There’s a great line from James Joyce’s Dubliners: “Mr. Duffy lived at a little distance from his body.” Just like Mr. Duffy, many of us often find ourselves checked out of our bodies, thinking about the next thing. If we’re highly stressed, maintaining awareness of our bodies is even harder.
Checking out can be a survival reflex. We don’t typically do it on purpose; rather it’s an unconscious attempt to protect ourselves. When we’re absent from our bodies we may feel less pain, or fewer emotions.
Still, living in a detached state means we miss the chance to experience life fully. Our senses offer one of the most direct routes to becoming more present: They give us a concrete focus, which allows the mind to quiet down a bit.
I like the term “grounding” for this. Sensory experiences help us to get grounded in our bodies, a great antidote to stressful overthinking and painful feelings. When our awareness is occupied by something pleasing to our senses, such as a beautiful song or a refreshing scent, racing thoughts slow down. There are also other reasons to become more present in our bodies:
- Building the brain’s “mindfulness muscles.” Research shows that when we bring our awareness back to this moment, we strengthen our ability to focus. This is different from simply trying to keep the mind from wandering. There may even be an advantage to letting the mind wander, so long as we have the capacity to bring it back, which the senses help us do.
- Experiencing more pleasure and playfulness. When we open ourselves up to enjoyment, the autonomic nervous system is more likely to shift from fight-or-flight (sympathetic) mode to relax-and-restore (parasympathetic) mode. Not only can pleasure shift us into parasympathetic mode, it also boosts the dopamine system, which improves mood, energy, and focus.
- Completing emotional cycles. Instead of ignoring or repressing painful emotions like sadness or anger, feeling them fully allows us to “digest” and process them, and then to let them go. Sensory experiences don’t do that directly, but they can help ground us while our bodies take care of the rest.
- Cultivating resilience. Grounding helps us face the next challenge after we’ve been knocked down. It allows us to see our circumstances clearly, with less distortion. Being in the body also makes it possible for us to maintain some control over our fight-or-flight stress system, which can keep the mind from running away with dire thoughts. All this enables us to respond more wisely to life’s stressful events.
Engaging with these three strategies can help you cultivate greater presence.
Smell and Aromatherapy
Why: Inhaling pleasing scents can stimulate or soothe your system. Smells directly affect the limbic area of the brain, which governs emotion and memory.
How to Breathe In: Take just one minute daily to focus on smelling something that you enjoy. Give your full attention to the smell and notice how your system responds.
Not sure what to choose? Try a few essential oils that appeal to you. Or smell a flower, a freshly cut citrus fruit, or another natural element.
If none of these is available, just spend a full minute inhaling the scent of your morning coffee or tea.
Touch and Sensory Experience
Why: When you’re busy, it’s easy to get consumed by all the things happening around you. Those constant pulls on attention can diminish a sense of awareness and connection to your body. Touch can help bring attention back to the body in a nourishing way.
How to Touch: Like the aromatherapy exercise, simply take one minute daily and give your full attention to a tactile experience. Focusing on your hands or feet, or your body lying on the ground, can feel very balancing. Consider getting a massage or create a back-rub train at your next family or friend gathering (seriously!).
Bearing and Brain Waves
How to Tune In: Listening closely to music (or other sounds you find calming, like waves or wind) is a great way to practice tuning in to sound. You can also seek out music that is scientifically designed to train the brain waves to certain “frequencies” (called audio-entrainment) just by listening to it. It can help to facilitate sleep, attention, and creativity. As with the other options, simply spend one minute fully focused on the sound of your choice.
This article was written by Henry Emmons MD, an integrative psychiatrist, and originally appeared as “Grounded in Your Senses” in the November 2021 issue of Experience Life.