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All day long, your five senses pick up sounds and smells, feel the sun on your skin and distinguish beautiful colors around you. You’re probably not even aware of this, until bright lights or loud music make you want to cover your eyes or ears.
When you’re living with chronic illness, chances are, you’re no stranger to sensory overload. In that case, your brain receives more input from your senses than it can process and organize, leaving you feeling overwhelmed, tired and brain fogged. But did you know that you can also ‘hack’ your senses to drastically improve your overall wellbeing?
Take a look at why engaging your five senses – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch – supports your health and happiness.
1. Stress relief
Paying attention to the sensations in your body and mind forms the basis of mindfulness – and you’ve probably heard how good that is for your health. That’s how bringing awareness to what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch can help you calm down and relieve stress.
When you engage your senses, you’re less likely to get stuck in your mind and connect more with your body. You worry less about the past or future, and be more in the present moment instead. What’s more, coping techniques you use to deal with everyday stress often involve one or more senses – digging into comfort food, distracting yourself with fun videos or soaking in a warm bath.
Being mindful of your senses helps to manage your stress levels, which in turn has a big impact on your overall wellbeing.
If you’ve ever watched a child play, you know that kids master the art of being present and fully engaging their senses. Young children literally are hands-on learners. No wonder that studies show that sensory play in kids promotes understanding and reasoning, problem-solving skills and creative thinking.
Engaging your senses builds and strengthens nerve pathways in the brain, both for kids and adults. That’s why using not just your sight, but also your hands and hearing helps you to memorize important data and learn new skills more easily. Multi-sensory learning can be especially helpful if brain fog and other chronic illness related cognitive problems make it challenging for you to work or study.
3. Energy levels
Natural daylight, bright colors and subtle citrus scents can all make you feel more alert and energetic, while too much background noise will ruin your workplace productivity. So if you’re struggling with fatigue, engaging your senses in the right way will help you get more done with less energy.
4. Promote health
According to professor Charles Spence, author of Sensehacking, interventions based on what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch can reduce pain levels and speed up recovery. Listening to music, for example, helps you to literally tune out painful sensations, just like holding hands with someone you love brings actual comfort.
What’s more, hands-on activities like drawing, knitting and gardening are known to reduce depression and anxiety. Getting out of your head and focusing on your bodily sensations drowns out negative thoughts and gives you back a sense of control.
And finally, engaging your senses can also promote a healthy lifestyle. For example, when you eat from smaller plates, you automatically reduce your portion size too, and turning on the right music will make your workout more effective.
With these scientific reasons in mind, how can you use this knowledge to support your health and promote healing?
How to Engage Your Senses for Healing
Ok, so engaging your five senses can help you to relieve stress, boost your energy levels, improve your memory and cognitive functioning and ease your pain. But how exactly do you use the power of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch to promote a healthy and happy life? Here are some therapeutic ideas you can easily incorporate into your daily life.
1. The power of nature
Being in nature engages all your senses at once. While watching the sun set over the sea, you feel a breeze on your skin, hear the waves crashing on the beach, smell the ocean and notice that subtle tase of salt on your lips. It’s no wonder that research confirms that the multi-sensory experience of nature boosts your physical and emotional wellbeing. How can you engage more with nature to support your health?
- Get your hands dirty in the garden. Being physically active outdoors and getting a dose of vitamin D producing sunshine are great for your health. Not to mention how mindful it can be get your hands in the soil and smell the flowers.
- Don’t have an outdoor area? Grow fresh herbs in a window box or keep air-purifying plants in your living room.
- Go forest bathing on the weekend. Even if you aren’t able to go for an invigorating walk, soak up the forest through your five senses. Breathing in the immune-boosting forest air and noticing the wind rushing through the leaves proves to be great for your overall health.
- Expose yourself to natural daylight in the morning. Research shows that catching the early morning light has a surprisingly positive impact on your mood, energy levels and mental alertness, while also promoting better sleep at night. So instead of automatically grabbing your phone upon waking, open the curtains, feel the sun on your skin and listen to the birds chirping.
- If you spend a lot of time at home, bring the outdoors indoors. Adorn your desk with flowers, use natural elements in your decor and place lavender sachets between your fresh laundry. Just looking at natural landscapes can actually help you to lower your pain levels and anxiety.
2. Art therapy – and other healing hobbies
Want to support your health, explore the world using all your senses and have fun all at the same time? Then art therapy is the way to go. Dancing to your favorite song can make you forget all your worries for a while, whereas painting and pottery can be a mindful way to express your deepest feelings. And you don’t have to be amazingly talented to get creative – just take a look at these ideas.
- Tune into the power of music. Listening to relaxing music can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, improve your sleep and even manage (chronic) pain, whereas upbeat songs significantly boost your mood. With that in mind, why not start your day on a good note with a power song? You can also play classical music while studying or working to effortlessly increase your focus and performance, or listen to soft music as you rest to promote your immunity, reduce stress and pain.
- In that spirit, try to sing more often! It’s the most fun way to get into a good mood, lower your stress levels and improve your breathing capacities and heart rate variability.
- Schedule weekly or monthly ‘artist dates’. Julia Cameron, the writer of ‘The Artist Way‘, describes artists dates as a way to devote time to your creative self on a regular basis. Creative activities help you to express difficult feelings, cope with stress and support your mental health, but we often don’t make time for it. So let’s add art therapy to your health routines by scheduling regular artist dates on your calendar! Here are 44 creative ideas to get you started.
- Replace one digital habit for a hands-on activity. No matter how much I love watching series, searching for new recipes and connecting online, they are passive forms of entertainment, and not really mindful ones. Working with your hands doesn’t just engage your sense of touch too, but it stimulates your brain, improves neuroplasticity and produces endorphins. According to dr. Kelly Lambert, author of ‘Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist’s Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain’s Healing Power’, hands-on activities like knitting, gardening and wood work can even reduce depression. If you’re not well enough for manual tasks, see if you can squeeze writing by hand, doodling or coloring, caring for plants or mindfully making a meal into your days.
3. Therapeutic touch
Giving a hug, holding hands or stroking someones arm – being touched by someone you love doesn’t just feel good, it actually benefits your mental and physical health. Soothing touch releases oxytocin, reduces stress and lowers your heart rate, resulting in a better functioning immune system. So how can you engage your sense of touch more?
- Reach out to your loved ones – literally. Get (back) into the habit of giving a hug hello, kissing your partner and kids at night, and asking for a comforting cuddle when you need one. Obviously under non-COVID conditions and with mutual consent.
- Explore the sensations of touch with self-massage. Gently rub your feet, circle your temples or use a self-massage tool for a relaxing experience. Not only does (self) massage release tension from your muscles, it also stimulates your blood and lymph circulation. And of course you can also book a professional massage.
- Up your self-care routines with dry brushing, body lotion or at -home facial massages. Your skin will be grateful!
- Experiment with comfortable forms of sexual touch. When you’re chronically ill, being intimate with your partner can become a lot more complicated. But skin-to-skin contact is such a vital part of bonding, that it’s worth exploring ways to connect physically that still feel good. You can find more tips here.
- Got a scary medical procedure coming up? Studies show that holding hands with someone you love or even just looking at their picture can lower the amount of pain you experience.
Your nose influences your everyday life more than you realize. To detect smoke, rotten foods or potential suitable partners in time, olfactory signals travel quickly to the limbic system, the oldest region in your brain which also controls your emotions and memory. That’s why the scent of sunscreen can take you straight back to that unforgettable summer, and your mommas lasagna brings back memories of your child hood. Why not tap into that power of smell to promote your healing?
- Turn your tub time into a health-boosting ritual by soaking in scented water. You can add essential oils, dried herbs and flowers to your baths. Lavender and chamomile, for example, are known to relax your body and improve your sleep, whereas rosemary can be used for a more invigorating soak.
- Use essential oils to influence your mood and alertness. You can diffuse citrus scents and peppermint to boost your energy and improve your performance, or burn a scented vanilla candle to feel happier.
- Feeling congested? Make your own eucalyptus steam inhalation to to help clear out your sinuses and respiratory tract.
- Stop and smell the roses. Become aware of all the scents in your life that bring you joy: the smell of coffee in the morning, fresh-cut grass or the Christmas tree, your sleeping kids, that perfume you wore during a happy time in your life. Maybe you feel like treating yourself to a new fragrant body lotion, essential oil starter set or a bunch of fresh flowers to fully engage your senses?
5. A taste of health
There’s no tastier way to engage all your senses – especially the undervalued taste and smell – than cooking. Chopping up vegetables, kneading dough and stirring fragrant pots of food are hands-on activities that ground you in the present moment. Making your own meals has many benefits for your body and mind, so get a taste of health too:
- Aromatic herbs are not just for seasoning – they spice up your health too. Culinary staples like oregano, basil, garlic, ginger and cinnamon are all packed with disease-fighting nutrients. So don’t just sprinkle parsley over your potatoes, but get generous. Star fresh herbs in your salads, make your own pesto, spice up your lattes and infuse water with mint.
- What’s more comforting than making – and eating! – freshly baked cookies? Baking is a mindful activity that forces you to put down your phone, get your hands dirty and pay attention to your senses. It only comes with one warning: don’t eat all those cupcakes at once!
- Every chef knows we eat with our eyes first. Putting lots of different colors on your plate doesn’t just make your dish look more appealing, it also ensures you get a wide range of vitamins and minerals in. No more beige meals for you!
- Learn to appreciate a bitter taste. From the moment we are born, humans have a strong preference for sweet and fatty foods. But bitter ingredients like leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, apple cider vinegar, grapefruit and tonics actually play an important role in maintaining good gut health. What’s more, bitter foods help curb your cravings and keep your blood sugar levels stable. That’s worth working more bitters into your diet, right?
- Practice savoring. Savoring is the art of consciously enjoying wonderful moments, by noticing and appreciating the good things in life. So instead of quickly eating your lunch on the go, take a moment to sit down and really taste your food. You won’t just enjoy your meals more, but also automatically consume less calories.
If you’d like to learn more about using your five senses for a healthy, happy life, you should check out Sensehacking by professor Charles Spence. Packed with cutting-edge research and helpful tricks for your home, workplace and love life.
How would you engage your senses to promote healing?
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