Is there a link between Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety?

Does your child have Sensory Processing Disorder and anxiety? Have you ever wondered why?

[To listen to the Podcast episode on this topic click here]

My initial therapy sessions with parents often start out the same. I can almost guess what parents are going to say before they say it.

“He’s just so sensitive.”
“He’s always been a cautious kid.”
“Everything bothers him, even his clothes.”
“We have to lie down with her at night.”
“She is such a picky eater. Always has been.”
“She is terrified something bad is going to happen.”

Do you know there is a link between Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety? It is not a coincidence that kids with SPD often have anxiety.


I start to ask the usual questions.

Does he refuse to wear jeans?

Does she hate socks?

“Yes! Yes! How did you know?”

I know because I have had this conversation a thousand times before. I know because they are describing a sensitive child. A child who is sensitive to the core, both inside and out.

Time and time again parents come to therapy for anxiety and walk in with a child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

Anxious kids are sensitive kids inside and out. It is not surprising then that a good portion of those anxious kids have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) as well. Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety go hand in hand.

SPD is often missed. Anxiety is not. That is why I am often the initial introduction to the letters SPD and not an Occupational Therapist.

The connection between Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety

Parents struggle. Is it the SPD causing the anxiety? Feeling your world so deeply is sure to make anyone feel overwhelmed and anxious. Is it two separate issues? Who do they see? A Child Therapist? An Occupational Therapist?

Unfortunately, the answers are a bit blurred. Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety are simpatico. They are best buddies. They like to hang out and wreak havoc together. Not every child with Anxiety has SPD and not every child with SPD has anxiety, but a large proportion do.

SPD can cause a child to feel overwhelmed. They might have anxiety about situations that trigger their sensitivities, like crowds or new foods. They might wake up in a rage because they have to put on clothes. They might worry about fire drills because they are so loud.

But unfortunately, those same children might meet SPD’s cousin, anxiety. They might worry about bad guys. They might be consumed with their health. They might be paralyzed with fear around peers. They might strive to be so perfect, that they feel they can’t do anything right.

How to help kids with both Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety

These kids need help in both directions. They are equally important and they are equally destructive. Parents need support on how to navigate through the maze of sensory meltdowns, as well as how to help empower their children to face their anxieties.

Kids need help understanding their sensory “super powers” as well as how to boss back their anxiety bully.

The good news is both can get better. Much better. I know this professionally and I know this personally. I have watched kids develop an understanding of their own sensory needs. And I have watched kids crush their anxiety. Both are doable.

I have had shoes chucked at my head. I have spent hundreds of dollars on clothes that have never been worn. I have had moments when I just gave up. Like the time I brought my child to a wedding wearing a casual cotton dress and flip flops. An SPD uniform of sorts.

We had many anxiety rules at my house. The highway was off limits. Elevators, escalator and closed doors were a no-no. A small bit of food had to be left on the plate. We conquered these fears. We crushed these rules.

There is help

With help and support, these children can blossom. My oldest no longer chucks shoes at my head (bonus). But, I still see piles of rejected clothes on her closet floor every morning. She has learned to be more in tune with her skin. With all her sensitivities. She no longer takes her struggles out on the rest of us.

We go on highways. We use elevators and escalators. We face fears, we don’t avoid them anymore.

SPD and anxiety can bring any family to their knees. But with help, support and determination things can get better. Once small victory at a time.

Do you have a child with Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety? What tips do you have for other parents going through the same thing?

Do you know a family with a child with both Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety? Share this article with them.

[To listen to the Podcast episode on this topic click here]

More Anxiety Articles

Additional Support

If you need additional support with anxiety, take a parenting e-course to learn how to teach your child to crush anxiety. Taught by a child therapist, you will be given all the skills to help your child fight back.





OTHER ARTICLES:  10 Signs of an Anxious Toddler

9 responses to “The Link Between Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety”

  1. Catherine Bates says:

    One way that this sort of anxiety can manifest itself is through Selective Mutism, where a child wants to speak, but through anxiety their throat closes up & the words won’t come out. Sadly, not many people, parents or practitioners, have ever heard of it. There needs to be a lot more awareness of the condition.

  2. Hi, I just wanted to say thanks for the article, mainly because I really didn’t know that SPD and Anxiety went hand-in-hand, although I should have! My oldest (now 12) was diagnosed with SPD before he turned 3. After 9 months of occupational therapy, he was amazingly different. He could actually take baths and go outside and sit in a shopping cart without freaking out! He continued to grow and mature and we’ve gotten so used to the things he’s sensitive to, that we don’t think or talk about it much. This article was like a light bulb going off in my head. He is SOOO anxious and it drives me nuts! I feel like I am constantly trying to talk him “off the ledge.” Maybe this will give me more patience to realize where it is stemming from. I will be doing more research on this. Thanks!

  3. Megan says:

    Hi – My 5 year old son has been suffering from SPD since he was at least 3 and I have taken him to two psychologists and an occupational therapist (whom he saw weekly for a full year). None of them ever “treated” him as having a sensory processing disorder. The therapist referred us to an OT, but the OT said it was “behavioral.” It started with his sneakers – the laces were too tight/loose and he felt really uncomfortable, would cry, and refused to wear shoes with laces. He still has only one pair of shoes that he will wear and he is growing out of them. I have purchased about 6 pairs (without laces) hoping that one pair would work, but they have not. In addition, he has issues with the car seat (he’s in a booster seat). There was a period of time where we could not take him in the car at all because the seat belt didn’t “feel right.” He was (and still is) anxious about going in the car and often doesn’t want to go out because of it. He screams and cries and I can tell he is so frustrated and is suffering. There was a period where he got a little better because we found ways to “distract” him in the car, but that only lasted so long. Now he will not ride in the car without pulling his pants completely down and his underpants up really high to his chest. He has to hold them up while we drive in order not to “feel bad.” He constantly asks me when this is going to stop and when he can just feel “normal.” During the car ride he is usually in angst, crying and feeling frustrated. He is now beginning to have issues with his clothing (pants and underpants). I desperately need to find the right therapist and/or OT to help my son and I don’t know where to turn. Any suggestions are much appreciated.

    • Natasha Daniels says:

      I wonder why the OT thought it was behavioral? I would seek out a second opinion from another OT.

    • Erin says:

      I can relate with the car seat. What worked for us was some sort of food distraction as he was getting buckled in and settled. I was worried we’d be giving him something forever but we don’t. Sometimes it was his gummy vitamins, sometimes a snack, or sometimes when desperate a box of juice. We called it a trick and he learned to ask for a trick or have one with him for when he needed it. We did that for quite some time and then there just became a day he didn’t need it. We’d also do this trick when getting dressed. It was almost like the focusing on something pleasant helped him overcome the awful sensations. I would also let him when it was terrible look at a game on my phone just to get him all buckled in and going. Time and maturity helped, we did the brushing technique for a while and I really upped the amount of heavy work he had in his life…we did lots of swimming, gymnastics class etc. All helped. What made it worse was rushing or me thinking it was behavioral. When I really slowed down and approached it with patience and understanding that helped too. I have not found a magic pair of pants but we do absolutely love under armour fitted shirts. Totally eliminated all shirt issues. Best of luck to you!

  4. Erin says:

    My son – like your sons and daughters didn’t like loud malls, getting his hair washed, putting his head underwater in a pool (until he was 5) or the smell and texture of certain foods. That was just a little heads up when he was young that it might be a bumpy ride. Then the tags rubbing and not wanting to wear tie shoes or the change in energy with too many kids in a classroom showed up along with so many other little quirks that we have lived through. He loved the active sports as a kid and was a really fun little guy with tons of energy. He is not ADHD but through my study and knowing as his mom, I practically convinced his pediatrician he was dealing with sensory issue disorder and more specific he was a sensory seeker. With her diagnosis, he (we) went to an occupational therapist from the time he was 3 until he was in 4th grade at least once or twice a month.
    I am a journalist, I researched and wrote articles that were published on the subject and would bring them to all his teachers to help support what might be going on in a classroom. I went back to school after my BA to get my early childhood education and wanted to help other children and families with the same struggles. And Yes, it has brought us to our knees.
    In fourth grade he was “tested” and they found nothing. He had adapted, integrated… things looked hopeful.
    However, he still had a tactile thing where he had to touch everyone and everything and chew on water bottle caps and he couldn’t stand to touch anything dirty.
    The list goes on.
    He replaced one thing for another year after year.
    But there is hope for these young kids. They do integrate. My son not only went under water by 5 but took swim classes until he made the swim team in 5th grade which he thrived on for more than 2 years. He competed in swim meets and leaned that he was really good at breaststroke. He has tried basketball, tag football and managed to make new friends and almost graduate 8th grade next week! It is a journey! It is a challenge to have a child with sensory processing issue. It is tough and inconvenient and painful at times. But they adapt. They can thrive, and they can do great things academically if the teacher has heart and patience and understanding to help them (and you).
    For all of you moms who feel alone, I felt that way too. It’s like you have to find your tribe and have others share their stories that resonate for you to realize yes, there is a huge population – 1 in 4 in fact who have sensory processing issues. Yet it is not recognized as a special need and not all teachers (yes, I became one!!) recognize why they keep tapping on the desk or what looks like misbehavior doing certain things that look like disruptions…
    It’s been a journey. But he will go to high school this August and graduate in 2022 and go off to college as we hope and pray. It is a journey that we can’t predict but he is healthy, unique and accomplishing things all the time. And he is smart! We just have to learn more, support them and keep in communications with their teacher and keep cheering them on!

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