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7 Sensory Tools for Better Mental Health


Sight. Smell. Hearing. Touch. Taste.

Our primary senses do much more than enable us to see, smell, hear, feel, and taste. We are learning that, if nurtured regularly and deliberately, our senses can also help us heal.

Cherie Burton, a holistic psychologist, speaker, and writer, joined me recently on the Emotions Mentor podcast to discuss multi-sensory healing, a relatively new but promising modality that can be helpful in treating depression and other mental illnesses. 

Activating and nourishing our sensory pathways, Cherie explains, can help support—and even change—our physical and mental health. 

A manifestation of the power between our senses and our physical health is found when examining the receptors that enable the sense of smell. Olfactory receptors—which are actually proteins or clusters of proteins within a cell—play a critical role in the sense of smell. 

When airborne chemicals from food, animals, flowers, waste—or anything else that has a scent—enter the nose, they bind to these olfactory receptors. This binding action activates a series of responses that send a message to the brain, telling you what something smells like. For decades, scientists believed these receptors existed only in the nose and only for the purpose of detecting odors.

In the past ten to fifteen years, however, scientists have discovered that these same receptors live in other parts of the body, including the heart, lungs, and intestine. And the receptors in these areas potentially do much, much more than detect odors. 

“Scientists have revealed that, once activated, olfactory receptors can make cells divide, proliferate, move, and release chemical messengers,” says medical journalist Catharine Paddock (PhD).

A fascinating example of this phenomenon is the literal chemical reaction that often occurs when a mother breathes in the scent of her newborn child. 
Not only does the brain register what the scent is, but a chemical process triggers the release of dopamine—the feel-good neurotransmitter that fuels the brain’s reward center—into the mother’s blood stream. 

Likewise, studies have shown that a crying baby can be calmed when a shirt or gown recently worn by his mother—and thus carrying her scent—is placed next to him.

Ongoing research suggests it is not only the sense of smell that opens up pathways to healing. All of the senses can be harnessed in ways to connect the mind and spirit. In fact, doctors and therapists have begun to help patients through light therapy, auditory stimulation, and more. 

Tapping into this sensory power can be done in a number of ways; one of the easiest is described below.

This method incorporates nearly all of the senses and can be done almost anywhere in just a minute or two. You can use it casually to help in the moment, or you can be more serious about it and do some one-time advance work that will allow the method to be fully practiced on a regular basis. 

1. Look around you for a moment and pick out something of beauty that you can see. 

In your home, you can even have areas permanently set up that you go to or look at when you need to open up your senses: a vase of flowers, a piece of art, a picture of your family, a colorful pillow, etc. 

2. Have a journal and a pen or pencil nearby. 

The best-practices approach to this would be to use a journal that has meaning to you, something you’ve picked out just for this purpose. But you can also grab a sheet of paper or a sticky note or even skip the writing part of the method.

3. Have an essential oil ready. 

Using an oil can be skipped if you’re in a rush or don’t have access to an oil. However, some advance work here will go a long way and need only be done once. At the end of this article are a few tips to help you choose an oil to use. 

4. Think of a phrase or mantra that you want to believe—something that is positive and profound. 

Cherie’s favorite mantra to use during times of stress or anxiety is “peace, be still.” But yours might be something like “I am enough” or “I can do hard things.” Make it something simple but powerful.

5. With your mantra in mind, close your eyes and take in a deep breath through the nose over four or five seconds. 

As you breathe in, do two things: inhale the oil you’ve picked out and repeat the first portion of your mantra in your mind. Cherie, for example, thinks the word peace. Exhale slowly while repeating the rest of the mantra in your mind. In Cherie’s example, she thinks the words be still. Repeat this two or three times with your eyes closed.

6. Open your eyes and immediately focus them on the beautiful thing you picked out in step 1. 

As you focus on that thing of beauty, speak your mantra out loud. 

7. Write down your mantra in your journal. 

Alternatively, write down any thoughts you are feeling. 

Through this process, you activate your sense of smell (from the oil), your sense of sight (from the thing of beauty), your sense of sound (from hearing your own voice speak truth), and your sense of touch (from physically putting words to paper). 

Daily practice will help you develop resilience, peace, and self-love. On-demand practice can calm you during periods of anxiety, provide re-assurance during times of struggle, and relax you during times of overactivity and pressure.

Essential Oil Tips

Pick an oil to use in your sensory healing that not only appeals to your sense of smell but also has properties shown to help whatever it is you’re trying to heal.

Oils to ground you: vetiver, sandalwood, frankincense, myrrh, copaiba, cedarwood, doTerra Balance blend

Oils to motivate you: Douglas fir, Siberian fir, rosemary, peppermint, fennel, eucalyptus, juniper berry, doTerra Motivate blend 

Oils to cheer you up: clary sage, wild orange, grapefruit, lime, lavender, green mandarin, doTerra Cheer blend, doTerra Citrus Bliss blend

Oils to help you forgive (yourself and others): bergamot, ylang ylang, melissa, rose, Roman Chamomile, lavender, frankincense, doTerra Forgive blend  

Best Wishes, 
Rebecca Hintze 

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To check out the Emotions Mentor Podcast on sensory tools for healing, click here!