University of Southern California
University of Southern California
Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
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Chan Division News

How your senses can help you better enjoy the holidays

Tips from an occupational therapist for a healthy, happy, holiday season.

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By Tessa Milman

Wondering how to manage stress this holiday season? Running out of time to recharge and relax?

As a full-time working mother of two little ones, I know what it is like to have limited “me time.” If you are feeling pressed for time at this time of year, consider using your senses to reduce stress and feel better.

Assistant Clinical Professor Tessa Milman, second from right, and family. (Photo courtesy of Tessa Milman)

Assistant Clinical Professor Tessa Milman, second from right, and family. (Photo courtesy of Tessa Milman)

Sensory processing approaches in occupational therapy mental health practice focus on supporting individuals by using sensory input to regulate mood and reduce stress. A key principle behind these approaches is identifying what kinds of sensory input feel “calming” or “alerting,” and then tapping into those senses accordingly.

Try incorporating the below examples of sensory input into your daily routine for reducing stress. These suggestions go beyond the five senses that most people are familiar with — sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing — and engage all seven of the body’s senses, including proprioceptive and vestibular inputs. In fact, the latter two may provide more long-lasting input.

1. Proprioceptive input

Proprioceptive input is the input received by receptors in your skin, muscles and joints as you move — it’s what gives you a sense of where your body is. Use this kind of input to feel more grounded by, for example, walking briskly to your car, chewing gum, stretching while folding laundry or taking a walk with a friend rather than meeting for coffee or a meal. If you have a few minutes to spare, the seven-minute workout, filled with proprioceptive input, is time efficient and provides a ton of input.

2. Vestibular input

Vestibular input provides information through receptors in the inner ear, which helps us identify where we are in three-dimensional space, providing a sense of orientation that can be alerting or calming. In particular, slow and linear input can be calming. If you have access to a glider chair or rocking chair, try swaying back and forth as you are reading, relaxing or watching TV. If you need to feel more alert, try going for a bike ride, weather permitting this time of year.

3. Touch

Deep pressure touch can be grounding and calming. Weighted blankets may decrease anxiety and arousal levels. If you are feeling starved for time to relax and can’t fit in a massage, try sleeping under a heavy quilt. Alternatively, try placing that heavy blanket (a weighted blanket will work even better) on your legs while typing on your laptop, reading, talking with friends, etc.

4. Auditory input

Auditory input directly impacts our emotional state. Since our breathing and heart rate respond to musical rhythms, music can lower our breathing and heart rate, or speed it up. Try listening to songs that have 60 beats per minute to support a sense of relaxed alertness. Of course, whatever music you enjoy also works well. I often get into the habit of constantly listening to the news, podcasts or audio books on Audible. While these options stimulate my mind, when I switch over to music I immediately feel a sense of release and relaxation.

5. Sense of smell

Smell is a protective sense — our ability to smell can protect us from potentially dangerous situations. Sense of smell is linked to the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls basic emotions. This means that certain smells can quickly evoke certain times in life and specific emotions. Consider incorporating scent into your daily routine with a pleasant bath wash, aromatherapy diffuser or a lotion with a smell that makes you particularly peaceful or at ease. Personally, I enjoy lavender, lemon and chamomile.

6. Vision

Vision is also a protective sense — it offers information about what is happening around us. Consider what kind of visual input soothes you and try to surround yourself with it. Here are some quick fixes you might try to soothe yourself: dim the lights, light a candle, turn on a bubble lamp or pick a few flowers and place them in a vase for an aesthetically pleasing display. I like to switch my computer background screen saver with images emailed to me weekly by a free stock photo site. When I don’t switch the background regularly I stop noticing it, so weekly emails with free images serve as a helpful reminder.

7. Taste

You have probably heard of comfort eating, whereby individuals indulge in favorite savory or sweet foods as a way of dulling difficult emotions. Taste can help focus your attention in the moment. This holiday season, try using flavors that awaken your senses or shift away from difficult emotions. In addition to enjoying sweet and savory foods, incorporate sour flavors to alert you or quickly shift your emotions — kiwis, mandarin oranges and raspberries are a few healthy options. Spicy and sour candies can help turn your attention to sensations in your mouth when you are feeling upset, bored or uneasy — I really enjoy the flavors of sour candy, in moderation.

If you enjoy reducing stress by incorporating different sensory experiences into your activities, check out Winnie Dunn’s book, Living Sensationally, which can help you better understand your sensory patterns and to use sensation in support of your own well-being.  If you find that certain types of sensory experiences are overwhelming, or that you need more support to use sensory experiences to calm, relieve stress and manage the emotions of the holidays, you may also want to consider reaching out to an occupational therapist.