An area that is starting to grow in mental health is an intervention called Sensory Modulation. It is used in a number of different ways and some people use it only in part. Some people may have come across ‘grounding techniques’ and ‘self-soothing techniques’. There is a cross-over between Sensory Modulation and distraction as a technique to deal with difficulties. It is a sub-branch within the world of Mindfulness and involves use of activity and engagement of the senses for therapeutic purposes. It is a big area for Occupational Therapists, Diversional Therapists and is starting to feature in Nursing literature, particularly for use in hospitals to try to find ways to reduce people’s levels of distress without having to resort to extra medication and seclusion. Studies are showing promising results.
Despite the way that we usually talk about five senses, we have actually have seven senses. We are used to thinking of our senses in terms of taste, touch, sight, smell and sound. However there are two more that we very rarely talk about.
The first of these is called proprioception. Proprioception is communication between your muscles and your brain. This is how your brain knows what your muscles are doing – when they are stretching, flexing and where your body is in space. It is proprioception that enables you to match the position of one arm to the position of the other with your eyes shut.
The second is a vestibular sensation. This is what gives us our sense of balance and the sense that we are moving in space like when we are in a car. It is also the sensation that gives us the feeling of dizziness and nausea when it is out of kilter.
Some people also differentiate between deep touch and light touch when working with the senses because your body often responds differently to the different types of touch. Think of the difference between being massaged and being tickled.
What is Sensory Modulation & how does it work?
Sensory Modulation involves using different types of activity or stimuli to calm or alert one or more of the seven senses. This in turn can feed into the way that a person is feeling or reacting to a situation, a stressor or the environment. So if feeling anxious and having anxious thoughts churning over through ones head someone might choose to do something that they know will engage the senses in a soothing way for them eg using a rocking chair, listening to music that they like that has a tempo of approx 60 beats per min whilst being mindful of the sensations; or they may choose to ground and/or distract themselves with something that alerts the senses and redirects their attention, perhaps using the tension in their muscles by going for a run or walk, again engaging awareness of the movement of the muscle groups and the engagement of the senses with the environment around.
Essentially, you take control of your senses and use them to serve your advantage.
Mindfulness & the Senses
Some of the ways that you can use your senses with mindfulness include:
Grounding techniques are active techniques to help you to orient and focus on the present and to distract or self-soothe when you’re feeling distressed. When you are feeling ‘out of sync’ they can help emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. If you know what you respond to best – you can even be prepared for times of crisis or for prevention if you are feeling triggered.
Some activities that people use to help ground themselves include
- A hot or cold shower
- Eating hot balls or sour balls, chilli, lemon – alerting tastes
- Breathing exercises
- Using a balance ball
- Yard work
- Wearing weighted item eg back pack, ankle weights
- Petting dog or cat
- Warm or cold flannel to the face and neck
- playing with a stress ball
- Moving furniture
- Holding or chewing ice
- Jumping rope or doing star jumps
- Running or walking
- Lifting weights
- clenching and unclenching muscles (isometric exercises)
- playing drums or other musical instruments
- Rocking in a rocking chair
- Listening to music
Other activities that can be used for self-soothing or for orienting and alerting oneself capitalise on the calming and alerting features of the stimuli. Some examples of these include:
Calming Sensations Alerting Sensations
Hot shower/bath Cold or cool shower/bath
Holding/petting a pet Holding ice in hand or to face
Warmth of fireplace Being in a cool room
Wrapping in a heavy blanket Wrapping in cool bed sheets
Massage/Deep pressure touch Light touch
Isometric(the muscles don’t move) exercises/yoga Aerobic exercise
Leisure walks Power walks
Dusting powder/powder puff over your body Rubber band wrist snapping
Slow/rhythmic music Fast paced/upbeat music
Calming sounds of nature eg ocean Alerting sounds of nature eg birds
Humming/singing quietly Humming/singing loudly
Soothing scents (oils/lotions/candles) Strong scents (oils/lotions/candles)
Soft materials/textures Rough or prickly materials/fabrics
Rocking in a rocking chair A bumpy car ride
Swinging on a swing Spinning on a swing
Slow rhythmic motions Fast and/or jerky movements
soft/low lighting Bright or flashing lights
Decaf herbal teas Drinking coffee
Chewing gum Biting into an icy-pole
Chewy or crunchy foods/ lollies Sour or hot foods/ lollies
What to do with these activities – A bigger picture
The idea then is to consider the primary areas of difficulty that you encounter. Do you
- get overwhelmed
- get voices
- Get angry
- Get anxious
- Struggle with negative thoughts
- Feel disconnected
- feel triggered by something …?
Think about a) things that you can use to alert or distract yourself;
b) things that you can use to do to calm or comfort yourself;
c) things that you can do to help improve the moment; (something you enjoy, a treat, something to make you feel better)
Often you may need to do all three in that order – but not always. Regulating your reaction, however, may be more than a single step process.
What senses do you respond to most strongly?
Different people are more responsive to different senses. Some people love touch. Others squirm. Some love movement. Others enjoy scents. We’re all wired differently. How do you think you are ‘wired’? What are your preferred senses for comforting and alerting yourself?
Think about what kind of movement you enjoy (eg exercise, rocking chair, doodling, shopping, cleaning, theme park rides, skating, building, sports activities)
What kind of Touch & Temperature do you like (eg massage, sitting by fire, shower/bath, knitting, sunshine/shade, lotions, playing instruments, art, fiddling with things, doing your hair, heavy blankets/quilts)
What kind of auditory/listening stimuli you like (eg silence, running water, music, rain, relaxation soundtracks, wind chimes, theatre, a purring cat, people talking)?
What kind of visual stimuli you like to look at (eg scenery, photos, lava lamp, movies, window shopping, reading, fish in a tank, art)?
What kind of scents do you like or respond to (eg scented candles and oils, coffee, perfumes and aftershaves, flowers, fruit, herbal tea, fabric after being hung out to dry, chopped wood, forests)?
Think also about what kind of gustatory, tastes and chewing sensations you respond to (eg chewing gum, crunchy food, sour food, sucking a thickshake through a straw, yawning, deep breathing, listerine, blowing bubbles, hot balls, drinking coffee or hot chocolate, fizzy drinks, sucking a lollypop)
Making a Plan
When you have thought about the types of activities that you respond to. Make a note of half a dozen things that you think would be most helpful when you are distressed.
Why not set aside a place or a kit where you have some if not all of those things ready to go and on hand when and if you need them?
Knowing how your senses work can help you tap into them better for relaxation, recreation and for giving yourself a jolt if you need one. I have found ideas from studying this stuff that are great for my recreation, rest as well as helping me when I am worked up or struggling to focus. I hope that it’s useful to you also.
If you are interested in more information, information about making a sensory kit or a questionnaire about your sensory profile, please leave me a message in the comments and I will get something back to you.
(Credit to a lot of the lists goes to a combination of published resources that I have referred to, some of which have no author attached, majority of examples listed resourced from Tina Champaign’s website)