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I’m Jo Grace: a Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist and Founder of The Sensory Projects. In this series of 10 articles, I am going to share some of my passion for understanding the sensory world with you. In this article, we focus on the connection between mental health and your senses and learn how to utilise sensory experiences for improved mental health and well-being.

Connecting with your senses can be good for your mental health. To give a very rudimentary explanation, but one I am confident will resonate with many; take the experience of depression. Most people have at some time or other in their lives experienced feeling depressed. I will assume you have. And when you felt depressed, I imagine your instinct was to hide away, to shut down, to withdraw from sensation. Indeed, it has been shown that when you are depressed your senses can be dulled, particularly your sense of smell.

Depression takes you inward. When you connect with the sensory world, stretch out a hand to find out what something feels like, marvel at the way the dew catches the light, take a nibble of a friend’s dinner in a restaurant, you move outwards. In the same way that depression is inwards, an engagement with the sensory world is outwards, it pulls in the opposite direction. Connecting with the sensations you are experiencing is preventative of mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression.

It is wonderful to know that as you do your work sourcing materials for your setting, you can be protecting yourself from stress, anxiety, and depression. So, as you hunt around for colourful things to decorate your setting, or speculate about scented candles, or wonder about doing a cookery session, be sure to engage with it using all of your senses: touch, taste, smell, see and feel.

You can offer sensory prompts and cues to the children to encourage them to do the same, as they play you can ask: “What does that smell like?” “Could that make a noise?” “Do they feel different?” - drawing their attention to the sensations available to them. If you are supporting people who can process more complex instructions, you could move from an invite or an offer to a directed activity, for example, it is a common meditative activity to use awareness of your sensory landscape to pull you into the present moment, a sensory mindfulness as it were. Using a 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 countdown for this can work well: instruct the children to look at five different things (they can call out what they are looking at or they can simply try to find five different things to look at, it could be any five things or it could be five different coloured things or different shaped things).

Then, ask them to listen for four noises, touch three things, and then smell two things; this can simply be noticing the aroma in the room, and smelling one’s skin or clothing. Finally, taste one thing – you could offer a taste experience at this point or just invite them to notice the taste inside their mouth at that time.

Of course, the sensory world can be a distressing place and in upcoming articles we will explore this. But for now, I thought it would be fun to share some sensory pick-me-ups or sensory hugs that can be great for enhancing mental health:

Smell: peppermint is meant to stimulate your thinking, perking you up. A musk scent, lavender or camomile can be calming.

Taste: For a sensory hug you want something warm and sweet, sugary tea, or hot buttered toast.

Touch: Try something with a bit of weight to it that fits comfortably in the palm of your hand, or if you have a body brush: brush your body with long strokes that move away from the heart. If you do not have a body brush, just find a small dustpan and brush set and steal the brush from that.

Sight: Rose-tinted spectacles! Seriously, looking at things with a pinky hue is often found to be comforting.

Hearing: Seek out sibilant sounds, it is likely that you naturally “shhh shhh” distressed people, you can find similar sounds in nature in the swishing of leaves in the wind or the lapping of waves on the seashore.

When you stop and connect with a sensory moment, you take yourself out of your anxieties and worries, and into that sensation, into the present. It is a little bit of mindfulness in motion and can help you recognise that you are here and now: not in the awful things that may have happened before or the worrisome things that might be about to happen. At this moment it is you, in your body, experiencing this sensation. You are alive! Embrace the sensory world.

In my next article, I will be looking at how we can make the most of these sensory moments. Meanwhile, feel free to connect with me on social media to watch my current sensory adventures unfurl, all the connection links can be found on my website www.TheSensoryProjects.co.uk

Explore more in this series here:

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

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