Understanding the Link: Sensory Processing Disorder and Addiction Dynamics

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is when someone experiences sensory responsiveness, such as hyperresponsiveness or hyperresponsiveness. Symptoms of SPD can cause someone to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to avoid uncomfortable sensory experiences and triggers. Self-medicating with substances can become a toxic habit that eventually forms an addiction or substance use disorder (SUD).

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

Sensory processing disorder (SPD), or sensory integration dysfunction, is a neurological condition where the brain has trouble processing information from the senses. Individuals with SPD may struggle to receive and respond to information, increasing their susceptibility to sensory overload and overstimulation. This brain disorder can affect hearing, touch, or taste or can affect multiple senses. The symptoms of sensory processing disorder (SPD) have also been associated with conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

struggling with sensory processing disorder SPD

Some may be overly sensitive to sensory stimuli, while others may be under-responsive. For example, certain sounds may be overwhelming, bright lights may be unbearable, while others may not be as intensely affected and seek out intense sensory experiences. These are the three patterns of sensory responsiveness with SPD:

  1. Hyperresponsiveness: Heightened response to sensory stimuli.
  2. Hyporesponsiveness: Weakened response to sensory stimuli.
  3. Sensory Seeking: Longing for certain sensory stimuli.

In addition to the reduced or heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli, people with SPD might struggle with simple motor skills and coordination due to sensory dysfunction. Dealing with sensory processing disorder (SPD) can be uncomfortable and often stressful to live with, which can potentially lead to self-medication and addictive behaviors. Individuals with sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) may use and abuse substances to cope with external stimulation and reduce sensory sensitivity.

The Connection Between Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and Addiction

The connection between sensory processing disorder (SPD) and addiction correlates with the sensory challenges faced by those with SPD and how it may influence substance use and addiction. Heightened or reduced senses can pose many challenges for someone with SPD, leading them to seek relief or stimulation elsewhere. Drugs and alcohol can affect our senses by interfering with the way neurons send, receive, and process signals.

Stimulants, like amphetamines and cocaine, can heighten sensory perception, making sounds louder and colors brighter for some. Hallucinogens, like psilocybin mushrooms and LSD, intensify sensory experiences, potentially triggering visual or auditory hallucinations. This heightened sensory can be overwhelming, especially for individuals with sensory processing disorder (SPD) who are hypersensitive to stimuli. Some individuals with SPD who have a reduced response to stimuli may seek out stimulant drugs for an enhanced sensory experience.

Depressants like alcohol or benzodiazepines slow brain activity, which can dull sensory perception. Alcohol can reduce sensitivity to sensory stimuli, which can lead to slurred speech and impaired coordination. While alcohol consumption may provide temporary relief from sensory overload, it can also slow down processing and reaction times. Opioids like oxycodone or morphine block pain signals in the brain to reduce one’s perception of pain. While intended for pain relief, opioid use can also reduce overall sensory awareness, causing users to experience a numbing effect that contributes to opioid addiction. Marijuana use can both heighten, reduce, and calm sensory awareness in individuals with SPD.

alcohol addiction and sensory processing disorder

The impact of drugs and alcohol on sensory processing and awareness can lead people with SPD to seek out substances for both sensory relief and exacerbation. Using substances as a form of self-medication to cope with SPD’s challenges can form an addiction, resulting in a substance use disorder (SUD).

Self-Medication: SPD and the Path to Addiction

Self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to alleviate or enhance symptoms of sensory processing disorder (SPD) is an unhealthy and short-term solution. Individuals with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety commonly use substances for relief, developing into a co-occurring disorder. While some individuals may perceive this as a harmless strategy, it can result in numerous health complications, including addiction and potential overdose.

SPD, Social Anxiety, and Substance Use

Struggling with sensory processing and awareness can pose several social challenges, impacting their social skills and interactions. Social environments might be overstimulating and distressing for individuals with SPD, resorting them to unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance use. Drug and alcohol use as a coping mechanism may help navigate social situations or relieve social anxiety temporarily, but it can become an unhealthy habit. Depending on substances in social environments can further impair someone’s social skills, making it more difficult to socialize with and without alcohol or drugs.

Stress Management and Sensory Processing Challenges

People with sensory problems may experience reduced or magnified sensitivity to sensory inputs, which can evoke stress, anxiety, and overall discomfort in daily life. Living with SPD and dealing with mental health challenges can lead individuals to look for relief from using drugs or alcohol. Sensory processing challenges can contribute to someone engaging in risky or harmful behaviors that alter sensory perception, which may lead to substance use and addictive behaviors.

Holistic Treatment for Individuals Struggling with Substance Use and SPD

Treating individuals with substance use disorder (SUD) and sensory processing disorder (SPD) requires a holistic approach to address the underlying issues associated with addiction and sensory processing challenges. Holistic treatment programs in drug and alcohol rehab treat the whole person, focusing on their physical and mental health, social environment, and lifestyle habits.

addressing sensory challenges and substance abuse in therapy

Behavioral Therapies: CBT and DBT

Drug rehab programs employ specific therapies and counseling that help patients adopt healthy coping mechanisms and interpersonal skills to navigate recovery. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a behavioral therapy used in addiction treatment that allows patients to identify negative thought patterns that may be contributing to addictive behaviors. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is another psychotherapy and a form of CBT that addresses destructive emotions and behaviors. CBT and DBT help individuals implement healthy coping and interpersonal skills to fight addiction triggers in recovery.

Family and Peer Support

Peer support in addiction treatment is an integral aspect of the healing process, providing support and encouragement for individuals struggling with substance abuse. Family therapy is often incorporated into drug rehab programs to help individuals mend broken relationships with family members. Recovery support groups are elemental in addiction rehab, connecting with other individuals recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

Holistic Therapies

Holistic therapies are excellent for treating addiction and sensory processing challenges, helping individuals hone in on every aspect of their being. Undergoing therapeutic practices like yoga, mindfulness, exercise, or art therapy can help patients relax from sensory overload or overstimulation.

An integrated, holistic drug rehab program can help effectively treat individuals struggling with sensory processing disorder (SPD) and addiction. For more information on drug and alcohol rehab facilities in Palm Beach, FL, contact Rock Recovery. Our holistic treatment programs and therapies are tailored to treat each individual’s unique situation and set them on the road to recovery.




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  • National Institue on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2022. Alcohol and the Brain: An Overview.
  • National Library of Medicine, 2002. The Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications for Treatment.
  • WebMD, 2023. Sensory Processing Disorder.