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How Do Our Senses Affect Our Mental Health?


Working as a counselor has shown me how much our senses actually influence our mental health. I see it in the child who has ADHD and needs constant sensory input to stay regulated. I hear about it from the overstimulated mom at the end of a long day with loud kids. I see it in the decrease in anxiety reported by clients after starting a practice of mindfulness. I see and feel it in my own life when I catch myself trying to do too much, or when I slow down and pay attention to what’s going on around me. 


When we think about our senses, we typically think about the typical five - visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile. These five senses affect our moods and our mental health in many ways. Think about how looking at nature scenes can calm us down, or how looking at pictures of our loved ones can bring up happy or loving feelings. The opposite is also true. Seeing something that we fear instantly increases stress in our bodies. The same applies to auditory input – listening to music can bring up all sorts of feelings, hearing our children cry or a flying bug buzz right past our ear can instantly make us stressed. Our olfactory and gustatory senses often work together. Think about the smell and flavor of your favorite drink or meal (yum!) and then think about the last time you felt sick and threw up. Our senses can bring back both pleasant and unpleasant memories and feelings. 


While we tend to mostly focus on these five senses if we’re feeling overstimulated, or when practicing mindfulness, these are not the only senses that affect how we feel. The three lesser-known senses can also affect our mental health as well. Proprioception is the sense involved in activities that require motor control, such as writing, playing a musical instrument, running, or throwing a ball. It also plays a role in activities that involve heavy work or deep pressure, such as lifting weights or carrying something heavy. Engaging in activities that provide deep pressure or proprioceptive input, such as hugging, squeezing, or receiving a massage, can have a calming effect on our nervous system. 


The vestibular sense provides us with information about our body's movement, balance, and spatial orientation. It works closely with our proprioception sense to help us maintain our balance while we do certain activities. Just like with proprioceptive input, activities that provide vestibular input, such as swinging, spinning, or rocking, can have a calming effect on our nervous system. In both senses, if we get input that is too strong (think of a bear hug), or too unexpected (a jarring movement like a sudden stop in a car), it can startle or dysregulate our nervous system instead of calm it down. 


Lastly, the interoceptive sense is responsible for perceiving internal bodily sensations, like hunger cues, whether we’re feeling too hot or cold, if we need to use the bathroom, or how our body reacts to/feels different emotions. Our interoceptive sense can also impact our emotional state and mindfulness practices that focus on interoceptive awareness, such as the body scan or mindful breathing can help support our mental well-being.


 

Barbara Johns, LPC Associate

I believe that in order to heal, people need to have a safe space where they can explore what is contributing to their problems and how they can use their difficulties as fuel for personal growth in order to turn things around and live life the way they really want to. My goal is to provide you with that safe and supportive environment as well as with new tools and skills that you can take with you on your journey toward healing and growth.

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