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Stressed around the holidays? Learn how your senses can help you relax

These easy tips can make all the difference — and they go beyond the five senses that most people are familiar with

holiday senses
USC experts recommend trying a weighted blanket, scented candles or holiday flavors as a seasonal way to relieve stress. (Photo/iStock)

The holidays can be a feast for the senses — literally. You can use your senses during this often-overwhelming time to reduce stress, recharge and relax.

Try incorporating these examples of sensory input into your daily routine for reducing stress. These suggestions go beyond the five senses that most people are familiar with.

TOUCH: Deep pressure touch can be grounding and calming. Weighted blankets may decrease anxiety and arousal levels. If you are feeling starved for time to relax and can’t fit in a massage, try sleeping under a heavy quilt. Or try placing that heavy blanket on your legs while typing on your laptop, reading, talking with friends, etc.

SOUND: Auditory input directly impacts our emotional state. Since our breathing and heart rate respond to musical rhythms, music can lower our breathing and heart rate, or speed it up. Try listening to songs that have 60 beats per minute to support a sense of relaxed alertness. Of course, whatever music you enjoy also works well.

SMELL: Smell is a protective sense — our ability to smell can protect us from potentially dangerous situations. Consider incorporating scent into your daily routine with a pleasant bath wash, aromatherapy diffuser or a lotion with a smell that makes you particularly peaceful or at ease like lavender, lemon or chamomile.

SIGHT: Vision is also a protective sense — it offers information about what is happening around us. Consider what kind of visual input soothes you and try to surround yourself with it. Some quick fixes to soothe yourself: Dim the lights, light a candle, turn on a bubble lamp or pick a few flowers and place them in a vase for an aesthetically pleasing display. Another idea: Switch your computer background screen saver each week with images from a free stock photo site.

TASTE: Taste can help focus your attention in the moment. This holiday season, try using flavors that awaken your senses or shift away from difficult emotions. In addition to enjoying sweet and savory foods, incorporate sour flavors to alert you or quickly shift your emotions — kiwis, mandarin oranges and raspberries are a few healthy options. Spicy and sour candies can help turn your attention to sensations in your mouth when you are feeling upset, bored or uneasy.

PROPRIOCEPTIVE INPUT: This is the input received by receptors in your skin, muscles and joints as you move — it’s what gives you a sense of where your body is. Use this kind of input to feel more grounded by, for example, walking briskly to your car, chewing gum, stretching while folding laundry or taking a walk with a friend rather than meeting for coffee or a meal.

VESTIBULAR INPUT: This provides information through receptors in the inner ear, which helps us identify where we are in three-dimensional space, providing a sense of orientation that can be alerting or calming. In particular, slow and linear input can be calming. If you have access to a glider chair or rocking chair, try swaying back and forth as you are reading, relaxing or watching TV. If you need to feel more alert, try going for a bike ride.

If you find that certain types of sensory experiences are overwhelming, or that you need more support to use sensory experiences to calm, relieve stress and manage the emotions of the holidays, you may also want to consider reaching out to an occupational therapist.


The author is an assistant professor of clinical occupational therapy with the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. An extended version of this story appears on the USC Chan Division website.

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