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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Thankfulness and Sensory Processing

Is there anything more beautiful than a sunset? I am not sure, but butterflies and the ocean waves come close. Is there anything more peaceful than a warm fall day with leaves floating around on a gentle breeze? Then there is the exhilaration of getting to the top of a hill and seeing a valley with a meandering creek below. But then there are the soaring hawks who float on the breeze and waterfalls. Or maybe our joy is greatest when immersed in a hug from someone who cares deeply for us. All of this. Every sensation was meant for our joy. It is how we were created to experience our world.

One of the tragic results of childhood trauma is the need to dissociate from what can never be understood. Children are born to experience life through their senses and we all love their excitement when they see a rainbow or splash in the water. For a child, living is a whole body experience—so is trauma.

I was watching a video which explained sensory processing and the ways our senses learn about and help us navigate in the world. It was such a delightful video that everyone should watch. There are more than five senses!

We take in information in more ways than we think—tactile/touch, body position, balance, sight, sound, taste, and smell. As young children, our entire body is dependent on all this sensory input—for everything. When abuse occurs early in life, all the happy scenes in the video turn to terror and the world becomes a dangerous place. That is really too much for a child’s subconscious to handle.

I now understand that I was hyper-vigilant. I thought the world was dangerous. This was especially true since every incidence of abuse occurred in places where I should have been safe. When this happens, you simply cannot be cautious enough.

I still struggle with relaxing. I read an interesting study and wish I would have bookmarked it (or remembered where I put the information). At the end of yoga there is a time of total relaxation called Shavasana, which I always knew this was difficult for me, but I didn’t know why. In the study, they put monitors on the participants during Shavasana. The bodies of those who reported that they had been abused never fully relaxed. Exactly. I am not even sure if I know what total relaxation would feel like. I am getting better, but I know I am not there.

You see, trauma is in the body. I have said this before, but not fully explained the result. Because it was in my body, it was necessary to remove myself from those body sensations. The trauma was imbedded in that entire sensory list. It involved feeling (skin and touch), seeing, body positions, balance, and movement, smells, tastes. As a child, our senses are intended to help us engage with the world and the people who love us. When that goes wrong, our bodies become the enemy because our senses experienced the unthinkable and wired us to fear every sensation.

I knew my senses didn’t always register correct messages. All the ‘identify the smell’ activities in school were lost on me. I cannot identify any ingredients in food by taste. My balance and spatial sense are almost laughable. My skin reacts to everything and at times, it literally hurts to be touched. All my senses were affected, but sight is maybe the most interesting.

Everyone who is a friend on Facebook knows I love pictures. As I healed, I realized that taking pictures enabled me to enjoy the moment at a later time when I wasn’t ‘out in the world’ trying to navigate. I love my iPhone and how well it captures color. I have become so enamored with color that I just want to capture it and save it forever. I never knew the world was so beautiful.

In the process of dissociating myself from the frightening sensory sensations I experienced as a child, I also dissociated from the beautiful world in which I lived. I sat right outside of experiences and watched my life unfold through a haze. I could enjoy pictures at a later time because my senses were no longer running for shelter.

As I began to heal, I saw the world around me for what I felt like was the first time. I was like a small child discovering the world. There was one moment when I met a roadrunner (my favorite bird) face to face. My cousins had to drag me away! I filled my phone with thousands of pictures—not because I couldn’t enjoy the moment, but because I wanted to save it. This shift was so subtle that I almost missed it.

Part of the healing process was my traveling. I was often challenged by the sensory overload of actually experiencing the world. Without all the traveling, I probably would have hid and only gone to very familiar places. My life didn’t give me that choice. It was a process of sensory integration that was absolutely essential to my healing.

Today, on this first day of November, I am thankful to be able to fully experience the world in which I live. The Colorado sky on a clear sunny day is a thing to behold. There was snow on Pikes Peak yesterday—maybe it had dressed up like a ghost for Halloween. The world is yellow because fall in Colorado is very yellow. And my new puppy, Weber, has the softest rusty-color fur. It is such a peaceful feeling to enjoy the world around me.

On my phone and on my computer, I have thousands of pictures I took as I journeyed from sensory trauma to sensory joy. For the month of November, on my Janyne McConnaughey page, I am going to post a picture a day with a note about how I began to truly experience the world because I no longer needed to sit right outside of my life in order to survive. Since I am a teacher, I will probably also provide some information about sensory processing issues. I really can’t help myself.

Come along with me as I share all the wonderful sights, sounds, feelings, and other sensory experiences God brought my way as part of my healing journey!

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