrated that a history of trauma can affect the vestibular system, causing issues with balance and gross motor coordination (whole body movements like standing, sitting, walking, etc.).
Physical illness may also cause this sensory system to impair balance and coordination. Inner ear infections, widespread inflammation, head injuries, and various other medical conditions can all impact vestibular function.
If you’re an educator, this might explain why some of your most willing students are defiant or terrified when it comes to attempting cartwheels or going down a slide on the playground. If you’re a parent of a child in diapers, he or she might be terrified of being made to lie down on a changing table.
If you have a hyposensitivity to the vestibular sense, you may be constantly in motion and feel anxious having to stay in place for too long.
When the vestibular sense is “off,” feelings of physical dizziness, disorientation, and instability can also cause emotional instability, anxiety, depression, and unexplained fear. This can cause sexual intimacy to be traumatic for some people. Others may constantly startle awake, feeling as if they are falling or losing balance as they transition through sleep cycles.
Many people aren’t aware that their vestibular system is abnormal until they learn about it, and getting the right therapies or treatments can improve mood, health, activity levels, and emotional wellness.
Proprioception is the awareness of where our bodies are relative to the environment around us. The proprioceptive sensory system is in the integration of the musculoskeletal, vestibular, and central nervous systems to coordinate movement, sense where parts of the body are in relation to the surroundings, and to know how much pressure or tension is required for certain movements.
In short, proprioception is involved with every movement you consciously make. If you have an excellent sense of proprioception, you are graceful, coordinated, and rarely have accidents. There is never a spattering of condiment and drink stains on the torso of your shirts. You seamlessly navigate the world around you, learn how to perform new tasks with ease, and rarely stub a toe or break a nail in the process.
But, if you have poor proprioception, you are that person who has to apologize every time you’re in a crowded space because you’re constantly bumping shoulders with people walking in the opposite direction, stepping on feet, stopping abruptly so the people behind you bump into you, or not stopping in time to avoid bumping into the person ahead.
Poor proprioception is a real downer in romantic situations. Leaning in for that first kiss with a new partner might end with an embarrassing teeth clack or head bump. Sensual massage, holding hands, or playing with your lover’s hair results in your partner shrieking in pain because you applied way too much pressure.
Depth perception with poor proprioception can be abysmal, causing activities like driving, playing sports, and walking from point A to point B to be hazardous. Spilling things, dropping things, breaking things because of applying too much pressure, and always getting choked on drinks are other tasks which might be related to poor proprioception. For severe impairment, someone may even have to look at a limb and will it consciously to move before they can perform a simple task.
Heightened proprioception might cause someone to be overly cautious, to only tolerate light touch or touch things lightly (like that person whose grip is like a feather during a handshake), move extra slowly, and to avoid any weight-bearing activities.
For adults, over or underactive proprioception can both affect preferences for sexual intimacy. Those with overactive proprioception may need sex to be extremely slow and gentle and may feel afraid of rigorous sex; on the contrary, those with underactive proprioception may hate light touch and only enjoy sex that is fast-paced and rigorous.
For educators and parents, this may explain why young learners have such a hard time with handwriting, using scissors, and engaging gross motor skills like jumping rope and playing hopscotch. Older students may need to look at their hands and will take much longer to master keyboarding or playing an instrument.
Proprioceptive capacity can be diminished for anyone with illness, underuse of muscles/sedentary lifestyle, traumatic brain injury, alcohol or drug consumption, or various diseases.
Interoception is the body’s sense of what is happening internally. Interoceptive functions help a person to know when he or she is in pain, hungry, full, hot, cold, tired, ill, or needing to use the restroom.
If someone has very sensitive interoception, they may not be able to tolerate hunger and may be intolerant of any amount of pain, feeling completely unable to perform or focus with a mild headache or minor cold. They can be wholly overwhelmed by fatigue and be unable to concentrate or continue working without resting.
If it’s one degree too hot or cold, they need to adjust the temperature. Food may be so overwhelmingly flavorful, sweet, bitter, or textured that they can only eat plain or lightly-seasoned dry foods. They are intensely concerned with meeting their own needs because the internal sense of having those needs is so overwhelming.
On the other hand, those with low interoception may not notice when they are hungry, or even if they are so hungry or thirsty that they are dehydrated or shaking with low blood sugar. They may frequently experience accidents because they can’t tell when their bladder is full.
Sometimes, people with extremely poor interoception will eat until they throw up or go hungry until they faint. They might suffer from severe insomnia because they’re unable to feel sleepy. Often, people with low interoception need intensely-flavored foods and can eat incredibly spicy dishes. Their pain tolerance can be so high that they walk around for weeks on a broken bone without noticing they are injured.
For adults, having low or high interoception can cause difficulties with sexual intimacy. High interoception may make arousal so intense that it disrupts the quality of life for that individual and his or her partner. Low interoception may make it difficult to even feel arousal. Drugs and alcohol affect those with high interoception intensely, but those with low interoception are at an increased risk of alcohol poisoning or overdose because they may not feel that they are intoxicated until it’s too late.
For all individuals, having low or high interoception can disrupt quality of life. Even if one is not consciously aware of signals like a growling stomach, headache, racing heart, intoxication, nausea, full bladder, or arousal, the body is still affected to an uncomfortable, confusing, and often-embarrassing end.
These people know they have a need, but can’t identify what it is. This may lead to overeating, drug-seeking behaviors, working to exhaustion, or thrill-seeking. On the other hand, being hyperaware of those sensations may cause distress in someone who feels so intensely that their anxiety intensifies to panic and consummate fear until their needs are met.
Are You Affected by Too Much or Too Little of The Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Senses?
Sensory profiles change with age, lifestyle, activity levels, health, and mental health. Trauma, either acute or complex/prolonged, can also cause sensory perception to be overwhelming or underwhelming. Too much of certain stimuli may cause a person to withdraw and isolate in fear of experiencing such overwhelming feelings. The intensity can be as emergent as extreme pain or being on fire.
Those with hypersensitivities are often regarded by friend, partners, teachers, and medical practitioners as hypochondriacs and exaggerators. In fact, schoolyard bullies, disgruntled co-workers, or selfish partners may see hypersensitivity as a way to torture and abuse someone while maintaining plausible deniability.
For the little boy who can’t handle having his ears touched, it becomes a game for his peers to touch his ears to the point of meltdown. Adults can often “punish” those they perceive as weak by exploiting those sensory triggers, adjusting the thermostat, wearing strong cologne/perfume, or making passive-aggressive comments in email about those with poor work ethics who feel entitled to extra bathroom breaks or needing snacks more frequently.
Those with hyposensitivities are often regarded by loved ones, teachers, and co-workers as incredibly “tough.” They are praised for working through breaks and late hours without a food or bathroom break, showing up to work with extreme illness, or tolerating severe injuries. These people are often exploited or abused when work, emotional labor, or unrealistic expectations are piled on them.
All people with sensory processing or integration issues experience emotional, physical, and social consequences as a result of their atypical sensory profiles. It’s important to talk to your mental and physical health care providers about sensory issues and to advocate for yourself if you are experiencing shame, guilt, fear, anxiety, depression, isolation, or confusion, or if your symptoms are worsening.
A medical or neuropsychiatric evaluation might help to identify sensory processing disorder, autism spectrum diagnoses, neurological conditions, chronic illness, trauma spectrum disorders, or other conditions that are easier to manage with the proper self-knowledge and therapeutic treatments.
Also, do your research and take control of what you can. Practice mindfulness and body awareness, get lots of exercise, get into a routine with scheduled bathroom and food breaks and pre-portioned food, have a friend monitor your alcohol consumption, buy a weighted blanket, wear compression garments under your clothes, and manage your sensory input with a sensory diet. Be candid with your trusted friends, co-workers, and others in your life about your sensory needs and ask them to help you by keeping your needs in focus during public events.
Editor’s note: this article is written in collaboration with Jo Richardson, to supplement her article about raising autistic children. To read more, click here.
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