Written by

Rebecca Morley-John

Feeling panic, distress and overwhelm are an unpleasant but normal part of life. However, it’s not always possible to simply ‘calm down’. Sensory interventions offer another option to drawn upon, helping us tune in to our body and regulate our emotions and arousal state through our senses. Sensory strategies can promote a person’s capacity to regulate their emotions in healthy and adaptive ways, altering levels of alertness and relieving anxiety and distress – particularly when coupled with psychological interventions.

The term ‘sensory modulation’ refers to our ability to alter our arousal – either by calming our nervous system if we are over-aroused (or ‘hyper’ aroused) or by alerting our nervous system if we are under-aroused (or ‘hypo’ aroused).

Some of the benefits of sensory approaches include:

  • Helping a person to feel calm, soothed and safe
  • Providing ‘grounding’ inputs and encouraging connection to one’s physical body
  • Improving a person’s self-management of their distress and anxiety
  • Increasing a person’s self-awareness of their personal sensory preferences

What do sensory approaches have to do with occupational therapy, you ask? Well, occupational therapists are all about supporting people to engage in occupations of everyday life; sensory interventions can work to promote life participation for people who may be in a state of ‘hyper’ or ‘hypo’ arousal, and therefore not functioning at their best.

We each have a unique sensory profile which explains both how much sensory input we can tolerate as well as what types of sensory input we gravitate toward (and avoid). People with certain health conditions, such as depression, anxiety or ADHD, can sometimes have additional challenges with sensory processing which can be explored with an occupational therapist through the administration of a sensory profile assessment.

Put simply, some people have a smaller ‘sensory cup’ than most – as in, they have a low threshold for sensory information and quickly feel ‘at capacity’ when processing sensory inputs from their surroundings. Others may have a larger ‘sensory cup’ than most, meaning they require more sensory input to recognize and interpret the sensory information around them. To further highlight just how individualized all of this is: someone may be particularly sensitive to a particular sense but not another. For example, one person might crave tactile input to relax and calm down, whereas another may feel ‘touched out’ and avoid this particular input – and perhaps auditory stimuli is more effective for their regulation.

Most people fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to sensory processing. Despite this, we can all benefit from sensory strategies to calm or alert our system when in a state of stress or overwhelm. Once you know more about your own preferences, you can feel empowered to use your own specific strategies to assist in returning to your optimal arousal zone and continue to function and thrive throughout your day.

I’ve included some ideas below to get you thinking about sensory strategies according to each of the seven senses. Remember, these preferences are personal and what one person finds ‘calming’, another person may find ‘alerting’. It can be helpful to create your own list which you can refer to this next time you need support to calm or alert your nervous system!

TOUCHHand cream, warm water, weighted blanket, hug, soft blanketCold water, fresh air, bare feet on grass
TASTEHerbal tea, chocolateSour lollies, mints, ice cold water, coffee
SIGHTOcean, trees/nature, sunset, dim lightsCity lights, sunrise, bright lights
SOUNDWaves crashing, birds singing, slow/calm musicUpbeat/loud music, loud laughter
SMELLLavender scents/oils, smell of home bakingCitrus scents/oils, smell of coffee
PROPRIOCEPTIONYin yoga, tai chi, stretching, weighted blanket‘Heavy’ work such as vacuuming, hot yoga, high intensity exercise
VESTIBULARRocking/glider chair, swaying, gentle walkingSpinning on a chair, bouncing on an exercise ball

If you would like to better understand how your sensory system functions, and develop regulation strategies specific to you for optimal daily functioning, contact Pandion Health to discuss this further with an experienced Occupational Therapist.