Use Your 5 Senses To Manage Overwhelming EmotionsPublished February 24, 2023 by Sheila Anne Murray
Cara works in a high-pressure sales environment for a technology company. She loves the work but has had trouble managing the expectations of new goals, social obligations, and general life responsibilities. Sometimes she finds herself barely able to catch her breath and ends the day by numbing with Netflix and social media. Cara had seen therapists in the past and had made major progress on healing her anxiety. Her therapist invited her to start working with a coach on her goals related to well-being, stress management, and confidence.
As I do with all of my clients, Cara and I spent our first 90 minute session together looking at all the different aspects of her life (from love life, to career, to wealth) and mapping out her micro and macro goals. Cara shared that one of the biggest challenges she faced was managing moments when she became so overwhelmed by her emotions that it completely took over her day and kept her from being present with her work and with her loved ones. She wanted to learn tools for managing these moments so she could feel more at peace and more in control.
Cara is not a unicor;, most of the clients I work with live in a state of flight/fight and seek tools for managing overwhelming emotions. Engaging the five senses is one of the easiest and most effective places to get started to practice self regulation and manage emotions. While I’ve been teaching these tools for a while to my private and group coaching clients, I thought it was time to put it into blog form so it can be easily accessible by all!
- Notice three things in your space. This is one of the quickest and easiest ways to engage your sense of sight to manage overwhelming emotions. Even right now, no matter where you are reading this blog, notice three things in your space. Perhaps you see a photo, a jar of pens, a carpet, or the light streaming in your window. Notice three things and bring your eyes to gaze at each one for a few seconds, then repeat.
- Look at beautiful art, whether it’s art at your personal pace, you take time to travel to an art gallery, or you tour a “virtual gallery” like the National Gallery.
- Mindfully watch nature. It’s no secret that nature benefits our mental health but you don’t necessarily need to fully immerse yourself to experience those benefits. Simply watching nature out a window can focus your attention away from your overwhelming emotional response and help your nervous system to regulate.
- Gaze at the sky. If possible, lay on the earth and gaze up at clouds or stars. Not only will you be mindfully directing your sense of sight but you will also receive the benefits of earthing
- Look at a photo of a loved one. It can be really nice to have a photo that makes you happy close by. You can change your phone background to a photo of you and a loved one, your dog, or your friends. Next time you notice yourself feeling an intense emotion, rest your eyes on the photo for 30 - 60 seconds and notice how you feel.
- Light a candle in your space then find a soft gaze or close your eyes completely and tune into the smell of the candle. I recommend candles that are made from natural products and with natural scents. Personally, some candles that are super fragrant can cause me to get a headache. You’ll find what works well for you!
- Use essential oils. These days essential oils come in all different forms, such as rollers and room sprays. If you live in a dry state like me, you might choose to use essential oils in conjunction with your lotion or body oil. Some of my favorite soothing oils are lavender, vanilla, chamomile, and sage.
- Make fresh bread. We make a lot of sourdough bread in our house and I always find the smell to be calming to my body and mind. If you have a different baked good, incorporate it! The idea is to focus your attention on the smell while the item is baking and once you pull it out of the oven. Enjoy!
- Squeeze a lemon. There is nothing quite like the potent smell of a lemon. Next time you feel overwhelmed by an emotion, roll out a lemon, cut it open, and squeeze it into water and tea. Not only will you smell the lemon in the process but you will likely have a lemon smell on your hands too. Take a moment to be mindfully aware of the smell.
- Notice noises around you. Even now, in this moment, pause and notice… What noises are there in the distance? Find the furthest sound. What noises are close by? Find the closest sound. Now find a sound somewhere in the middle.
- Gently hum to yourself. Tune into the sound of the hum and play with humming at higher and lower pitches, then softer and louder. Not only can you incorporate the sense of hearing here but you will also stimulate your vagus nerve, which soothes your nervous system. Notice if you can feel the vibration in your body of your humming.
- Listen to soothing or uplifting music. You likely have your own lived experience on how music makes you feel. Perhaps you can recount a time you were singing in a car with friends, the elated feeling after a concert, or the moment a teacher turned on the most perfect savasana song to close a yoga class. Listening to music impacts your mood and you can leverage this by playing music that matches the emotion you want to feel. I recommend trying to play uplifting music in the morning to start your day and calming music as you wind down at the end of the day. I am also a big proponent of a 2 PM dance break if you tend to hit afternoon slumps.
- Tune in to the sound of your breath. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you may remember practicing ujjayi pranayama (or ocean breath) where you inhale and exhale through your nose and the sound is reminiscent of waves lightly crashing on the shore. This is one of my favorite breathing practices to incorporate and listen to as an intentional attention redirection. That said, you can tune into the sound of your breath at any time. During a moment of overwhelm, simply draw your attention to the sound of your breathing. Oftentimes we can be holding and constricting our breathing without even knowing it so this will help in more ways than one!
- Enjoy a warm drink. Make yourself a tea, coffee, or hot chocolate and spend time sipping it. Be mindfully aware of what you taste, as if you are having it for the first time in your life. What flavor notes do you sense? What does the warm liquid feel like in your mouth and your body? Is the taste reminiscent of a specific memory?
- Eat something spicy or textured. Spicy food tends to grab our attention, and you can use this to your advantage to manage overwhelming emotions. You may make a drink with turmeric, add hot sauce to your meal, or try a snack with a blend of cayenne and cinnamon. On the other hand, eating textured food can also be attention grabbing, especially when you pause and pay attention.
- Have your favorite snack and eat it slowly. When you’re experiencing a moment of overwhelming stress, sadness, or anger, making your favorite snack may not be your first instinct. Doing this will not only be a way to mindfully engage your sense of taste, it will also be an act of self love and kindness during a time of distress.
- Try something sour or sweet. Going back to our lemon, in smell, the adding a healthy dose of lemon to water or tea can be just enough potency to hold your attention. You can also suck on hard candy, eat a green apple, or enjoy something sweet and juicy. It’s all about taking a moment to pay extra attention to the taste you’re experiencing.
- Give / receive a hug. What a divine way to approach your experience of overwhelming emotion! Hugging has a calming effect on our bodies and can help to build resilience! So give it a try — hug a pet, partner, or friend and see how it impacts your mood.
- Lay under a weighted blanket. This is one of my favorite tools in recent years. The pressure of a weighted blanket is so soothing, even my dog loves it! It simulates therapeutic touch and stimulates the body’s pressure points, soothing the nervous system and bringing it back to equilibrium.
- Snuggle with your pet. Nervous systems are always talking to and regulating with one another. Just as people co-regulate with people around, they can also co-regulate with animals! Furthermore, stroking an animal can lower blood pressure and reduce stress. Don’t underestimate the power of being around your pet, snuggling with your pet, or smiling at the things they do.
- Alternate with a warm and cool shower. If you are especially impacted by the sense of touch, this can be a fantastic tool to tap into! Next time you are feeling overwhelmed, hop in the shower and alternate temperatures, focusing on how it feels on your skin and in your body.
- Hold ice / cup of ice water in your hands. Similar to the above but even easier, holding onto something cold can have the same effect. The biggest hurdle when working with emotions is typically getting your mind off the stressor, and holding ice can be just the thing to move your thoughts elsewhere! You might even try popping an ice cube in your mouth to experience a similar impact.
Cara spent the two weeks between our sessions trying some of these practices. When we met up again she shared that engaging the sense of hearing worked the best for her. She found success listening to noises around her during moments of anxiety and playing soothing music before bed. I invited her to create a playlist that she could easily tune in to every evening. She named it “Cara’s Calm Tunes”!
If you’re like Cara, I invite you to try one or two of these practices for yourself and see what you learn! Have patience with yourself, as developing the ability to consciously respond to overwhelming emotions takes time. Could you benefit from personalized support with stress, burnout, and emotional overwhelm? I’d love to connect on a call and talk about how we could work together.