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Self-Care & the 5 Senses

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by Liz Gray, LCSW, RPT

At my first job out of graduate school, I provided short-term crisis intervention to children and adolescents in their homes, school, and communities after they had been hospitalized for psychiatric and behavioral concerns.  I worked closely with their families and schools, with an average of 40-50 clients on my caseload at a time. I was on top of my game as a social worker, yet after a few months of this work, I remember asking my friends and family,

“Is it time to retire yet?”

I meant that half-jokingly, but the truth is, I was BURNT OUT.  I devoted almost every evening to my job, often not eating dinner until after 9pm.  I was so concerned about meeting my agency’s goals of a certain number of billable hours that I forgot to take care of myself in the process.  I only lasted 1 year at the agency.

Since then, I have done my best to maintain a more balanced life.  Something I love to use in my own life and with clients is to think of self-care in terms of the 5 senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.

One of my favorite interventions to use with clients, especially when we are resourcing coping skills through Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is the 5-4-3-2-1 activity to bring your attention to the present.

In the moment, identify:

5 things you SEE (i.e. currently I see my dog, TV, computer, lamp, and headphones);

4 things you HEAR (I hear birds chirping, TV in the background, air conditioner, and phone buzzing);

3 things you TOUCH (I’m touching my keyboard, smoothing out my hair, and petting my dog);

2 things you SMELL (I currently smell mints and my latte);

1 thing you TASTE (I’m swishing an ice cube in my mouth).

Here are some variations on using the 5 senses:

Turn the 5 senses into a fun competition!

While doing an activity (i.e. taking a walk) with a family member, significant other, or friend, see who can come up with the most ways to engage all of your senses!  Above, I listed 15 things I saw, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted while writing this article. How many can you find while taking a walk? Baking cookies? Exercising?

Make a list

Start a list of your favorite things, organized by senses.  Have this list be portable and accessible (maybe even on your “notes” list in your phone) so you can continually add to it!

Literally STOP- and smell/touch/taste/see/hear the roses

It’s so easy for us to go through our day without hitting “pause.”  Next time you’re out, take a minute to examine an object. Let’s stick with the rose theme.  Pick a petal. What color(s) is it? Does it look shiny and smooth or rigid? How does it smell?  Do you notice a difference with your eyes open or closed? Put the petal between your fingers and rub it.  Now scan the petal over your palm and back of your hand, maybe even on your arm or ears! How does it feel?  After that, see if you hear anything when you bend or fold the petal. And finally, if you’re adventurous enough, how does the petal taste?  (I might imagine how it would taste rather than actually putting it in my mouth, but to each their own)!

How do YOU plan to use the 5 senses in your own self-care?

Liz Gray, LCSW, RPT is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Registered Play Therapist in Connecticut.  Liz works with children, adolescents, and young adults, and especially loves to use EMDR and sandtray therapy when working with clients.  For more information, contact Liz HERE!

5 thoughts on “Self-Care & the 5 Senses”

  1. Thank you for this awesome exercise! I am going to go buy myself a rose and eat it LOL! I’m adventurous what can I say (plus I once enjoyed some Rose jam so who knows?) I will keep you posted. Self care is so key & I like the senses approach because it’s portable and free! So practical 🙂

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