Sensory issues and anxiety

Anxiety - Children

I am often asked about whether sensory issues are related to or can cause anxiety in children. My understanding of the issue (and the way I explain it in my workshops) goes like this…

    • If you are more sensitive to sensation your environment can (and usually does) cause you stress or anxiety.

Even though the stress may be sensory (like too much noise), the reaction you feel in your body is usually emotional (for example feeling irritable, anxious, upset or angry)

    • When you feel emotional (irritable, anxious, upset or angry etc), your threshold for sensation is usually lower (in other words you can tolerate less sensation).

Think about yourself in a stressful situation (like waiting for hospital results)- how were you tolerating people talking to you, smells, the feel of your clothes…?

  • So because you are less tolerant to sensation (in other words more sensitive to sensation) environmental sensory experiences may cause you further stress  (which leads back to number 1.)

So I see it as a cycle that anxiety leads to sensory sensitivity which leads to anxiety which leads to sensitivity etc.

Anxiety and Sensitivity Cicle


If the issue which causes a sensory stress is repeated (like something that is part of a daily routine like teeth brushing), then the person may be anxious in anticipation of the activity and therefore their sensitivity will be higher, making the experience worse and the anxiety worse the next time!

For this reason, strategies that manage the anxiety (for example deep breathing) can be useful in decreasing the sensory sensitivity also.

Anxiety Strategies
Max and Me, a Story about Sensory Processing

Anything that reduces anxiety (like a visual schedule, changing the environment) will help the person to tolerate the sensory experience better.

Below are a few other ideas for managing sensory issues that cause anxiety.

General parenting strategies can also be really useful in keeping everybody calm in times of sensory overload. I like positive parenting – see below.

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