Treat Yourself: Sensory Valentine

On Pinterest, there are hundreds of links on how to make a sensory bin or do sensory activities for your kids. We know through all of our OT-forward wisdom that it is important to integrate sensory components in your child’s development. But what about us?

Our adult sensory system allows us to regulate our arousal levels to appropriately engage and complete our daily routine. When we ignore what our body is seeking in order to make it through the day, we can become agitated or distracted and those nearest and dearest become unfortunate casualties (sorry spouse).

We’re starting to hate the phrase “self-care” because it’s turned into all this noise about buying stuff and going to spas. This is called “prescribed balance”; it’s all of these things that society says we should do because it’s supposed to help us fix ourselves. In reality, it’s just another to-do list unless you are actually listening to what your body needs.

Those little things—from the smell of pancakes and bacon in the morning, to feeling the cool breeze during an evening stroll, to snuggling up under the covers while reading a good book—all have a sensory component and can be the unsung heroes of our own recovery. Here are some sensory suggestions to help you reset your happy.

Note: Although many of these activities incorporate more than one sense, we’ve categorized it based on the primary sense being utilized.

Touch – activated by anything that comes in contact with our skin

  • A warm bath to calm, a hot shower to destress, or a cold spritz to wake up. Add bath bombs, essential oils, or tranquil music to enhance the ambiance.
  • Lather up with some lotion or body butter. Not only does it moisturize your skin, but applying it provides deep pressure that can be comforting.
  • Wear clothes that feel good on the skin. Think organic cotton, bamboo, merino wool, linen, or cashmere and silk if you’re feeling fancy.
  • Go shopping, or at least browse your favorite stores. Feeling and manipulating different objects and textures, like fabrics, books, or knick-knacks, can be quite soothing.
  • Take a painting or pottery class. The handling of these art mediums can provide a calming effect, sending us into a focused flow state.

Proprioception – stimulated by muscle activation and joint movement

  • Get a massage. These release tension or aches held in the muscles and joints. Throw in some aromatherapy or hot stones to elicit other sensory systems.
  • Get a workout session in to alleviate stress. Add some music to find a rhythm when completing reps and sets (it also makes the time go by quicker).
  • Do some cooking or baking. Mixing, kneading, stirring; all of these are proprioceptive and rhythmic in nature which can regulate our nervous system.
  • Dance. Moving your body can get you in the right state to start the day. The Encanto soundtrack in the morning has been doing that for me in the last few weeks. I blame the kids for this one.
  • Curling up in a thick, heavy, or weighted blanket.

Vestibular – triggered by head orientation changes regarding speed and direction

  • Go for a drive. The act of driving can be enjoyable as it hones in your focus and can get you to a flow-state. You could also take the scenic route or find new roads to travel, driving at a leisurely pace. Add in the auditory component by blasting music to tune out the rest of the world. Avoid heavy stop-and-go traffic.
  • Do yoga that incorporates inversions (poses where your heart is above your head) to release tension as well as modify mood and arousal level.
  • Lounge on suspended equipment, like hammocks or swings. The rhythmical rocking and swaying can provide a calming effect (remember, repetition means regulation).
  • Try an aerial yoga or a bungee fitness class. Not only does it provide many opportunities to move your head and body in different planes but can energize and focus you as well.
  • Enjoy the water. Swimming or floating all both activate the vestibular sense. If you’re fancy, try a float tank (also known as an isolation tank) where all other sensory systems are suppressed, leaving you to just relax and float.

Visual – stimulated by light to determine contrast, color, and movement

  • Catch some alone time with a movie or TV series YOU want to watch. Current faves on my list are The Outer Banks, Into the Badlands, and reality shows. If screen time is not your thing, tap into your visual imagery by reading.
  • Challenge your visual skills with games and puzzles. You can go techy with apps or go old-school with puzzles and word searches.
  • Invest in a night sky projector. Many come with color, brightness, and rotation options to find your just-right chill experience. Pair it with soothing sounds or guided meditation.
  • Take a trip to an art museum or visual immersive exhibits like Illuminarium.
  • Get black out curtains or eye masks to give your eyes a much needed rest since much of our daily experiences rely on our visual system.

Auditory – activated by vibration to locate, decipher, and discriminate sounds

  • Post up at your local coffee shop, bookstore, or diner. Not only is people watching a bit fun, but you may enjoy the ambient sounds from these locations while hanging out.
  • Converse with friends and family. Sure, it can be cathartic talking out problems or fun to just hang out, but some people’s voices are just intriguing to listen to (at least your ears would say so).
  • Download relaxation apps that provide calming and enjoyable sounds. I’m a fan of Calm purely because I enjoy the many actors/actresses telling me stories. ASMR is another popular option.
  • Create playlists for every mood or activity that just needs that extra “umph” to get done. You may pick upbeat tunes while you tidy the house or chill lo-fi beats while settling down for the night.
  • Purchase a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Use them when you’re overwhelmed by noise or prefer to have alone time with some peace and quiet.

Olfactory – activated by scents to detect odors

  • Be like Miley and buy yourself flowers, or candles, or essential oils. Scents can help alter mood and productivity.
    • Calming scents – lavender, jasmine, lemon, sandalwood, ylang-ylang, rose
    • Boosting smells – rosemary, cinnamon, peppermint, bergamot, coffee
  • Wear your favorite perfume or cologne. When you smell good, you feel good.
  • Take a walk or a hike on some nature trails. Breathing in some fresh, oxygen-rich air reduces stress and improves immunity.
  • This may not be enjoyable to some, but run a load of laundry or do some cleaning around the house to get a whiff of that clean scent. Not only does your home smell fresh, but everything is put away just the way you like it.

Gustatory – triggered by anything entering the mouth to determine taste and, with the help of the olfactory (smell) and tactile (touch) systems, can detect flavor, texture, and temperature

  • Be a foodie and try new things on a menu. You never know what new flavor combinations and textures you may enjoy (or absolutely dislike). Too much of a gamble? Take samples when perusing a cheese or gourmet food store or farmer’s market.
  • Make your favorite meal. Like smells, different tastes can affect our mood and attention. Also take time to savor and prolong the effect.
    • Food characteristics to alert – sour, sweet, spicy, salty, crunchy, chewy, cold
    • Food traits to calm – savory, soft, warm
  • Purchase your favorite flavor of toothpaste. Seems like such a small thing, but can make a difference in the morning and before bed. Some interesting ones I’ve come across are coconut, Himalayan pink salt, and ginger.
  • Alcohol or CBD. We’re all adults here, and Millennial ones at that. When taken responsibly, a glass of wine or a CBD gummy can help soften sensory stimuli and help you relax. Emphasis on responsibly.

Interoception – internally stimulated by our organs to notify us their wants/needs

  • Take a cat nap or relax when you are feeling tired.
  • Eat something you’re actually craving when you’re hungry.
  • Acknowledge when you are stressed or anxious and take some deep breaths to regulate.
  • Meditate when you are overwhelmed or unwinding from the day. Meditation apps can help with this.
  • When you have a lot on your mind, label and process your emotions with journaling or talking to trusted people.

There’s a lot of different ways to take care of yourself well beyond this list, and some of the suggestions aren’t pretty far off from what we normally would be doing to relax and unwind anyway. Another thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to do any of these things everyday. You don’t have to work in yoga or meditation every single morning if that’s not what your body needs. Don’t obsess that your doing relaxing wrong or feel pressure that your not becoming a better person. Just do what you need in the moment.

At any given point of the day, you may be looking to increase, simmer down, or even mute all of the sensory stimulus coming at you. The main point here is to make a habit of listening to what you need to keep yourself calm and collected.

So this Valentine’s Day, when you’re planning that nice treat-yo-self moment, look deep inside. You might want massages, mimosas, and fine leather goods. Whatever it is, do what makes you (and your sensory system) happy.

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Related Posts:
Creating a Sensory Diet: Arousal and Self-Regulation
All the Feels: ASMR
Namaste All Day: Kids Yoga
The Interoception System: Listening to Your Body
The Proprioception System: On My Own Two Feet
The Vestibular System: A Tale of Two Movements
Don’t Hold Your Breath: Deep Breathing to Regulate

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