Three Sensory Strategies to Decrease Stress

Community Member

Having a son who is on the autism spectrum has taught me a lot about methods to help calm and soothe anxiety and stress. Many children who are on the autism spectrum have what is called Sensory Integration Disorder. This means that my son has difficulty processing input coming in through any of his five senses. Chronic anxiety can be associated with this disorder and so there are methods to help the person better process sensory input as well as decrease symptoms of anxiety. I believe that we are all on a continuum of being able to process the information coming into our senses. If you are constantly feeling "wired" or nervous it just may be that some sensory integration techniques could help you to feel less anxious and more relaxed.

Here are three sensory strategies which may help:

1. Massage Therapy

There is much empirical evidence to show that massage therapy   can help not only to alleviate anxiety but also decrease the symptoms of depression. Massage works to ease anxiety by physically softening and relaxing tired and overused muscles. It can also release endorphins which are the body's natural painkillers.
The Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals also cite research to show that individuals with high blood pressure have lowered diastolic blood pressure, anxiety, and stress hormones following massage.

For more information about the clinical research pertaining to the mental health and physical benefits of massage therapy please see The National Institutes of Health clinical reviews and studies on massage.

To find a qualified massage therapist please follow this link to find a massage therapist in your area.

2. Swimming

There are many people who find the activity of swimming to be very calming. There is of course the exception of people who are phobic of water and water related activities. Exercise in general has been shown to have both a physiological and psychological benefit in decreasing stress and depression. Swimming can have an extra added advantage as it gives us input into our proprioceptive sense.   In addition to our five senses we also have what is called a proprioceptive sense which tells us where our body is in space. Swimming can have a calming effect as you feel the weight of the water surrounding you. Swimming provides a natural hug of deep pressure which can relax the body. A 1992 study published in the International Journal of Sport Psychology showed a causal relationship between swimming and stress reduction.

There are many therapeutic swimming programs out there for children and adults having special needs like autism as well as classes for people with a variety of medical conditions ranging from multiple sclerosis to rheumatoid arthritis. Check with your local community center to see if they offer any swimming classes or programs right for you.

3. Chewing Gum

We receive a lot of sensory input from the act of chewing or eating. Our taste buds are activated as well as the proprioceptive receptors around the mouth. Many of us find that chewing can have a calming effect. For example, I wrote about my personal experience of flying on an airplane despite my phobia of plane travel. One of the things which does help me when I am up there is to chew gum. Other people report that chewing gum can also help take the edge off when trying to stop smoking or when attempting to lose weight.

There is also some scientific evidence to show that chewing gum can relieve anxiety and more. In a study presented at the 2008 10th International Congress of Behavioral Medicine, researchers from the Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia found that chewing gum helped to decrease anxiety, improve alertness and reduce stress among study participants. Levels of salivary cortisol (a physiological stress marker) was found to be 16 percent lower for gum chewers who were experiencing mild stress as compared with their non-gum chewing counterparts who were placed in the same situation. Gum chewers were also 12 percent lower in their cortisol levels than non-gum chewers whole experiencing moderate stress.

Such a study probably comes as no surprise to parents who have a child having sensory integration disorder. One of the common sensory integration activities suggested by many occupational therapists is to provide an oral sensory diet   to improve sensory processing as well as help some children to self-calm. Sugarless gum is one item often included on the list as well as other chewy or crunchy foods such as raisins, carrots, dried fruits, plain popcorn, or licorice. Such a list of chewy snacks can potentially be beneficial for anyone who suffers from anxiety and doesn't wish to pack on weight as the result of what I call "mouth hunger" or that need to chew to relieve stress.

These are just several sensory methods out there to induce a state of calm and decrease the physiological symptoms of stress. If you have any calming strategies to share we would love to hear them. Tell us what works for you because it just may be the thing which helps someone else.