4 Best Calming Exercises for Sensory Overload and Meltdowns

Sensory overload and meltdowns are closely related but distinct experiences. Sensory overload refers to the overwhelming influx of stimuli that an individual may experience, leading to heightened stress and discomfort. On the other hand, meltdowns are intense reactions to this overload, often characterized by a loss of emotional control and the inability to cope with the overwhelming sensory input.

To effectively address sensory overload and meltdowns, it’s crucial to employ calming exercises that cater to the unique needs of individuals experiencing these challenges. Here are four highly effective calming exercises:

Deep Breathing Exercises

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Encourage slow and deep breathing to help regulate the nervous system. Instruct the individual to take deep breaths in through the nose, hold for a few seconds, and exhale slowly through the mouth. This simple yet powerful technique can promote relaxation and alleviate the physiological symptoms associated with sensory overload.

Sensory-Friendly Environments

Create or seek out environments that are conducive to sensory well-being. This may involve minimizing excessive stimuli such as bright lights, loud noises, or strong odors. Providing a quiet and comfortable space with familiar items can serve as a retreat for individuals experiencing sensory overload, helping to prevent meltdowns.

Proprioceptive Input Activities

Engage in activities that provide deep pressure and proprioceptive input, which can have a calming effect on the nervous system. Activities like weighted blankets, gentle massages, or activities that involve pushing or pulling heavy objects can provide a sense of grounding and stability, assisting in regulating sensory processing.

Visual and Auditory Distraction Techniques

Introduce visual and auditory distractions to redirect attention away from overwhelming stimuli. Calming music, soft lighting, or visual aids such as fidget toys or soothing images can help shift focus and provide a more manageable sensory experience. Tailor these distractions to the individual’s preferences and sensitivities.

Understanding the distinction between sensory overload and meltdowns is crucial for implementing targeted strategies. Calming exercises should be approached with sensitivity to individual preferences and needs, recognizing that what works for one person may not work for another. By incorporating these calming techniques, caregivers, educators, and support networks can play a vital role in helping individuals manage sensory challenges and reduce the frequency and intensity of meltdowns.

Meltdowns and tantrums: what’s the difference?

Children will always be children.

When a child is used to getting what he or she wants, they’ll likely have a tantrum when you don’t give them what they want. Your child may start screaming, kick their feet, or cry just to have you give them what they want.

In short, your kids can control their tantrum based on what they feel.

Meltdowns are another thing.

It’s something that your child can’t control.

Even more problematic, dealing with a meltdown is a lot harder to do when it happens in public.

Usually, meltdowns are a feeling of distress brought about by being overwhelmed. In fact, meltdowns happen even to adults.

Just think about it.

Meltdowns usually happen especially for children with disabilities like autism or ADHD when they suffer from sensory overload. There are so many people. The noise is too loud. The room is too colorful for them. There’s too much moving around.

When these things happen, someone who has a problem with sensory processing becomes overwhelmed and suddenly feels a meltdown.

With a meltdown, you cannot just calm your child with a piece of toy. And if you’re still unsure of how to calm them because you don’t have the know-how, then this post is just for you.

Understanding sensory overload

Meltdowns usually happen due to an overload of the senses. This in turn happens because of SPD or sensory processing disorders.

For someone without SPD, a street full of people is normal on a busy day. Cars beeping and honking at each other is normal due to traffic.

For people with a sensory processing disorder, what’s normal for most can be difficult to process for them.

The overstimulation of their senses – touch, sight, smell, hearing or taste – can be seen as a “threat.”

What the body considers as a threat triggers our “fight or flight” responses where we either choose to run away, withdraw from ourselves or from others, scream off, fight people, become aggressive in our behavior or even cause self or others harm.

The best way to calm a meltdown due to a sensory overload?


Better than cure

Surely you’ve heard the famous quote that “prevention is better than cure.”

When it comes to meltdowns caused by sensory overload, prevention is really the key.

It’s much easier to prevent someone from having a meltdown than to calm someone the moment they feel threatened or overwhelmed by their environment.

To stop this from happening, here are some helpful tips that you can employ to help your kids stay calm:

  1. Plan your day.
  2. Keep a regular routine for your child.
  3. Go for calming and neutral paints.
  4. Use noise-canceling headphones when the noise is too loud.
  5. Keep your decor simple or minimalistic by design.
  6. Avoid using strong scents at home like air fresheners, perfumed or scented candles
  7. Use a dimmer switch or close blinds to dim bright lights.
  8. Let your child wear sunglasses outside during the day.
  9. Avoid crowded places.

These are just the tip of the iceberg.

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Meltdowns due to sensory overload can happen anytime.

The only solution is that you take action before a simple overwhelm of the senses become a full-blown panic that will cause your child to meltdown especially in public.

Here are some early signs of sensory overload in children that you should watch out for:

  • poor eye contact
  • covers eyes or ears
  • avoids touch
  • irritability
  • nauseous
  • flushed or sweaty
  • rapid or shallow breathing
  • tremors
  • glazed look

You can find some more signs of sensory overload here.

Calming Exercises for Sensory Overload and Meltdowns

Calming activities and exercises should be second nature to you and your child.

Meaning, you should do these exercises regularly and not just when you think they’re going to suffer from a meltdown.

This way, you can avoid the embarrassment when it gets hard to calm them down in public.

If you’re ready, here are the 4 best calming exercises to avoid meltdowns for your child in the future.

Medicine Ball Slams

This type of exercise is very easy to do and works your body from head to toe.

To do this calming exercise, you need to stand with your knees apart and slightly bent.

Hold the slam ball in your hands and extend your arms above your head.

Afterwards, bend forward at your waist and slam the medicine ball down.

Follow the movement of the ball and catch it in your arms and go back to the initial position.

Repeat the action at least 5 to 6 times or until your kid feels calm enough to do another activity.

The added benefit of this exercise is that it helps your child build their muscle adn cardiovascular strength

Punching bag

Punching bags are a fantastic tool for helping children channel their energy in a controlled and productive way, especially when they’re experiencing tension or stress. This physical activity is highly effective in releasing pent-up feelings which can often result from sensory overload or challenging situations.

Not only does it provide a physical outlet for emotions, but punching bag exercise also contributes to overall fitness. Combining power with precision, this form of exercise can help kids build muscle strength, improve coordination, and enhance endurance. It’s an ideal choice if you’re looking for an activity that allows your kids to manage their emotions while simultaneously working on their physical fitness.

When it comes to using punching bags, there is no strict routine to adhere to. Kids can enjoy the flexibility of creating their own routines. The activity can involve a warm-up session, followed by various techniques like jabbing, and incorporating other movements like squats. They can also change the intensity by doing cross punches. This variability not only promotes overall development but also keeps the routine interesting, ensuring that children stay committed to this form of exercise.

One important aspect to remember while engaging in this activity is the need for the correct protective gear. Given the intensity that punching bags can be used with, children should always wear protective gloves. This is crucial as the contact between the fist and the bag can be hard on a child’s knuckles and cause unnecessary injury. Consistent use of protective gloves will ensure safety while maximizing the numerous benefits of using a punching bag for exercise.

Try this: 4 Workouts That Help Reduce Behaviors

Seated Leg Press

Next on the list is the seated leg press exercise.

As a calming exercise for sensory overload and meltdown, this one is a bit complicated and needs a bit of guidance from trained specialists like Special Strong.

The leg press exercise will only give you a short range of motion, but it helps exercise your glutes, hamstrings and quads – which are all key muscles found in your legs.

To start with, you need to do this using a leg press machine.

Some leg press machine reclines at an angle where you’re almost lying down, so make sure you go for a seated position as a beginner with this exercise.

With your back and head resting on the padded support, put your feet hip-width apart on the footplate.

Once you have this position done, push the footplate down and back up again.

To avoid injuries, avoid locking or bowing your knees.

You can do a set of 8 to 10 leg presses for a start and build from there for added strength.

Stair Climbing

As the name implies, the stair climber machine will let you do just that: climb stairs.

If you have stairs at home, going up and down the stairs a few times will do the trick.

This type of exercise is a great cardio workout that is very simple to execute and also easy on your joints.

All you have to do is choose whether you’d like to do a slow climb, challenge yourself with double steps or do a quick sprint up and down. You can also do a mix of everything if you want.

It’s always important to ensure the safety of your child as they do this calming exercise so make sure that you are right there to guide and help them.

If you want to help your child manage their symptoms of meltdown, you may want to consider enrolling them in a sensory gym.

The Benefits of Calming Sensory Activities and Sensory Exercises

Calming sensory activities and sensory exercises play a crucial role in supporting the well-being of individuals with sensory processing issues, including those with autism, ADHD, and sensory processing disorder (SPD). These activities and exercises are designed to help regulate the body’s sensory systems, reduce anxiety, and promote relaxation. By engaging in sensory experiences tailored to individual needs, participants can achieve a sense of balance and calm.

Understanding Calming Sensory Activities

Calming sensory activities are purposefully designed to provide sensory input in a controlled and comforting manner. These activities stimulate one or more senses—sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, and proprioception (awareness of body position)—in ways that are soothing and relaxing. The goal is to create a sensory experience that helps individuals feel more grounded and less overwhelmed.

Key Components of Sensory Exercises

  1. Tactile Activities: Tactile activities involve stimulating the sense of touch through various textures and materials. Examples include playing with sensory bins filled with rice, sand, or water beads, handling soft fabrics or weighted blankets, and engaging in finger painting or clay modeling. These activities can help desensitize hypersensitive individuals and provide comforting tactile input.
  2. Proprioceptive Exercises: Proprioceptive exercises offer deep pressure input that can be calming and grounding. Activities include squeezing stress balls, using weighted vests or blankets, engaging in bear hugs, and practicing yoga or stretching routines. These exercises help individuals become more aware of their body in space and can reduce feelings of restlessness or anxiety.
  3. Vestibular Activities: Vestibular activities involve movement and balance to stimulate the inner ear and vestibular system. Gentle rocking, swinging, or using a balance board are examples of vestibular activities. These movements can help regulate the vestibular system and provide a calming effect for individuals who may feel overstimulated or anxious.
  4. Auditory Activities: Auditory activities focus on calming sounds and music. Listening to soft, rhythmic music, nature sounds, or white noise can provide auditory input that is soothing and reduces sensory overload. Noise-canceling headphones can also be beneficial for individuals sensitive to loud or unpredictable noises.
  5. Visual Activities: Visual activities create a calming sensory experience through sight. Watching slowly moving visual patterns, such as lava lamps or sensory bottles, engaging with visual timers, or using low lighting can help create a tranquil environment. These activities are particularly helpful for individuals who may become overstimulated by bright or chaotic visual input.
  6. Olfactory Activities: Olfactory activities involve the sense of smell to promote relaxation. Aromatherapy with calming scents such as lavender, chamomile, or peppermint can create a soothing atmosphere. Using scented play dough or engaging in activities that involve familiar and comforting smells can also provide a calming effect.
  7. Gustatory Activities: Gustatory activities engage the sense of taste. Offering familiar, preferred foods or drinks that have calming properties, such as warm milk or chamomile tea, can provide comfort. Chewy or crunchy snacks can offer proprioceptive input to the jaw, which may be calming for some individuals.

Keep in mind that meltdowns can be avoided in children or people with a sensory overload when you are aware of their triggers.

Simply put, meltdowns are predictable and manageable, especially with exercise. The goal is not to totally remove the meltdowns, but to minimize its effects and the incidence when it might happen.

With these four exercises, you can help calm your child and give them an outlet for the overwhelm they feel at such a moment.

You may also want to invest in sensory equipment to help calm your child down like a noise canceling headset, playdough or stress balls.

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