Find sensory stress relief right now
Picture this: it’s 7am on a Monday and you’ve slept through the alarm. You wake in a panic, already feeling anxious about an important meeting today. Rushing around getting ready, you feel more agitated by the second. You trip over the dog, spill your coffee and yell at the children. Nothing is running smoothly.
Once in the car, the children argue on the way to school and traffic is chaos. By the time you get to work your palms are sweaty and your heart is racing. You feel like you’ve already run a marathon and it isn’t even 9am.
Now for that meeting … How will you be able to concentrate when you are so worked up? Relax. You just need to use your senses.
As much as they can be the source of overwhelming input, your senses — sight, sound, smell, touch and movement — also have the power to help you focus, bring you back into the moment and calm your mind. Whether you’re at Home or the office, relieving stress can be easy if you just give in to your senses.
Making sense of your senses
To fully understand the impact sensory input can have on your ability to regulate your stress levels it’s helpful to know how your senses work. Sensory integration is the neurological process that organises sensations from your body and your environment. It also makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment. The term “sensory processing” describes how the brain receives, interprets and organises input from all your senses.
It’s commonly thought that humans have five senses: visual (sight), auditory (sound), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste) and tactile (touch). In fact, there are actually seven senses. Vestibular and proprioception describe two senses that relate to movement.
The vestibular system involves components of the inner ear and central nervous system, contributing to balance and your sense of spatial orientation. The vestibular sense is important for co-ordination, eye control, attention and some aspects of language development.
Everyone responds differently to sensory experiences. A crowded, buzzing room may energise one person while overwhelming another.
Working closely with the vestibular system, proprioception is the sense of body awareness. It’s very important in relation to position, motion and equilibrium. It allows you to manipulate objects and move without observing your actions; for example, clapping your hands with your eyes closed.
Combined, these seven senses gather information about the outside world. Not only can you see, smell, hear and taste, you can also detect pain, pressure, temperature and the position of your body. Through these senses, your brain receives signals, allowing it to put all the information together to produce a picture of what is happening around you.
In her book Living Sensationally, world-renowned sensory expert Professor Winnie Dunn explains that our individual sensory preferences affect the way we react to everything that happens to us throughout the day. Everyone responds differently to sensory experiences. A crowded, buzzing room may energise one person while overwhelming another. The texture of silk may feel smooth and luxurious to you yet make your partner’s skin crawl.
Your sensory journey begins when you’re an infant, says occupational therapist Carolyn Fitzgibbon, who specialises in teaching adults how to manage stress. “To settle a baby we rock, swaddle and sing them lullabies. These are all sensory approaches. As adults, thumb-sucking is not viewed favourably, so we need to identify age-appropriate techniques to self-manage.”
Keep a treasured memento on your desk to focus on when you are feeling overwhelmed or off-centre. A photo of loved ones or a relaxing holiday memory can help take you back to a calmer time and place.
As your sensory preferences impact on how you interact with your environment, becoming familiar with the senses you use to self-soothe is the key to understanding how you can use your senses to relieve stress.
Everyone, every day, uses sensory approaches without even realising. When agitated, stressed or tired, you may click a pen to stay focused during a boring meeting or tap your fingers on the desk to maintain calm. Fidgeting with your hair or the hem of your clothing is also a sensory technique you may unknowingly employ. “Even a glass of wine at the end of the day is a sensory experience,” says Fitzgibbon. (Albeit one that should be employed in moderation!)
Individual sensory preferences will dictate which approaches are most effective for you. Finding what works may mean experimenting with a few different things, but it doesn’t need to be a complicated or costly exercise.
Here are some simple sensory approaches you can try around the home and office to reduce stress and improve your mood.
Surround yourself with uplifting or pleasing images or sights to help adjust your mood. Sometimes even a simple change of scenery can help. Try going for a walk outside to get a different perspective. Need to focus on your goals? Try making a vision board using inspiring pictures from magazines.
At home: Freshly cut flowers or an appealing piece of art not only improves the aesthetics of your environment but can also have a calming effect on your mood. Decorate your home with colours and items that lift your spirits.
At work: Make sure you look away from your computer screen regularly. Keep a treasured memento on your desk to focus on when you are feeling overwhelmed or off-centre. A photo of loved ones or a relaxing holiday memory can help take you back to a calmer time and place.
Noise can be a powerful trigger when we are stressed. Just think of screaming children or dripping taps! However, sounds can also have a wonderfully calming effect, energise us or even lull us to sleep.
At home: Put on some uplifting tunes to get you through a dreaded task like housework. Hang windchimes outside your window for a pleasant natural sound or perhaps listen to the gentle sounds of a water feature to soothe your soul. White noise or meditation tracks can help promote sleep and many apps with this purpose are available. A fan can also be a simple white-noise device that helps settle nerves and dampen other noise.
At work: Plug in to playlists tailored to your needs. Sounds from nature like wind, rain or waves will have a calming effect — just try not to fall asleep at your desk … More upbeat tunes will help with motivation. Or perhaps earplugs are the key to focus by cancelling out the background noise of a busy office.
As with all senses, different smells can impact on your mood. Some scents will soothe and comfort, while others may energise and help you focus. Often lemon, ginger, peppermint or coffee beans are used to invigorate, while softer scents like rose, vanilla and coconut have calming properties. Because scents can be strongly connected to memories, Fitzgibbon recommends using a scent that reminds you of a particular influence, whether that’s a person or place. “The smell of salt could remind you of relaxing at the beach,” she says. “Lavender might conjure the comforting presence of grandma.”
At home: Plant a fragrant bush or shrub such as jasmine outside your bedroom window. Use that special scented soap you have been saving for a special occasion. Spritz your pillow with a calming essential oil such as sandalwood before retiring for the night.
At work: Give yourself a hand massage using some of your favourite scented hand lotion. Dab peppermint oil behind your ears and on your temples to relieve tension headaches and improve concentration. Wear your favourite perfume on days when you may need some extra confidence.
Food is a first resort for many in times of stress. Mindless eating, however, will do little but add to your waistline. Let’s face it: no one truly feels better when they reach the bottom of the chip packet. The key is to eat slowly, focusing on the feel of the food in your mouth and the taste on your tongue.
At home: Try sucking or crunching on ice, munching on crisp celery or savouring a single square of rich dark chocolate. Try a drink of warm herbal tea before bed. Avoid mindless eating in front of the TV or with a device in your hand. If you’re feeling a bit low, get the senses zinging with extra spice in your food. Try sucking a lemon or chewing on ginger if you’re craving something different!
At work: Keep a packet of your favourite sugarless gum, mints or lollies in your desk drawer to chew or suck. Slowly sip a warm beverage from your favourite mug. Eat your lunch away from your desk and savour each mouthful, enjoying the flavour of your food.
Touch & movement
Do you cut tags out of your clothing or avoid a particular fabric? Maybe you love patting animals? You are already adapting your sensory environment to meet your needs. Experiment with different textures to discover what feels relaxing and renewing for you. Sometimes the feeling of deep pressure can have a calming effect, like a big hug.
Movement can release pent-up tension and energy, giving stress an outlet and helping concentration. You don’t need lots of space; try jumping up and down or running on the spot. Lifting some weight can help burn off some steam — you don’t have to pump iron, but the laundry baskets or baked bean tins you’re lifting can help your body feel more grounded.
At home: The weight of a heated wheat bag can help calm your mind as well as soothe sore muscles, as can a warm bath or massage with some essential oils. Wear a favourite item of clothing that feels good to the touch or pop your PJs in the dryer so they are warm when you put them on. Wrap yourself tightly in a shawl or blanket for comfort. “Swinging in a hammock or egg chair is a very effective movement technique,” adds Fitzgibbon.
At work: Make sure you regularly stretch those muscles if you are sitting for long periods. Stomp your feet under your desk and get up to walk around often. “The reassuring weight of a laptop, bag or books on your lap can be an inconspicuous comfort in a crowded office,” Fitzgibbon suggests. And a stress ball is not just a gimmick — they are genuinely great tension relievers. A piece of Blu-Tack or a smooth rounded pebble can also be turned over and fiddled with in your hand.
Your calm kit
The possibilities for using sensory approaches to reduce stress are endless and can easily be adapted to suit your circumstances. Think about how these techniques can be applied in other scenarios outside the home or office. Perhaps you travel on crowded public transport daily or find the bustle and noise of shopping centres overwhelming.
Whatever the situation, once you find what works for you, remember to keep it on hand. “At times of great stress, it can be easy to forget things we would normally do to calm down,” says Fitzgibbon. It’s important you choose sensory approaches that are small, portable or easy to access. “Some people even like to create a visual reminder or list of things that help them de-stress,” Fitzgibbon suggests. “Then they can refer to it if they find themselves struggling to ‘think themselves calm’.”
Movement can release pent-up tension and energy, giving stress an outlet and helping concentration.
You may even consider making a “stress kit” filled with items that help calm you. For example, this could consist of a small zip-up bag with a handkerchief scented with essential oil, headphones to plug into a device and some boiled lollies to suck on. Pop the kit in your handbag, briefcase or glovebox to ensure you are prepared for any stressful situation.
Other members of your family or workplace can benefit from your newfound sensory awareness as well. The calmness you achieve by changing the ambience of your environment through music, fragrance or imagery may be contagious. Just remember that everyone has individual sensory preferences.
So, next time you are feeling a little overwhelmed, turn the radio on (or off), inhale deeply and take a moment to open your senses. You will soon be able to see, hear, smell, touch or even move your stress away.