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OCD and the Sensory System



This picture is actually more of a test than a clip art image–though I bought it from a clip art site. If you immediately get twitchy over the mismatching pin colors and the lack of a brown pin…you might have OCD. This made my brain scream. I wanted to shake someone over the horror of it.

But maybe that’s just me.

But why is there no brown pin??? And why mix them up?


If they’d done them all blue pins, that would have been okay.

Okay. Fine. I’m done.

This post might be geared more to helping those with OCD, but I think many people are actually “a little OCD” so please read on if you’re curious.

I don’t think anyone would deny there is a sensory component to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. And the term “OCD-like” often comes up in discussions on symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder (also known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction–the older term.) I say I have both OCD and SPD, but I’ve often wondered if SPD morphs into symptoms of OCD if untreated. I took a test to find out the degree of my SPD when my kids were taking the kids’ version for theirs, and their therapists said they’d never seen it so severe in an adult. It explained why my kids had it so bad at the time–though years of therapy smoothed out the edges a lot for them. My husband on the other hand tested moderate in almost every area. He was the cool customer to my “screams when looked at too forcefully.”

If you have OCD and you’re curious how you’d test out, this site has a test that can give you some idea on where you’d overlap with SPD: Adolescent and Adult SPD Checklist.

So, what does this matter? Is that what you’re wondering?

Because, grasshopper, if you find another inroad to treating your symptoms…like taking spikes off the sensory component, the dark thoughts might be a bit easier to manage. Knowing my limits and needs has helped me anticipate what will make my OCD worse and what might make it better.

A quick overview of sensory terms–from off the top of my head in layman’s terms–so I apologize to any occupational therapists who read this and want to weep at me boiling it down and butchering it. One component of SPD is how you respond to sensory stimuli. In general, if you’re reacting in an extreme way toward a particular sensory input, you’re considered either sensory-seeking or sensory-aversive (or sensory-avoiding or sensory-sensitive.) There are seven types of sensory input: visual, tactile (touch), auditory (hearing), oral, olfactory (smell), proprioceptive (your awareness to your body’s place in space), and vestibular (motion like swinging.) You can be a mixed bag of sensory-seeking and sensory-aversive. Some examples:


sensory-seeking: You’re drawn to bright colors, bright lights, enjoys 3D movies, etc. (I’m closer to sensory-seeking on this.)

sensory-aversive: You prefer dark environments. Places like Vegas make you nauseous. Loud, cluttered, crowded environments make you uncomfortable.


sensory-seeking: You love to touch everything…flowers, clothing, the grass under your feet–the sand on a beach. You like being tickled. You love to feel the rain on your skin.

sensory-aversive: Even the seams in socks bother you. You prefer to be the one to touch others rather than have them touch you. If you touch something messy–you must wash your hands right away.  (This is me.)


sensory-seeking: You have the radio playing even when you’re alone. You love movie theaters–the louder the better. Concerts and crowds are good by you.

sensory-aversive: You wear headphones just to shut out everything. Crowded environments make you want to scream inside. You watch TV with the subtitles on. (This is totally me.)


sensory-seeking: You like spicy foods and don’t mind various textures. You like both extremes of temperatures like popsicles and hot cocoa. You frequently bite your lips or the inside of your cheek. (This is me.)

sensory-aversive: You prefer bland food and some textures of foods make you yag (like applesauce or pears.) You gag easily.


sensory-seeking: You love strong scents like gardenias or curry. You wear perfume and seek out the perfect scent of lotion. (Me.) (Other than I’m allergic to a lot of scents and avoid them now–le sigh.)

sensory-aversive: Food courts make you sick due to all the scents and you avoid soap or lotion stores or the perfume counters. You won’t eat some foods because they smell too strong.

Proprioceptive (your overall body awareness):

sensory-seeking: You enjoy being hugged. You like snug clothing that gives you a lot of feedback on your body’s edges. You love to sleep under multiple blankets. You crack your knuckles and wring your hands. (Me, but I don’t like hugs…except from my husband and then I seek him out for hugs frequently.)

sensory-aversive: You have a big social bubble. You prefer loose clothing.

Vestibular (motion):

sensory-seeking: You love roller-coasters. Even when you’re sitting–you’re tapping your hands and bouncing your foot. You love swinging on swings and could do it for hours. (Me.)

sensory-aversive: You get car sick. You hate being beside someone jittery. You prefer a lounge chair to a porch swing.


So, that’s a very bland and blanket approach to a very complex subject but it pertains to OCD in that if you can spot where you fall in those sensory systems, you can limit the impact of your environment on your stress levels. Typically you’ll also find coping mechanisms in there. For example, when I was a teenager, I used to go swing on the swings in a nearby park to calm down. I still use a hammock for my visualization and meditation. Another example: I have to sleep with blankets on and I like to wear a jacket covering my arms–both soothe me and I sleep and function better. I also know that I can’t handle crowds partly because of the noise. I’m extremely sensitive to noise. I’m not sure if it’s because of the “voices” in my head, but I prefer the quiet. I respond well to holistic approaches like massages due to my vestibular sensory-seeking and aromatherapy due to my olfactory sensory-seeking.

Beyond just avoiding and seeking soothing sensory stimuli, there are therapies/approaches for SPD that might benefit someone with OCD. For example, I did Listening Therapy for a while where I listened to classical music pitched at specific frequencies. Sometimes it soothed me and then, sometimes, we’d miss the mark and the choice we’d pick would stress me out and make me twitchy. So, there are options such as this therapy (which you’d want to discuss with an occupational therapist well-versed in it.) It’ll give you something to Google at the very least.

So, thoughts? Where do you fall in the different sensory stimuli?

**I’m an amateur and you want a Yoda or a pro to give you advice…please seek a professional if you or someone you know needs help. This is my experience with these conditions–not medical advice.**

**Also “yag” was not a typo for “gag”–it’s the fancy technical term.**

9 Responses so far.

  1. Kristy says:

    how do I score my test? (the link for the SPD checklist)

    • You know, I don’t know. I couldn’t find a site with a scoreable test. I could swear that’s the same test I took on paper…or close to it. I can take the test myself and tell you what I score… I’ll do that.

    • In Sensory Modulation: 138 (which I know is pretty bad.)
      In Discrimination: 68
      In Motor Skills: 34 (which I believe is my only within norm category)
      Social/Emotional: 57
      Internal Regulation: 20 (my heart rate gets me here.)

      If this is Kristy O, I got my original test from your son’s OT. It’s useful for the parents to take them in my opinion. I’d imagine you could get one from them that’ll pinpoint your problem areas. You should con your husband into taking it too.

  2. I never thought too much about the connection between my sensory issues and my OCD and no doctor has ever mentioned it. Hmm…

    Visual “textures” are huge for me. There are certain things that I simply cannot look at – it’s the visual equivalent of a fingernails on a chalkboard and it makes me physically uncomfortable. Like this time of year those decorative gourds or weirdly textured pumpkin things – *shudders* – I just can’t stand it. Oh, and those lotus seed pod things they put in fall bouquets…they’re AWFUL! Just the thought of it makes me want to crawl the walls.

    I think the worst for me though is the auditory component. I’m hyper sensitive to sounds- volume levels that are quite ordinary for others often seem deafening to me and my startle response to noise is crazy sensitive to the point where it’s almost painful to experience. Also, I’ve noticed that the more stressed I am the less tolerance I have for excess noise in my environment. Hubs knows that I’m truly on the edge when I switch the television off completely because I can’t even handle the high pitched hum of the tv running even if the volume itself is muted. If things are really bad I will go hide in my bedroom where the sensory “noise” is at a minimum.

    • Unfortunately most doctors still don’t recognize SPD as a thing. And it’s probable I wouldn’t have recognized the connection if I didn’t have so many years under my belt with my kids working on their sensory problems. I have to say as we’ve worked on B’s sensory problems it’s lessened the severity of her OCD.

      Those lotus seed pods freak me out too! And I have similar issues with auditory. I prefer subtitles to actual volume.

  3. Oh, wow! I’d never really heard of SPD before. So fascinating. I took the test and there were so many that I was like, “OHMYGOODNESS YES”. Definitely a lot of overlapping right there.

    My “scores” were

    Really, really telling. This helps me so much. Thank you! Although I’m aware of most of these things, there were some that were so subtle, they were eye-opening to see them here – like rocking a chair on two legs, which I need to do all the time. Things like that.

    • That’s really interesting to see how comparable our scores are. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? –The overlap between how much we tolerate the world and how we handle everything else. Since discovering that, I’ve learned not to fault myself for all the little ways I cope or my avoidance of aversions. I hadn’t noticed before how much I chew my lip or the inside of my cheek until writing this post. I do it constantly.

      • Right? I just think that means we’re totally awesome together. Or something. Yeah. I’ll go with that.

        But seriously, yes. Having this kind of knowledge is powerful. It’s a way to see how you simply like or dislike things and how you interact with your surroundings, which isn’t something you have to flog yourself over.

        • It is powerful. Knowing that sleeping with three blankets on can make up for going to a crowded event…that’s nearly magical. And knowing that it’s not your fault that you want to leave a crowded room the moment you enter…that’s freeing. It’s like a cheatsheet to you. I was hoping this would help other people. 😀

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