Sensory Processing Issues and Anxiety: What You Need to Know

By Peg Rosen
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At a Glance

  • Kids with sensory processing issues can often feel anxious.

  • Anxiety is most common in kids who experience sensory overload.

  • There are things you can do to help your child with her anxiety and fears.

Bright lights, loud noises, unfamiliar surroundings and situations. All of these can create stress—and sensory overload—for kids with sensory processing issues. It can also create anxiety over situations that lie ahead. That’s especially true if kids aren’t prepared or are worried about unexpected things happening.

Learn more about sensory processing issues and anxiety, and how you can help your child.

Sensory Overload and Anxiety

Most kids have no trouble organizing the information they get from their senses. But kids with sensory processing issues struggle with it.

Some may be oversensitive to sounds, sights, textures, flavors, smells and other sensory input. Others may be undersensitive to things like temperature and noise. Some kids are both oversensitive and undersensitive.

Anxiety is most common in kids who are oversensitive. They can experience sensory overload, which can make basic activities seem like an assault for them. So they may come to dread everyday situations that are stressful, like trips to the mall. Or they may worry about finding themselves in situations they find intolerable.

Here’s what anxiety might look like in a child with sensory processing issues:

  • A child who can’t tolerate the sound of “buzzing” insects may fret about playing kickball outside or panic if a bug (buzzing or not) comes too close.

  • A grade-schooler who’s oversensitive to food flavors and textures may worry she’ll have to eat certain things if she goes to someone’s house for dinner or a sleepover and refuses to go.

  • A teen who’s oversensitive to touch may not be able to tolerate being hugged or kissed. So he stands off by himself at family gatherings, worrying that his most affectionate aunt will spot him and come over.

How the Signs Can Be Confusing

Sensory issues often trigger anxiety and fears. But sometimes parents are concerned about sensory processing issues when their child could actually be struggling with an anxiety disorder. A child may be anxious because of something totally unrelated.

Only an evaluation by a professional can pinpoint what’s going on. Without one, it can be hard to tell what’s behind the anxiety and the behavior it creates.

Take this scenario. A child dreads getting dressed in the morning and regularly bursts into tears or starts yelling. It could be that oversensitivity makes clothes feel terrible on his skin and is causing sensory meltdowns.

But there might be a different reason for his behavior. He might be having tantrums, rather than sensory meltdowns, because he’s anxious about going to school.

Maybe an undiagnosed learning difference is the root cause. He might dread being called on in class because he doesn’t understand the lesson. He might also be feeling so much ongoing stress that he’s developed an anxiety disorder.

One big clue is that sensory processing issues impact a range of senses, in many different situations. It’s rare for signs to be limited to one thing—like getting dressed.

Another clue is timing. A child with sensory issues might dread getting dressed every morning. But a child with anxiety might only dread getting dressed on school days.

How to Find Out What’s Behind the Behavior

An occupational therapist (OT) can evaluate kids for sensory issues, and then work with them on those issues. Your child’s doctor or school may be able to refer you to one.

A child psychologist can evaluate your child for an anxiety disorder. She can also treat him for anxiety, no matter what the cause is.

The psychologist can also check for other conditions that may be present. Kids with ADHD often have sensory issues. They also commonly struggle with anxiety. The same is true for kids with autism spectrum disorder.

How You Can Help

Understanding your child’s sensory processing issues (and what’s causing his anxiety) is key to helping him. Here are some things you can do.

  • Learn what his common triggers are, and tell him you’re aware of them. For example, if your child hates crowds and noise, make a plan to go to the toy store with him when there won’t be a lot of people there. Or let him know that you won’t mind leaving the amusement park early if it becomes too much for him.

  • Take time to prepare. Talk about what to expect before you enter a situation that could be overwhelming. Build in time for some quick jumping jacks or toe touches to help him regulate his sensory system. Pick out comfy clothing together at night so your child won’t wake up worrying about what he might “have” to wear the next day.

  • Brainstorm strategies and encourage self-advocacy. Find a calm time when your child is in a good mood and well regulated to talk about situations that worry him. Discuss things he might to do make them less stressful. For instance, would he like to ask Grandma if she can give him a high five instead of a hug when she sees him? Or talk to her together to explain that there are certain foods he just can’t eat?

There are other ways you can help your child manage both sensory issues and anxiety. Discover strategies you can try at home for sensory processing issues. Get a sense of a typical day in the life of a child with sensory issues. And learn the signs of anxiety at different ages. If you have concerns, be sure to reach out to your child’s doctor.

Key Takeaways

  • Kids with sensory processing issues often have anxiety because everyday life can make them so uncomfortable.

  • Sometimes anxiety disorder can be mistaken for sensory processing issues, and vice versa.

  • If you notice signs of anxiety in your child, it’s important to reach out to your child’s doctor.

About the Author

About the Author

Peg Rosen 

writes for digital and print, including ParentCenter, WebMD, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Keri Wilmot 

is an occupational therapist who works with children of varying ages and abilities in all areas of pediatrics.

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