Posted by: bipolarmystic | January 14, 2013

Sensory Integration Dysfunction and Bipolar

I’ve written about sensory overload and some strategies to minimize it before, in the context of intuitive empathy.  I personally find it helpful and intriguing to look at bipolar through as many lenses as possible.  One of these lenses in the concept of sensory integration dysfunction and related concepts such as sensory defensiveness.  According to Wikipedia sensory integration dysfunction is: a hypothesized dysfunction of the vestibular system. It is characterized by increased or decreased sensitivity to stimuli.  A better definition can be found on the Wikipedia page for sensory processing disorder: this problem is a neurological disorder causing difficulties with taking in, processing, and responding to sensory information about the environment and from within one’s own body (visual, auditory, tactile, olfaction, gustatory, vestibular, and proprioception).  Sensory Integration dysfunction is not found in the holy bible of the mental health system, the DSM-V.  It does not seem to be well understood and the Wikipedia article on the “disorder” is very short.

In trolling the web for information about sensory dysfunction and bipolar disorder, I did come across a good deal of anecdotal evidence that sensory issues can be a real problem for a number of bipolar folks.  In the past I have written about how over stimulation seems to lead to hypomania for me and that my solution was to shut myself in a completely quiet, dark room.  Although I did not know about sensory dysfunction during past episodes, I recognized that further stimulation would only cause me to become more manic.  It was difficult for me to engage in sensory deprivation as I did because I had very strong urges and almost physical sensations in my body that I needed to be doing more.  At my most manic, I could not sit and write something down because it literally felt painful in my body.  Other blogs that have written about this issue agree that often mania is precipitated and worsened by inappropriately high levels of stimulation seeking behavior.

In a depressed state, over stimulation seems to happen quickly leading to high levels of irritation and a greater feeling of being overwhelmed.  This happens to me.  In particular I suffer from auditory and visual sensory defensiveness, or the inability to process auditory and visual information at the same speed and accuracy as neurotypicals.  Further, I become quickly overwhelmed and irritable when faced with “too much” visual and auditory information.  When I am depressed noises become more physically painful to me and I can handle even less stimulation.  Even on days I feel pretty stable it is fairly normal for me to wear earplugs around the house, especially if my husband and daughter are around.  Sounds like the ticking of an analog clock are unbearable for me at night time and I always wear ear plugs.  Even though I suffer from this extreme auditory sensitivity, I do not process sounds very well, particularly voices speaking to me.  I believe I hear what is said (if I don’t have ear plugs in lol) but I am constantly asking my husband “what?” and always have, since we met when I was eighteen.

woman covering earsThe book Bipolar Disorders: A Guide to Helping Children and Adolescents argues that “Although it’s rarely addressed in the medical literature, extreme auditory sensitivity is actually fairly common in people with bipolar disorders. These patients will describe many normal sounds as affecting them like fingernails scraping a blackboard…”  The book recommends trying Auditory Integration Therapy for children.  This therapy involves listening to specially filtered and modulated music.  When I spoke with my normally open minded therapist about my sensory difficulties, she seemed to believe that it’s too late to help a brain integrate it’s senses properly once you reach adulthood.  The book goes on to state that: “sensory integration difficulties seem to be more common in people with bipolar disorders than the literature would indicate. These can include over- or undersensitivity to smell, taste, texture, types of touch, and even the forces of gravity.”

The book also reinforces that sensory issues often change depending on the current stage of the bipolar cycle.  It reads: “In bipolar disorders, sensory disturbances can be cyclical. A person in a manic phase may find that she has a heightened response to certain types of sensation. This increased sensitivity may be perceived as pleasurable, but in some cases it can be painful. Bipolar children seem to be especially sensitive to sensory input when they are in a depressed-irritable state, sometimes to the point of being unable to wear their usual clothes (jeans and socks are suddenly too scratchy), eat their regular diet (everything smells gross, tastes weird, and makes them feel like retching), or handle a normal level of sensory input (the sounds and smells of school or the shopping mall become rapidly overwhelming).”

I work in a library with the public and have learned to focus my attention very closely when patrons speak to me.  Often I will lean across the desk towards them with my head turned slightly to the side so I don’t have to look at faces.  I was diagnosed with PTSD as a teen based on my depression and dislike of looking at faces.  However, I think this is a sensory filtering issue.  Scientific studies have shown that bipolar folks don’t process visual and auditory information as well as neurotypicals.  So I filter out faces, which seem to be uncomfortably stimulating, especially when I am trying to process other information.  In this way I am usually quite successful in hearing what the patron has to say.  But I don’t always understand it.  I was once asked about antique books and I thought the patron meant our heritage collection of old books rather than books on antiques.  Everyone has duh! moments but I wonder if I might have a few more.

The study linked above explores visual processing deficits found in bipolar patients as compared to those suffering from schizophrenia   Scientists are beginning to think that schizophrenia and bipolar are more closely linked than previously thought since both populations suffer from similar levels of visual processing deficits “caused by” the same electrical activity in the same regions of the brain.  I would argue that links are likely to be discovered between ADHD, autism and bipolar as well.  All of these disorders seem to have a strong sensory component.  I am considering buying a weighted blanket, which has helped some folks with bipolar get a good night’s sleep.  It has been known for quiet a while that pressure seems to soothe the inflamed nervous system, usually in the context of autism.


  1. You dont know how awesome it is for me to see people living with bipolar and knowing and whats most important not caring. Not acting like its the end of everything that ever was lol. Pvery beautiful sight for someone in my situation. I dont have it but most of my family dies and they cant accept it. As far as I can tell they think it means they are evil and bad people if they have it. They have almost every symptom and warning sign of bipolar disorder but I try not to tell them about those so when they are out in public others.can notice them and understand theyre dealing with someone.with a disorder not some bad person or something. But I love all of you who write online about living with bipolar and dont care! Thank you very much

  2. i’m quessing Binocular Vision Disorder is tied up with bipolar, sensory processing or sensory modulation. both my brothers are bipolar, both have visual problems, I do not suffer bipolar and have perfect vision and acuity.. I have a 12 yr old who appears like the “perfect kid” and i have an 11 yr old who has been dx with apraxia of speech, sensory modulation disorder(by OT) adhd (by school) and binocular vision disorder (by VTOD/eye doc) and bipolar (from qeeg, neuro psychologist and me) in SC medical doctor’s have found anything wrong with my child other then adhd, all the problems have been found by non medical doctor’s. musc psychariast “don’t like to tell a child they have bipolar” i honesty don’t think they have ever dx a child with bipolar in SC, my child has been treated like crap in school for being unable to do their work, F 2 yrs in a row in special ed, doesn’t meet grade level, even marched her in a circle for not paying attenion. medical doctor’s including psychariast just look the other way and pass out antidepressants with no dx other then anxiety and oh no couldn’t be ocd. Binocular Vision Disorder only occurs in autism, adhd, bipolar and schizo. she had meltdowns like autism (caused from sensory modulation) but has intent to be social so she does not have autism. she has early onset bipolar just like my younger brother. he has 2 kid’s, 10 yrs apart, 2 different mothers, both have aspergers with IQ’s off the charts. go figure. my father has a bullet through his head (apparently he did that) he was the PERFECT dad but appears to have an invisible illness that nobody noticed, he was very sucessful and a wonderful man. i only remember meeting his dad one time and oh yes at 9 yrs old i knew something was wrong with him, he told me i couldn’t come to work with him b/c “he was sick”, i thought he meant he was dying so his lady friend explained not that kinda sick and he was getting help. i mentioned to him i thought something was wrong with my then toddler brother (he threw tantrums and i could hear something neurological in his crying) and i thought something was wrong with my older brother b/c he was too smart. i can assure you the high intelligence associated with aspergers stems from bipolar and i can assure you the low functioning autism also stems from bipolar.

  3. Thank you so very much. I knew something was going on and I am a very persistent individual. You have in one article gave a name to and explained everything that I have been experiencing. I appreciate you!!!!

  4. 11 yr old daughter has Binocular Vision Difficulties and Auditory Processing Disorder. she has bipolar/ocd and adhd. sensory processing is involved with bipolar for sure. she also had apraxia of speech.

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