Sensory Systems. What are they and why are they important?

Some of you might be able to list all of our five external senses, some of you might be able to list one or all three our internal senses as well. Some of you may not be aware that we have a total of eight sensory systems. And that is quite okay because who knows everything about everything there is to know? Certainly NOT us, but we do know a bit about our sensory systems and we believe that we all could use our senses to help us live every day managing all of the many various things that come our way – whether it is:

  • Working out what we will feed ourselves and our families that night for dinner
  • Trying to put boundaries in place for our children
  • Getting that last five work tasks done before we log off for the weekend
  • Anything else that may take up our mental and physical time and energy.

We would like to share some of our knowledge about sensory systems, something we all have within us and that are available to us wherever we are. We hope that you may find that you learn new information or find that this refreshes your memory about what you already know.

“Life involves a constant encounter with the sensory world”

(Brown, 2001, p. 125, as cited in Champagne & Sayer, n.d., p. 3)

More people will be more familiar with our five external senses:

  • Things we see (Visual),
  • Things we hear (Auditory),
  • Things we feel or are touched by (Tactile),
  • Things we taste (Gustatory)
  • Things we smell (Olfactory).

Some people may know about our three internal senses, and these may be unfamiliar to others. Our three internal sensory systems are:

  • Our awareness of movement, our head position, and how our body is positioned when we are still or moving. We might notice how parts of our body rotate, shift position, and repeat the same movements repeatedly as we cut fruit up to make fruit salad to go with yummy ice cream. Movement is picked up by the sensory receptors in our inner ear. It also helps us to keep our balance and maintain posture. This is termed as our Vestibular System.
  • Our ability to know where our body is in relation to other people or things around us. Our muscles are also very helpful in receiving information from the outside world. Some of us may know, or we may be someone others might have termed “clumsy” because we often bump into things around us. Others may appear to be able to navigate through a narrow spiky bushed path without a single spike touching them. Those who bump into things have difficulty knowing how much space they need to get passed something or someone else and do not leave enough room to pass without bumping into that obstacle. Our body awareness is termed as our Proprioception System.
  • Our automatic rhythms such as breathing, heartbeat, sweat, bladder and bowel awareness, “tingly” fingers or toes or other ways our body might feel inside. Our body gives us signals to help us to understand how we are feeling. The signals may be sweaty hands and fast heartbeat when we are really worried; cloudy head, twisted feeling in stomach and itchy feet when we are very excited; a full balloon feeling in our stomach that is becoming uncomfortable when we need to go to the toilet. Most of us miss some of these signals when they are subtle, only noticing them when they become BIG and more difficult to manage in a helpful way. Or we may not connect the signals to an emotion that helps us to know what to do to continue to or to return to feeling comfortable or calm. This is termed as our Interoception System.

We use the information we receive from our external environment and within our own body to help us to understand the world around us – where we are, what we are doing, how we are feeling and to help us to make decisions on how we respond or behave. With this in mind, we can use our own bodies to help us to change how we feel by doing things such as:

  • Looking at a favourite photo album
  • Hearing the waves crash close to shore
  • Smelling fresh vegetables as you chop them up for dinner
  • Tasting your favourite food and enjoying every mouthful
  • Touching or feeling the patterned cushions on your couch
  • Moving in ways that help us to feel good such as going for a walk or doing yoga
  • Sitting under a tree and reading your favourite book
  • Cuddling up in a warm blanket on a beanbag
  • Laying in your hammock, hands on your belly to feel your stomach rise and fall as you deeply breathe.
  • Having a bath with lavender drops in the candlelight listening to soft and calming music
  • Drinking a refreshing glass of cool water with mint leaves to give us a little boost
  • Cycling a new route for a challenge
  • Having your favourite songs on to sing and dance to
  • Pulling out weeds in your garden to help you to get some frustration out while seeing immediate results
  • Spending time with your favourite friends having a laugh or having a safe place to vent about your stresses.

All of the things listed above might be things you already do or have done. Sometimes it is about reminding ourselves to remember what has helped us to feel good in the past, and to give ourselves permission to do these things again. Allowing ourselves to feel deserving of prioritising an hour each and every day to do things that make ourselves feel good. That all of the everyday stresses of running a household, working a job, being a Mum/Dad/Carer of others, being a student, making and keeping appointments will still get done, if not today they will tomorrow or before they are due. That one hour out of every 24 hour period is not a luxury but is an essential part of our self-care and well-being, really should be an automatic assumption for us individually and as a whole community and society.

Our question to you is…what do you need to give yourself permission to use your sensory systems to help you to feel good and be doing the things you need or want to do, perhaps with more motivation, confidence and/or satisfaction?

When the world becomes unfamiliar… How do you take care of yourself?

2020, what a long year it has been so far and we still have months left of it to go. We do not know what lies ahead, we do not know how long we will need to live with social distancing and other restrictions to who we can spend our time with, how we can spend our time or where we can go to experience the world around us. Will social distancing be our new normal? I mean, what was pre-COVID-19 life like anyway right? I suspect in years to come, we will speak with others living through COVID-19 now about “those were the days…” and sharing stories with our children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren about life pre- and during COVID-19, reminiscing over the good times, and reflecting on the challenging ones.

It almost seems that COVID-19 came upon us, came upon the world so quickly that we really did not have a lot of time to prepare ourselves, our children, and our communities for the very significant changes to our everyday. We were thrust into the unknown at full speed with no stop button. Managing the unknown, coping with change when there is no time to prepare, hearing and reading news stories everyday sharing information about this COVID-19 virus spreading quickly all over the world and in many cases people are dying from it, and managing our own thoughts and feelings about the current situation we each find ourselves and those we love, and even those we don’t even know, are just some of the things that has been foreign to me prior to March this year. Don’t get me wrong, I have lived through changes in plans, having to do things with little to no preparation, hearing and reading concerning news stories including life-ending situations, but none of my past experiences could have prepared me for COVID-19.

One of the things that generally is the first to go when we find ourselves in an unfamiliar and stressful situation is doing things to take care of ourselves. When I say “take care of ourselves” I don’t mean just making sure we bathe or shower, we feed ourselves the most basic food and water, clothe or shelter ourselves. I mean doing things that make us feel good. Doing things that help us manage our stress more effectively. Taking time out of the everyday grind, out of the overwhelming stress that is living through COVID to do the “non-essentials” of having a warm bath with lavender, doing an online yoga class, making time for a 20-30 minute walk most or every day, talking with a much loved friend on the phone or via Zoom, doing a crossword puzzle, reading a book by your favourite author, giving and receiving a hand massage with a family member, putting your favourite music on and singing and dancing along, baking your favourite cookies, sitting down with a cuppa, or even spending time sorting through and organising your pantry if that brings you joy.

I know that I need to give myself permission and allocate more time to do things that bring me joy, make me feel good and allow me to have a period of time most days, if not all, to not have COVID-19 taking up too much of my brain space. I promise to myself to keep working towards prioritising “taking care of myself” time from now on. I suspect I will have many bumps and obstacles, mainly my own tendency to see other things in my life –

  • making sure my two young children have their needs met
  • doing the tasks my small private practice needs done especially ensuring the families I support are receiving the best therapy I can provide, and
  • working in partnership with my husband to keep our house and finances in order

as more “essential” than doing things that are specifically aimed at providing my mind and body time to restore and rejuvenate. But I am going to keep trying, and keep getting back on my “taking care of myself” path after any and every little or big bump in my way. What do you think you could do to restore and rejuvenate your mind and body? What can you do to prioritise time in your day or week to do things to take care of yourself?