A Multi-Sensory Worship Experience – Really?!?!

20160726_104527A Multi-Sensory Worship Experience – Really?!?!

My guess is, if you were to to describe a multi-sensory worship experience you would likely give some variation of the following description.

You might picture a convention hall or auditorium with a stage large enough to accommodate a drummer with a full drum kit, a bass player, two electric guitar players, possibly a saxophone player, two pianists and six vocalists each with their own mic. I also see multiple projectors displaying lyrics against a video background. Oh, and there are over a thousand seats filled with enthusiastic worshipper raising their voices, singing from the heart and giving further expression through the rhythmic waving of their arms while dancing at their seat or in the aisle.

My Reality

This is my description. We have one pianist and one song leader who leads the singing for about 120 worshippers. The lyrics are projected on a 20 foot section of wall, usually with still backgrounds. The singing is a combination of young and old creating rich harmony.

Dissecting My Realty

Despite the apparent contrast between the two worship venue descriptions, the church I attend causes me to experience sensory overload. In the first couple months after acquiring a brain injury I would reach my threshold within 10 to 15 minutes. This would hardly allow me to take in even the first part of the service. Other times I would intentionally wait and come in part way through the worship service.

In addition to experiencing sensory overload during the worship service, it would take me a day or two to recover from the immediate effects. Needless to say, after a few attempts I decided it was best to stay away. I did not relish the predictable setbacks. The irony of not finding healing in a sanctuary was not lost on me.

After absenting myself for several months I thought I would see if I had experienced enough natural healing to more fully participate in worship. Having been absent for several months, I felt I had abandoned the community of worshippers who have shown me love, care, and support. This community, which I have been part of for thirty years, showed a desire to understand my struggles.

Sensory loading: Music20160726_104415

I now come armed with musician ear plugs. These are designed to reduce the intensity of the sound by about 15 decibels. This created the opportunity to participate in worship for an extra ten to fifteen minutes. It partially mitigates one aspect of my struggle with sensory loading.

The down side of wearing earplugs is that it makes me feel like a spectator. It puts me at a distance from the worship experience. The sense of feeling like a spectator is exacerbated by my choice of taking a back row seat so I can make an inconspicuous exit when needed.

Needless to say, the accommodations I’ve made makes for a worship experience that leaves much to be desired. To partially counter that, I will remove my ear plugs for one or two songs during the service just to remind me what it’s like to experience the full impact of the lyrics and music.

The sensory load is not only influenced by the intensity of the sound. Live music has a much greater impact than recorded music. Recorded music is flat. It lacks depth, resonance and emotion. Live music conveys a heart response to how the spirit is moving.

There are times when I don’t make it past the annex of the building. Those are times when, in simply approaching the sanctuary the music will hit me like a wall. It will stop me short in my tracks. I’ll immediately retreat from the sanctuary and need ten or fifteen minutes to recover from the immediate impact.

Sensory loading: cognitive

The sensory loading during worship is not limited to the music. It also builds while listening to the sermon. The cognitive demands add to the sensory load. I know I’m reaching my threshold when I start to lose focus. I find myself getting restless and can no longer follow the story line or the message that is being shared.

Sensory loading: empathy

The sharing of prayer requests also contributes to the sensory load. The sharing of requests can bring out a range of emotions. It’s the sharing of situations in which people are asking for prayer and support due to hurts and loss that are particularly difficult. Interestingly, prayer requests in which people share about healing of relationships and miraculous recovery, I find creates similar sensory loading. At times, following the sharing of prayer requests, I need several minutes to recover. This creates a break in my participation in the worship.

Each part of worship, the lyrics of a song, the text of a responsive reading, the message of the sermon, the petitions of a prayer, the confession, the giving of alms for specific ministries, each is meant to put us in touch with who we are and give expression to our life purpose. Each part of worship contributes in different ways to my sensory loading.

Managing my Time

To manage my sensory load, my strategy is to exit from the auditorium during some of the singing and selective parts of the service. At times it begins to feel more like a smorgasbord, rather than a wholesome worship experience.

Following the worship service I enjoy mingling with others over refreshments. At times the worship time puts me at the threshold of sensory overload. I will then look for a quiet place to give myself ten or fifteen minutes before joining others.

Even when I think I’m doing quite well by the end of a worship service, friends have noticed that I look tired, or my complexion lacks colour. For me Monday is my recuperation day. I generally will not schedule anything significant.

Worship is still part of my life. Worship is not confined to a building with a structured set of activities. Life provides many other times and places to experience God’s presence.  The presence of God and the fellowship of Christians can be experienced when two or three people meet.

At Risk of Over Planning

600 ft cliffs at Blomidon Provincial Park, NS.

At Risk of Over Planning.

Not having been on a holiday since my ABI a year and a half ago prompted some questions.

Do I want to take a holiday? I kind of think so.

Should I take a holiday? Possibly.

Where to go? Find a place that’s worth the effort and not make me regret the likely side effects of my brain injury.

The common sense choice

What kind of holiday should it be? Bus excursion? Yes, that looks like it will fit the bill. Choose a destination and it’s all planned out. The details are all laid out, a predictable schedule. Minimal work in getting ready. Just need to decide what to put in my travel bag. Accommodations arranged with room service and restaurants booked ahead. A professional driver, just sit back and relax.

Oh wait. Taking a bus excursion means there will be many other people in close quarters. That means dealing with conversations all day, reading social cues, dealing with sensory loading of all sorts.  Since there’s a daily schedule I can’t ask the bus to pull over just because I’m experiencing sensory overload from the constant movement. The schedule means I need to be up each morning by a certain time. If I couldn’t get to sleep or my sleep was disrupted I would not be able to sleep late. Starting the day after a short night means I

Sensory Overload makes both hard to do

haven’t cleared my sensory loading from the day before. I would most certainly start the day with a headache.  In short it would be a tough day or worse. The restaurants often are environments for creating sensory overload.  Being in a different place every day is cognitively demanding since familiarity and routines help to mitigate sensory overload.

The obvious and impressive first choice was on second thought guaranteed to be a catastrophic failure.

The intensive planning choice

I decided that yes, I very much want to take a holiday with the two of us. I never realized how much planning it would take to not have the holiday turn into a Punishing Experience. To prevent a repeat of a weekend away the holiday needed to be flexible, planned, slow, deliberate, low demands, options for quiet time, and more.

The OT (occupational therapist) worked with me over a five week period. Between planning the obvious and obediently carrying out the seemingly absurd requests, the plans gradually took shape. The preparation involved sleeping in the tent in the front yard for a couple nights. This would determine whether tenting was still a viable option with ABI. The first attempt to sleep in the tent was aborted. This would have meant disaster if we were already on the road. After making several adjustments I successfully managed two good nights in the tent.

We always thought we had camping well planned. The conversation fragment below had me wondering.

The OT asked, “Do you have a camping list of supplies, equipment etc?”

“Yes we have one,” I proudly told her, “We have a list that’s been fine tuned over the years.”

“Show me the list.”

“Okay,” I said pleased to show her the print out.

“Which things are you taking care of?”

“These,” I said, pointing to some of the items.

“I don’t see your name by those items.” “Do you need to buy anything on that list?”


“Did you make a list?”

“Oh yes.”

“When do you plan buy the items?”

What I realized is that planning had to be much more detailed than pre-ABI. Not just a general plan that served as a general guide to doing things on the fly. Rather it had to be a plan with details like, who is going to do it, how is it going to be done and when is it going to be done. What the OT wanted to avoid was the last minute packing panic. That could be a significant setback before even starting our holiday.

The OT asked about many aspects of the planning. What day were we leaving? What time were we planning to pull out? How were we organizing the packing of food, cooking utensils, tent gear, cycling equipment, etc. When would all the camping gear and food be loaded? How many nights were we staying at the bed and breakfast place? Was a bed and breakfast better than a motel. How far did we plan to drive in one day? Were the bed and breakfast reservations flexible? Did we have the campground information written down – address, phone number, and directions? Did we have the route mapped out? What was our

Personalized “Tour Bus” packed and ready

goal for the holiday? Did we have a backup plan if we were delayed due to not being able to drive four hours? Did I have my medication sorted for the trip? Was I planning to go to the Canada Day Parade the day before leaving? (Correctly implying that it would not be a good idea)

Needless to say, the questions felt like an interrogation. More to the point, I felt like it would be my fault if this trip did not go well if I couldn’t give a good answer for each of the questions posed.

The Trip

Being on the road was the hardest part of the trip, whether I drove or was the passenger. We limited the first day on the road to no more than three hours. After that we limited the drive to no more than four hours a day on the road. Some days four hours was too much. We found that a break every hour with a longer break at the two hour mark worked the best. The break served one main purpose. It was intended to minimize and hopefully shed some of the sensory loading. The break involved getting respite from the constant movement, walking around, and eating a snack or meal. Signals such as fatigue (even as a passenger), headache, nausea or double vision were indictors that we were on the road too long.

Highlight of the trip

Camping for four days at Blomidon Provincial Park in Nova Scotia was the most successful part of our holiday. Maybe it was the campsites at the top of the spectacular 600 ft cliffs, or maybe the fresh air off the Bay of Fundy. During our stay at the park I could do a full day of

Awesome campsites at the top of the 600′ cliffs.

activities without experiencing any ABI symptoms. Our stay there involved hiking about 8 km a day, cycling, reading and rock hounding. I was very reluctant to leave the park. It was the first time in a year and a half that I felt ‘normal’. I went through four days in a row without experiencing reminders of my ABI. The only subtle reminder was the ten hours I slept each night to balance out the day time activities.

The day following our stay at Blomidon Provincial Park stands in sharp contrast to the previous four days. We drove to PEI, a trip of about 4 hours. It took me two and a half days to recover from the drive. In PEI we were in a house with four people who I should mention were very pleasant company. However, being around three other people and the more complex social dynamics that come with larger groups likely slowed down my recovery. Four of us living in a house was a major change from two of us camping.

High Tide from a 600 ft vantage point

It was worth it

Five weeks of planning for a three week trip made for a successful holiday. We met our goals of relaxing, biking and visiting specific historic sites. This three week trip has increased my understanding of living with ABI.

I Lost My Duck Feathers

What duck feathers?

I Lost My Duck Feathers

Having lost my duck feathers I find it necessary to develop strategies so I don’t get caught in the rain. Many social situations require one to disregard hurtful comments or insinuations and let them slide off like water off a duck’s back. Having an ABI the social filters, just like the sensory input filters don’t work well. This can be annoying for someone with ABI and potentially annoying for anyone dealing with a person with ABI.

For many people with ABI, their circle of friends and in many cases the family members who will associate with them begin to shrink. People with ABI often have a difficult time with impulse control resulting in hurtful comments being made. The difficulty with emotional control, particularly if it results in violent bouts of anger can further alienate friends or family members. And so, for people with ABI find that it sometimes doesn’t take much for matters go into a downward spiral. This can be rather disconcerting and can in turn accelerate the downward spiral.

Being aware of this potential challenge with social interaction, I have been mindful of not getting myself into situations or saying things that increase the risk of alienating people. I have also been able to avoid the risk of the downward spiral largely because of several family members who are pro-actively supportive and being part of a caring community.

Living with an ABI condition, I have lost much of my ability to filter sensory impressions. This includes sensory impressions that add to my cognitive loading and sensory impressions that add to my emotional loading. I’m learning how to avoid places and situations that are likely to accelerate my sensory loading. Dealing with sensory overload is exhausting both physically and emotionally. If I know I will be entering an environment which has an increased risk of sensory loading, I will plan my strategies in such a way that I can make an inconspicuous exit.

The exit strategies do not work when it comes to dealing with urgent matters involving other people. Daily living presents situations in which matters need to be addressed and no exit is convenient till the matter is dealt with.  Life doesn’t happen in a bubble. And living with ABI doesn’t mean I have the option of requesting a bubble. To address situations that are beyond my direct control, I have learned to be intentional about planning how and when I will bring up the matter to another person. I have the privilege of working with an occupational therapist to assist me in developing effective strategies.

  1. Is it important?: I first assess the situation to decide if it actually needs to be addressed. If the matter is something that will negatively affect my health or my ability to deal with ABI, creates a potential financial penalty, affects my safety or that of my family than I need to follow through.


  1. Find a delegate: I assess the situation to see whether I need to address the matter myself or whether I can delegate it. In some situations I might delegate part of it to someone else. At the same time I realize the need to take charge of matters myself and not hide behind someone else while they do the ‘dirty’ work.
Wild rabbit at Blomidon Prov. Park Nova Scotia
  1. Buy time: I make a point of not charging directly into a situation. I will find ways to buy some time so I can be properly prepared. If I’m expecting a phone call about the matter and am not ready, I will let the call go to my answering service. That can buy me a day or several days.


  1. Know the facts: Before directly addressing a specific matter I make sure that I have collected the necessary information. Since my mental flexibility (see Case for back seat driving) is compromised it would be difficult to assimilate new information in the middle of discussing or debating a matter.


  1. Have a script: I prepare a script in which I outline the information that I need to convey. I rehearse the script till I am thoroughly familiar with the information. This minimizes the risk of tangential comments, a consequence that comes with my ABI. If there is an option of dealing with a matter by email then the process becomes much more manageable. I can wait with my response if I need to track down additional information. I can review what has been discussed before giving a response. If I’m dealing with sensory overload, I can let it wait for a day or so.
Blomidon Provincial Park Nova Scotia
  1. Ignore ‘rabbit trails’: When I speak with the person I will only share the necessary information. I will not comment on or address diversion tactics. I try not to respond to emotional reactions thrown at me. I ignore any comment that I think doesn’t deal with the matter. An unscripted response from me will likely have me confuse the matter and have me going down unproductive ‘rabbit trails’.

Even with careful planning there is no guarantee that things will be resolved in a satisfactory manner. Sometimes the strategy doesn’t work out because I’m dealing with a person that is not aware of my ABI status. Other times the strategy doesn’t work because the person I am dealing with doesn’t understand how ABI affects me. It is difficult to explain how my ABI is affecting the situation when I’m negotiating a matter. Giving explanations in the middle of a discussion is difficult because it’s hard to point out aspects of ABI that have a direct bearing on the matter being discussed.

In situations where the person’s lack of understanding creates problems, I need to remind myself not to blame the person for their inability to grasp the challenges I’m dealing with. It has taken me a long time to understand the impact of ABI on my daily living, so I shouldn’t get too bent out of shape when someone else is left baffled.

I am heartened when I come across people who understand the challenges of living with ABI and are pro-active in helping me with accommodations that help me avoid sensory overload.