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Parents of special needs kids are no different than any other parents. They want the best for their children. They want them to have fulfilling lives full of positive and meaningful experiences. They want their kids to succeed. They want their kids to thrive. And a thriving child is an active child, one that’s exposed to the everyday environments and activities that surround them. The problem for parents of special needs children with sensory processing issues is that sharing everyday activities outside the home – like shopping, eating at a restaurant, and attending public events – can sometimes be a monumental challenge. That’s because taking their children out always comes with the possibility of a dreaded meltdown brought on by sensory overload.

You don’t have to have a special needs child to know about sensory overload – or what you might think is sensory overload. Many people believe that it’s the same thing as a temper tantrum. This is incorrect. A temper tantrum is an outburst that occurs when a child wants something and he or she isn’t getting it, like that candy bar on the rack next to the checkout at the market, or maybe just a parent’s attention. Sensory overload is something entirely different and that requires a totally different response. While instances of sensory overload can occur to almost anyone, almost anywhere, they are likely to happen more often with special needs children, especially those with autism, ADHD, and any of a number of other disorders and conditions.

Having a clear understanding of just exactly what sensory overload is – and how it affects special needs children – is crucial to the lessening the frequency and severity of sensory overload triggered meltdowns in public. That’s what this guide is all about.

What is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload is a condition that results from the overstimulation of one or more of an individual’s five senses caused or triggered by certain elements in his or her surrounding environment. Specific examples of sensory overload triggers include:

  • Hearing: noises (talking, yelling, music, street noise, etc.) oftentimes coming from more than one source, such as a crowded room of people talking at the same time, or music played loudly in combination with people talking; loud, concussive noises coming from a single source.
  • Sight: bright lights (spotlights, lamps, or movie, TV or computer screens); pulsating, strobing or rapidly-changing light sources; cluttered or crowded spaces; environments with a great deal of movement.
  • Touch: being touched by an animal or other person, or even an inanimate object; particular types of fabric against the skin or simply wearing clothing.
  • Taste: specific types of food, such as spicy foods or foods prepared in an objectionable way.
  • Smell: strong or unfamiliar aromas (foods, perfumes or colognes, etc.)
  • Vestibular issues: motion sickness; dizziness; loss of balance.

In many cases, sensory overload results from a combination of the overstimulation of two or more senses at the same time.

Just about anyone can experience a sensory overload event (aka meltdown) given the right environment and circumstances. However, sensory processing issues – which can lead to sensory overload – are often a feature or component of any one of a number of other disorders, including:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Echolalia
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Synesthesia
  • Tourette syndrome

Sensory processing issues are most commonly associated with neuro-developmental conditions that fall under the heading of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Generally speaking, sensory overload issues are the inevitable result of an ever-changing and quickening modern world full of sights and sounds purposely designed to constantly assault the senses. Most people are able to adjust and cope with their busier, more congested lives. But for those with sensory processing issues, it’s often all too much. The result? Sensory overload.

Sensory Processing Disorder

The term “sensory overload” is often found in studies and articles that additionally include the term “sensory processing disorder.” Sensory processing disorder, or SPD, can be described as multisensory integration malfunction where the individual is unable to process sensory inputs in a way that allows for an appropriate response. Whether SPD is simply a component of other disorders or an actual disorder distinct in itself – or both – remains open to debate. Nevertheless, sensory overload certainly results from some form of misprocessing of sensory information in the brain, the definition of SPD.

Tantrums, Temper Tantrums, Meltdowns, Sensory Meltdowns, Sensory Overload…

Confused? That’s not surprising. There’s a lot here to be confused about. These terms are often used incorrectly to mean the same thing or describe similar behaviors. And the truth is that tantrums and meltdowns often appear to the average onlooker to be the same. They are, however, different. Here’s how:

  • Tantrums:
    Tantrums (or temper tantrums) are outbursts, mostly by young children, that occur in an attempt to force someone to pay attention to the person throwing the tantrum. Tantrums happen for an infinite number of reasons. For example, they can occur when a child doesn’t get a toy that he or she wants, or when the child feels that his/her parent is paying more attention or showing preference to another sibling. Tantrums are what we’ve all witnessed a hundred times in stores and restaurants, on the street and at playgrounds.

  • Meltdowns:
    A meltdown (or sensory meltdown) is a reaction to sensory overload, which itself is the result of an inability to properly process all of the inputs of the senses at a given time. The person suffering a meltdown has no control over what his/her body and mind are doing during the meltdown. Meltdowns can happen to almost anyone with sensory overload issues: young children, pre-teens, teens, and adults.

    A meltdown is not a reaction to a failure to get attention. In fact, more attention may be the worst thing that a person can give someone in the midst of a meltdown. A meltdown is not a bad behavioral problem. It’s not really a behavioral issue at all. And maybe the single most important thing to remember is that a meltdown is not the fault of the person having it

What Does Sensory Overload Look Like?

To the untrained eye, a sensory overload event or meltdown can look an awful lot like a common run-of-the-mill temper tantrum. There’s likely to be any number of things happening during a meltdown, including yelling, screaming, biting, kicking, crying, and lashing out. Like tantrums, a person having a meltdown appears to be out of control. The difference is that the person suffering a meltdown is actually out of control, they’re not just acting out.

What Does Sensory Overload Feel Like?

What a meltdown feels like varies significantly from person to person. It’s also often very difficult for those that suffer from sensory overload to describe the experience. Words that have been used to describe what it’s like include: intense feelings of fear, panic, desperation, anger, sadness, los of ability to think, “spinning out of control,” “flipping a switch,” “someone taking over my body,” and “an explosion of pressure or emotion.”

Meltdown Signals and Symptoms

There are a number of telltale signs that indicate the beginnings of sensory overload events. It’s just a question of knowing what to look for. While specific symptoms vary significantly from individual to individual, there are several that are quite common, including:

  • Sudden or extreme irritability
  • Complaining about ordinary sights, sounds, smells, or other stimuli not apparently upsetting in the current environment
  • Stopping in place or sudden refusal to participate in or continue with the current activity
  • Anger and lashing out toward objects or other people
  • Aversion to touching or being touched
  • Failure or refusal to make eye contact
  • Tensing up
  • Restlessness or fidgeting
  • Perspiring
  • Covering of eyes or ears
  • Loss of balance
  • Bumping into walls or other people
  • Hiding
  • Spitting
  • Yawning
  • Hitting or punching
  • Crying
  • Whining
  • Shutting down completely
  • Dropping into a fetal position
  • Fleeing or running away while oblivious to surrounding dangers

The above list consists of what are considered “hypersensitive” symptoms. Conversely, sensory overload may be indicated by behaviors that are hyposensitive, meaning that the person reacts with a lower than normal response to stimuli. For example, a common hypersensitive reaction to sensory overload is the immediate and pointed aversion to any form of physical sensation, like being touched, while the corresponding hyposensitive reaction would be the immediate need to be touched or for another form of physical sensation. This need can lead to self-stimulation or “stimming” activities. Examples of stimming include:

  • Rocking
  • Spinning
  • Hand flapping
  • Squinting
  • Focus or fixation on a particular object or specific stimulus (like a certain sound or color) possibly involving some form of repetitive movement, such as with a rotating ceiling fan
  • Putting inedible objects into the mouth
  • Rubbing or stroking
  • Sniffing or smelling objects or other people
  • Pacing
  • Head banging

Complicating matters, many individuals with sensory processing issues will react to overload situations with a combination of both hypersensitive and hyposensitive behaviors.

Tips for Avoiding a Sensory Overload Event While In Public

There are lots of things you can do to reduce the likelihood of a meltdown. It just takes a little thought and planning. Some are obvious, like simply avoiding places with big crowds, bright lights, lots of noise, and strong smells. Here are a few other suggestions:

  • Check Out the Places You’re Planning to Visit Beforehand
    • Chances are that if you’re heading out to do your regular shopping you have a good idea of the environments you’ll be encountering. If you’ll be visiting a business you’ve never shopped at before, it’s a good idea to stop by and check it out before taking your child there. Or if you plan is to take your child to a special event at a specific restaurant or public location, it might help to visit that location with your child before attending the event. You’ll get a good idea of the sights and sounds that might act as triggers, allowing you to formulate strategies for avoiding them. You might even want to talk to management or staff to see if they are set up to accommodate special needs customers. Finally, you may determine that there are simply too many potential sensory landmines to bring your child into that environment and opt for patronizing an alternative business.

  • Create an Action Plan
    • Children and others with sensory processing issues are much less likely to suffer overload problems in public when they have a clear and concise understanding of where they’ll be going and what they’ll be doing. That means putting together a plan of action before you leave the house and – most importantly – sharing that plan with your child. Let them know each of the stores or places you plan to visit, along with the order in which you intend to visit them. Explain how long you estimate you’ll be and what you expect to accomplish at each stop. Discuss the potential triggers you may encounter – sights, sounds, smells, etc. – and what you might do to deal with them.

      One more thing: Creating and following a detailed plan of action means fewer unexpected problems, and that means less chance of sensory overload. But your plan will only work if you stick to it.

  • Take Along an Emergency Meltdown Kit
    • Do you keep an emergency preparedness kit at home in case of, well, an emergency? Chances are you probably do. Most people keep a plastic tub or backpack with important items like flashlights, extra batteries, a first aid kit, emergency radio, etc., in an easily accessible location. Just in case. So, if you keep an emergency preparedness kit on the off chance that an emergency might occur, doesn’t it make sense to keep an emergency meltdown kit for those times that you know for sure are going to happen?

      An emergency meltdown kit it is a container – usually a backpack that a kid can carry with him or her – that’s packed with a variety of items to help calm your child when the inevitable sensory overload event occurs. The particular items you include in your kit will vary depending on the unique needs and preferences of your child. There are, however, a few things all kits should contain. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

      • Snacks: Include a few food and drink items that your child likes and that fit their particular dietary and allergy/food sensitivity requirements. Always include a water bottle.
      • Change of Clothes: This is an obvious choice for young children, especially those yet to be toilet-trained. But other kinds of accidents often happen during meltdowns – spilled drinks or food stains, for example – so it’s a good idea to keep an extra set of clothes on hand regardless of your child’s age.
      • Identification and Contact Information: It’s scary to think that you might become separated from your child during a meltdown, but sensory overload does result in some kids running away from the scene. That’s why it’s important to keep ID and contact information in your kit. Include your child’s name, age, and health info (blood type, specific physical and mental health issues) as well as contact numbers for you, your child’s doctor and school, and anyone else that you deem necessary to be called in an emergency. Always include alternate personal contacts in case you cannot immediately be reached. Along with these basics, consider including a family photo, list of sensory overload triggers, and hints for dealing with your child.
      • Sensory/Calming Related Items: Finally, keep a collection of toys and other devices that have proven to help calm your child in the past. These typically include such items as noise-cancelling headphones, tablets (with extra batteries), games, stuffed toys, fidget toys, and favorite books.

      If you find that there are simply too many items for your child to carry at the same time, you can divide items between two bags and either carry one yourself or keep one containing items not instantly needed (like clothes) in the car.

  • Bring a Shopping Companion With You
    • Shopping with someone with a sensory processing issue is almost always easier when you bring along an additional shopping companion. The key is that it needs to be someone your child knows and feels comfortable with, and knows and is comfortable with your child. He or she should also have experience in dealing with meltdowns and be someone you trust leaving your child with outside the store while you go in to do your shopping, if the circumstance requires it.

  • Start Out with a Well-Fed, Well-Hydrated and Well-Rested Child
    • A tired, hungry or thirsty child is a stressed child, and stress is the gateway to sensory overload. So, always make sure your child is fed, hydrated and rested before heading out of the house.

  • Take Breaks While You’re Out
    • You can and should include scheduled breaks a part of your action plan. Whether or not they’re planned ahead time, it’s important to find quiet, uncrowded places where you and your child can stop and rest, and maybe refuel with a snack.

  • Always Be Prepared to Bail
    • Sometimes avoiding sensory overload while in public simply comes down to getting out of there as quickly as possible, and that’s another thing you need to be ready for. Parents of kids with sensory processing issues know the signs of an oncoming meltdown, and when they notice them, there’s no time to waste. When visiting a store, always be aware of the fastest and shortest escape route. When in a restaurant, it’s always a good idea to let your waitperson know that an immediate exit may be required. Most importantly, don’t hesitate for a moment to instantly bail if you feel a meltdown is in the offing. You can always come back later to pay the bill.


Want Some Good News? More and More Businesses are Catering to Special Needs Customers

Businesses are slowly beginning to wake up to the fact that accommodating special needs kids and their parents is good for their bottom line. Some retail chains, for example, have begun holding special “sensory-friendly” events or designating specific “quiet hours” during which lights in their outlets are dimmed and music is turned off. In another case, a major commercial landlord has offered special Christmastime events that include special shopping hours with dimmed lights and limited crowds, and feature a “Caring Santa” trained at dealing with kids with sensory processing issues. While these efforts by retailers are still few and far between, they hopefully represent a growing trend. In the meantime, parents and others advocating for the special needs community may want to let their local merchants in on what these other businesses are doing.

What to Do if Your Child is Having a Meltdown

Spotting one or more of the above-listed symptoms early while out shopping or in another public place may in some cases allow you to act to prevent a total meltdown, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to avoid them altogether. When a full-blown meltdown does happen, here are a few suggestions for what you can do to help:

  • Stay Calm
    • A meltdown can be extremely stressful not only for the person having it but for others in the immediate area. As a parent of a child having a meltdown, your primary goal is to help calm your child down. This is next to impossible if you’re not calm yourself. Try not to talk to your child too much. Once the meltdown is happening, your child’s brain is likely unable to process what you’re saying, anyway. Relax and remember that a meltdown is not a behavioral problem (i.e. tantrum), so respond accordingly.
  • Allow Your Child and Make Sure Your Child is Safe
    • A child in meltdown mode is not in control of his or her surroundings, so you have to be. You’re probably pretty good at keeping all dangerous objects away from your child at home, but that can be nearly impossible in a public setting. Therefore, it’s important to assess your child’s immediate surroundings and remove any objects that could prove dangerous. Examples include sharp or breakable items, and anything that your child might throw or swallow. But you know already what’s dangerous to your child. The key is to simply use your parental common sense.
  • Remove Sensory Overload Triggers, If Possible
    • Returning your child to a calm, safe state as soon as possible is the goal once a meltdown has begun. That means one of two things: removing the triggers causing the sensory overload or removing your child from the triggering environment. As the parent of a child with sensory processing issues, you’ve become keenly aware of those things that trigger an overload, so start by identifying and removing those triggering issues as quickly as possible. This is, of course, easier said than done in a store or restaurant, but do the best you can. For example, if a salesperson or waiter is nearby – and it’s likely one is – ask them to help by dimming the lights or turning off music.
  • If You Can’t Remove the Surrounding Triggers, Then Remove Your Child from the Surroundings
    • The best course of action may just be to remove your child from the current overstimulating environment. This may simply mean leaving the store or restaurant immediately. You may also want to ask the nearby salesperson or waiter if there is a quiet room or area nearby that you can take your child to. It never hurts to ask. Whatever action you take, remember to treat your child gently while doing so.
  • Use Your Emergency Meltdown Kit
    • You prepared your emergency meltdown kit for just this situation. Now is the time to break it out.
  • Use a Weighted Blanket
    • A weighted blanket is pretty much just what it sounds like. It’s a blanket that typically weighs approximately ten percent of your child’s total body weight, the purpose of which is to apply a gentle pressure to the user. For many children, the sensation creates a calming effect while promoting the release of dopamine and serotonin, helping elevate mood. A weighted blanket is not always convenient to carry with you when you are out shopping, but if your child is particularly susceptible to meltdowns while in public, it might be a good idea to keep one handy in your vehicle.
  • Allow Your Child the Time Needed to Recover
    • Once you’ve reached a place away from the environment causing the sensory overload, allow your child to return to a calm state at his or her own pace. If you haven’t done so already, now is a good time to help your child find their center through breathing. No need to move on (to home or somewhere else) quickly. Common sense should tell you that rushing is counterproductive. Your child will let you know when they’re ready. The British have a saying: “Keep calm and carry on.” What you want to do is “get calm before carrying on.”

Interview with Blogger Rob Gorski

Rob Gorski and his wife Lizze are the parents of three sons, all of whom are on the Autism Spectrum. Rob began writing about the challenges of being a parent of children with autism in 2010 with his popular and award-winning blog, Lost and Tired, which he rebranded in 2015 as The Autism Dad. Rob’s writings have been featured on and countless other blogs and websites.

Can you start by telling us a little about yourself and your family?

My wife and I have three kids. They’re all in different places on the spectrum and each has his own set of needs. One of the things that I really focus on with advocacy is that every single person with autism is different. It’s not like we have three kids so we just have to triple up on the same things. Oftentimes what one person needs creates turmoil for another, and you just basically spend all day, every day chasing your tail putting out fires.

What are the biggest challenges for you on a daily basis?

The biggest challenges, by a landslide, are the sensory-related issues. Every parent has to deal with everyday life – bills, housework, jobs, family, friends – and you have to find this balance. A lot of times just having to do that is challenging. When you have one child with special needs, it throws so many additional factors into play. It increases the things you have to find a balance with. It’s infinite.

There are challenges that most parents would never even think about. Most parents wouldn’t think about running out to the grocery store and taking their kid with them. You wouldn’t think about it because it’s not a problem. The kid may not want to go or may be uncooperative or something, but you deal with it. If you have a kid with autism, you have to think through everything before you go because there are so many unforeseen consequences and problems. Something as simple as making a run to the grocery store, a lot of times it’s simply asking things of your child that they just cannot do. And it’s not about being uncooperative or being difficult to manage.

How does sensory overload manifest?

My kids in particular, they’re senses are really heightened. They don’t experience things one at a time. If you and I walked into a room that was brightly lit, had some music playing in the background and lots of people, we can think, “Hey, there are a lot of people,” or “Man, the lights really bright,” or you hear music. A child with sensory integration disorder will walk into that room and they experience everything at one time. They can’t separate or filter things out. And so it becomes so disorienting and they just become so overwhelmed that it leads to meltdowns.

Meltdowns get confused with tantrums all the time. People think that a kid is just being difficult or they’re not getting their way. What happens with a meltdown is that they reach a point where they are not consciously starting it and have no ability to stop it. There is no reasoning with them when they are going through it and there is nothing that you can do. The child is in distress, they’re suffering when it happens. Generally speaking, the public does not always receive that very well and people make assumptions. That can be very difficult. It’s hard to watch your child go through that.

What do you wish people in the general public would understand about your situation and that of other families with special needs children?

What they see on the surface does not represent necessarily what’s happening. I just wrote an article called Broken Plates. In a nutshell, I talk about how if people were to peek in the window of our house, they would see everything that is wrong. We’re “juggling plates.” You’ve got to keep them off the ground, keep them from breaking. When they walk into the house, they see shattered plates everywhere, like dirty laundry, bills that aren’t paid, kids that aren’t wearing clothes because they can’t tolerate them. They make an assumption that you must be a terrible parent or you’re irresponsible, when in reality you’re juggling hundreds or thousands of plates at the same time. And what is on the floor are the things that you had no other choice but to drop in order to continue keeping the ones in the air that are the most important.

They see the negative stuff but don’t see the constructive stuff that’s also going on.

Or they don’t understand the reason behind it. They assume that something’s negative because in their lives if they don’t do the dishes, it’s because they’re lazy. It’s not because they’re being pulled in 15 different directions at the same time at all hours of the day and night, that they’re sleep deprived and stressed. There are studies that have come out in recent years where they’ve found that the stress of moms that have kids with autism is comparable to that of combat soldiers. That’s the impact that it has, and it is really difficult to get people to understand the complexity of the situation and how challenging it is for you and your child.

These kids aren’t problem kids. They’re not trying to be difficult. They’re wired differently, they’re just built differently. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just that we don’t exist in a world that embraces those differences. And a lot of time there’s just incompatibility. You have a child with sensory issues, you can’t even take them to a theater to see a movie because it’s too loud, it’s too dark, the screen’s too bright, and you can’t bring in outside snacks. There are all of these things you can’t do because the rules aren’t designed to accommodate people with these kinds of needs. That’s really frustrating.

Can you share a few of the things you do to prepare yourself and your kids for going shopping or out to restaurants, or some of the strategies you use if there is an issue while you’re out?

I’ll just give you an example. We recently had a funeral that we had to go to. Up to this point in time, we’d never included our kids in anything like that because of how they process things. This time we gave them the option and one of our kids chose to go and one of them didn’t. Throughout the entire process, we were preparing him for what he was going to see and what he was going to do. We gave him options. If things started to get too rough, we could just leave. Also, he had his headphones and his tablet in the car. So if we needed it, we had an escape route, a way out. We weren’t forcing him to be somewhere that he just couldn’t handle.

Could you share another example?

If we’re going to a grocery store or something like that, my youngest is probably the most helpful, but also the most challenging. And I have to just say, “Hey, look. We’re going. We’ll probably be going for about 15 minutes and this is how much money we’re going to spend,” because he’s usually very rigid with those things. So we have to have a plan. If he needs to, he can have his earphones in. I try to keep him distracted during part of the trip by maybe having him keep track of costs on his tablet while we’re walking through the store, so he becomes a part of the process. And that’s what occupies him and distracts him from all the other things that can be overwhelming.

So before you go, you include him in the plans of what’s going to happen, give him some specifics. And when you’re there, you have things he can be doing to focus on.

Preparation is a good thing. Sort of explain to them what is going to happen if it’s unexpected or unfamiliar to them. If a kid is going to see family that he hasn’t seen in a long time, or maybe a new doctor or something like that, you can show him pictures of the people so that he can become familiar with what’s going to happen. A lot of parents rely on tablets, music, headphones and noise-cancelling devices to try and limit the sensory input. You can always have those things on-hand.

Then you just have to sort of read the room. A lot times children are unable to tell us that they’re overwhelmed because they don’t really understand what’s happening when it’s happens. You talk to 100 parents of special needs kids and they’ll all probably be able to tell you that they can see in their kid’s eyes when they are reaching a point where they need to go. You can see them start to stress out and start to struggle.

We have always been believers of testing the limits. We want to challenge our kids because we don’t want their limits to control their lives. We want them to be able to overcome their [issues] in time, if they can. But at the same time we never want to push them any further than what they’re able to handle. So there’s a balance that you have to find. And a lot of parents struggle with that.

Are there specific stores, restaurants or other public places that you go to because you know there is less of a chance of a sensory overload issue?

For my kids at restaurants it tends to be what kind of food they have because one of the sensory issues for them is food – color, texture, smell, the way it’s prepared – all of those things matter. There are some restaurants we avoid because we just know it’s going to be a nightmare. They can’t have different kinds of food mixed together. Cracker Barrel has been really good for us. That’s more of a relaxed thing, the lights aren’t very bright. I mean, it can become loud, but my kids do OK with that.

The worst thing that you can do, and I don’t know why we ever do this, are places like Chuck. E. Cheese. They’re a sensory nightmare. But parents still have their birthday parties there. We’ve been to a couple of them because a lot of times what happens is that the kids can compensate while we’re there, but when we get home they crash. They’ll have meltdowns and won’t sleep because of the overstimulation. So again, you’ve got to learn to read your kid. If they’re old enough or able to express concern, take it seriously.

Have your kids become better at doing that?

Yeah. They don’t see it as sensory stuff, it’s just stuff that bothers them. They don’t understand the mechanics behind it, they may not be able to use words like, “I’m overstimulated.” They don’t know what that means, they just know that that’s the word associated with what they’re experiencing. But yeah, they tell us the things that bother them sometimes.

Can you tell us a little bit about your blog?

The blog is The Autism Dad. I originally started writing about 10 years ago under a different title. It was called Lost and Tired, and that was where I gained a lot of popularity.

It was a good title.

Yeah, because that’s how I felt. I was overwhelmed, I didn’t know what to do. And it was basically a diary for me. I didn’t think that anyone would ever read it. But it got out and people started reading it, and it just grew into this big thing. As time went on I wanted to portray things in a more positive way, so I rebranded it to The Autism Dad. I don’t consider myself an expert. The idea is that I share my mistakes and my experiences because there are people who are coming behind us who are going through those things for the first time. They read what we’ve experienced and it lets them know that, you know, “I’m not crazy for feeling this way,” or “I’m not a bad parent” because I can’t do something that I would like to be able to do for my kids. It’s hard for parents to see their kids suffer or to be in pain or to stress. Knowing that they’re not alone and that there are ways to work through things is very helpful.