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Disrupting Emotions - Use Your Senses!

The other night, I started feeling particularly anxious. I found myself lost in my thoughts, feeling overwhelmed by the things I needed to accomplish the next day. And, honestly, it wasn’t helpful. Worrying about all I had to do wasn’t going make it any easier for me to get them done the next day. In fact, if I had allowed my anxiety to interrupt my sleep, I likely would have been less productive when I needed to be. I was feeding into my anxiety without any perceivable benefit.

If this sounds familiar to you—whether it’s with anxiety, sadness, frustration, anger, or any other emotion—there’s a reason. Because your brain is designed to make connections and link things together, it can work to reinforce (and even amplify) your experience of an emotion.

For example, once I start to feel anxious, my brain does a great job bringing in other anxious thoughts: “Will I have enough time to get everything done? Is my wife still upset about that disagreement we had yesterday? If so, how will I smooth things over?” And similar thoughts just keep coming. My brain will even start to look for new things to be anxious about: “My dog seems to be breathing fast – is that normal? Is she okay?”

Anxious thoughts reinforce the feeling of anxiety, and the anxiety evokes new anxious thoughts. It’s easy to feel stuck in this negative feedback loop. So, how do we begin to disrupt this pattern? While there are many ways to help yourself become unstuck, I want to share the one I used the other night to help me let go of my anxiety: using my senses.

When we get caught up in negative emotional loops, we begin to lose touch with what is actually true and real in the present moment. Focusing on what is literally there in the room with us can help us feel more grounded and help fend off thoughts that feed the emotions. We can do this by focusing our attention on one of the most basic building blocks of present-moment experience: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.

When you’re noticing that your thoughts have begun to feed into a negative emotion you are experiencing, experiment with any combination of the following:

  • Sight: Take a moment to look around. What is close by you? What is further away? Notice the light in your environment. Is it soft or bright? Does it create shadows? Now pay attention to colors. Notice which colors feel good to look at and which you’d prefer to pass by.

  • Sound: Next, pay attention to the sounds around you. The loudest sounds, if there are any, might be most obvious. Try to notice other sounds, such as the sound of your own breathing. Notice how sensations in your body change in response to different sounds.

  • Touch: Explore the textures around you with your hands or feet, or your arms, legs, or even your face. Find something soft and experiment with different forms of touch, from using light brushes over the material to pressing more firmly in one place. Explore other surfaces, continuing to experiment with different ways of touching. You may also notice the temperature of the objects as well as the temperature of the air on your skin. Notice how your internal experience changes with different textures and different forms of touch.

  • Taste: Notice the taste currently in your mouth. Introduce other tastes; take a sip of water or tea, perhaps. Or, you could even brush your teeth or rinse with mouthwash. As you introduce these other tastes, notice again how your body responds.

  • Smell: Bring your attention to your nose and notice whatever scents you can detect. Similar to working with taste, begin to introduce other smells. Walk into your closet and smell your clothes. Go to your kitchen and try smelling different foods. Go from indoors to out and notice how the smells change. Seek out smells that help you feel calm, relaxed, or content.

Every once in a while, check in with yourself to see how you are feeling. Hopefully, by getting more in touch (pardon the pun) with what’s around you, your body has had a chance to relax and let go of the negative emotion.

However, if you have a hard time staying with the experience of your senses, that’s okay. Choosing where you place your attention is a skill that requires practice. If you are having trouble, adding structure may help. For instance, you can set out to find an object matching each color of the rainbow, put on a song that you love and reflects the mood you’d like to be in, or you might put on your favorite perfume or cologne. You may even want to create a “sense station” in your home full of sights, sounds, textures, smells, and tastes that you find calming or put you in a better mood so that you don’t have to seek them out each time you need them.

If you are feeling stuck in a negative emotion, please contact me to discuss other techniques as well as how counseling can help you disrupt the pattern and lay the groundwork for long-lasting, significant change.

Blanket image courtesy of kathryn.

Brushing teeth image courtesy of Antonio Foncubierta.

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