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Try this “Five Senses” Practice to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

Author: Katie Oates, Contributing Wellness Editor

With all the incoming media, it’s easy to let our thoughts spiral into places that don’t serve us. During this time, one of the most productive things we can do for our personal health is to switch off the overdrive, gain control of our attention, and focus it on the tasks and people that need our support and help.

Whenever you need to slow down your thoughts and bring back some focus, one useful tool to try is called “The Five Senses.” Our friend Brian Nickerson, an MSW hospital social worker in Michigan, was asked to be the lead inpatient social worker in his local COVID19 unit, where he will be training a 50-person task force this week. Brian recommends doing the following exercise to get your mind back in your body by activating each sense one at a time. This practice, found to reduce stress and anxiety, is evidence-based and drawn from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). 

Start at the beginning of your day, in your kitchen, after minimizing distractions.

  1. Sight. Stop and try to catalog all the right angles you can see (doors, windows, tables, walls, mirrors, cutting boards, appliances, etc). This helps put your attention right behind your eyes, into your present space and out of the latest news story.

  2. Sound. Grab your headphones or plug up the speaker and play as loud as you are comfortable with a favorite go-to song on your playlist at the moment.

  3. Taste. Go into your fridge, or pantry, and look for something with vivid flavors, such as honey, salsa, dark chocolate, salt, lemon, or a piece of cheese. Focus on letting your receptors take in the flavors and sensations. What do you taste? Is it pleasant? What’s the consistency? Notice every sensation.

  4. Smell. Throw a few coffee beans into the grinder, or select your favorite tea or a favorite essential oil. Place your chosen aroma under your nose, close your eyes, and focus on the fragrance. Take a few deep breaths and notice what this smell triggers for you.

  5. Touch. Go into your freezer and pick out an ice cube, big enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Hold it in your hand until it melts completely. For the first ten seconds or so, it feels kind of silly, but that switches to intensity pretty quickly. It usually takes about two minutes for the ice cube to melt, and it can be unpleasant—but that tactile discomfort is precisely the point. Your mind can’t attend to anything else at that moment when your body is experiencing discomfort. It forces you to focus on your sense of touch completely, and away from other worries.

By calling our attention to each sense and sharpening them, we are learning to connect our minds and bodies with the present moment. When you notice your mind filling up with thoughts of anxiety or panic, start with one of the above to help bring your focus back to the here and now.

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