How to Use All 5 Senses to Beat Stress
New research leads to tips you've never considered.
Posted Feb 04, 2015
Everyone gets stressed out sometimes. With all the hassles of everyday life, it's easy for a bad day to take a downward spiral. From relationship pressures, to work frustrations, to the vagaries of mood, we could all use some effective ways to calm down now and then.
How can we improve our moods?
Studies show that you can feel better by engaging the five senses—and that stands to reason when you consider how the demands of modern life disconnect the mind from the body. Here are 5 research-backed ways to de-stress and connect more deeply to your senses:
- Take a whiff.
The sense of smell is our oldest, and works in intriguing ways. For example, olfaction and memory are deeply intertwined. Ever wonder why certain smells, like chocolate chip cookies, can transport you back to memories from childhood? Yet the sense of smell can also have a powerful influence on our moods. Consider a study in which participants inhaled the aroma of jasmine tea for five minutes, resulting in slower heart rates and calmer moods. The researchers point to the chemical linalool, one of the major components in jasmine tea, which can calm the autonomic nervous system.
- Behold calming colors.
Humans are intensely visual creatures, and studies show that we respond to colors in differential ways. Take the color green: It has been found to have soothing effects across various contexts. Similarly, cooler shades of blue and green, as well as neutral earth tones, have calming effects through their associations with nature. Keeping plants at home or at the office may promote more relaxation than is readily understood.
- Sample a taste.
Our sense of taste has been essential to our survival. The evolution of bitter taste, for example, has helped us avoid poisons. Sweets are a different story. In one study of chocolate, researchers found that ingesting it causes the brain to produce natural opiates, which dulls pain and boosts well-being.
- Listen up.
The relaxation people experience when in nature appears to be linked not just to the sights, but the sounds. In a new study, participants watched a highly disturbing three-minute video of a hand surgery, complete with close up images of exposed tissues beneath the skin. Those who listened to a recording of a natural soundscape afterward demonstrated greater “mood recovery” compared to a group that listened to the same soundscape but with man-made sounds added, such as voices and cars.
- Hug it out.
Humans need to be touched—and we don't fare well without physical contact. At the extreme, children in orphanages who are deprived of such affection demonstrate failure to thrive and developmental delays. No wonder studies have found that a simple embrace can improve our moods. The act of hugging increases oxytocin, often described as the "bonding hormone." It can also decrease cortisol and stress levels. One study found that women whose partners hug them more have comparatively higher levels of oxytocin and lower blood pressure and heart rates. No one to hug? Pet a dog. Research shows that it boosts oxytocin levels in both human and canine alike.
Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.
Connect with Dr. Mehta on the web at drvinitamehta.com and on Twitter and Pinterest!
See Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.
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