Dealing with anxiety through our senses

Dealing with anxiety through our senses

Persistence is good, right? It’s been described as one of the most admirable character traits a person can possess.

We’ve all heard sayings like, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again!” It’s good to keep continuing in the face of difficulties and danger, just like our favourite superheroes!

However, there is a problem with persistence, especially when it becomes coupled with worrying thoughts. It’s the one thing that all anxiety disorders appear to have in common: persistent, excessive fear or worry.

Escape fear

Perhaps the worst part of anxiety is that for some sufferers, it can feel like the worry and fear will never end. No one wants to live their life feeling this way, but sadly many people do.

In fact, according to Beyond Blue, anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. In 2017, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that there were 3.2 million Australians with an anxiety-related condition.

The good news is that there are many effective ways to manage anxiety and that it is treatable.

A helping hand

There is no cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all solution for anxiety. We’re all unique, so what works in managing anxiety for one person can be different for someone else.

Because of the many treatment options and therapies available, there are a number of different health professionals, such as GPs, psychologists and psychiatrists who can assist you.

Beyond Blue have an excellent guide here to help you navigate what each of these health professionals can offer.

Making sense of it all

One approach that may be worth including in your anxiety management toolkit is sensory modulation.

Sensory modulation is “basically an intervention which uses sensory experiences to change how you feel,” explains Lisa Wright, a registered Occupational Therapist with over 20 years’ experience in the field of mental health.

“You might use all your senses, but it’s very individual. One of the most important things is to find out what makes you less anxious,” Lisa says.

“One of the ways to understand how to use sensory modulation is to think about how to calm a baby when they’re distressed, like rocking, soft music. We can still use similar sensory experiences to calm as adults.”

How to use the senses

There are different techniques and activities that can be used specifically to calm each of our basic body senses and can include things like:

For Sight

Using a projector that is designed to transform a room into a colourful starry night sky. The visual effects can be soothing, and the experience is similar to staring into a lava lamp.

For Sound

Playing soothing music or sounds, like running water. Online music streaming services even have white noise playlists available to help with relaxation.

For Taste

Drinking herbal teas (non-caffeinated, of course!).

Smell

Using an aromatherapy diffuser with your favourite relaxing essential oils. Scents that evoke a feeling of safety or remind you of something positive can be very helpful. For example, one of the patients with anxiety that Ms Wright has worked with, really responded to the scent of Jasmine flowers because it reminded them of the house they grew up in.

Touch

A weighted vest, weighted blanket or weighted toys can be helpful for some people as they “provide safe deep pressure stimulation similar to a massage which can promote a sense of calm,” Ms Wright says.

Movement

Rocking chairs can provide a sense of calm by stimulating our vestibular systems. It is this system which gives our bodies feedback about movement e.g. how it feels while moving in a car or knowing that you are lying down (even if you can’t see the environment around you).

These are just some of the ways that you can use your senses to help deal with anxiety. The important thing is to try several different methods to see what works for you.

The calming influence of research

Ms Wright is currently researching ways to increase the use of sensory modulation approaches in a hospital setting, specifically with people admitted to mental health units.

Increasing the use of sensory modulation interventions will help lower patient distress so that people can get better sooner, as well as giving them practical and simple tools to use at home to help stay healthy and well.

Show your support

If you would like to support this innovative mental health research, please visit thecommongood.org.au. Through all of us working together, The Common Good gives precious time to researchers, so they can give more time to us and those we love to live happier, healthier and longer lives.

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