How Your 5 Senses Can Help You Stop Worrying


Farb is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, where he directs the Regulatory and Affective Dynamics laboratory and the Psychedelics Studies Research Program. Segal is Distinguished Professor of Psychology in Mood Disorders at the University of Toronto. He co-developed mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), a psychological treatment that prevents relapse in clinical depression on par with antidepressant medication

Food foraging seems to be all the rage these days. Travelers can set out to forage in forests and oceans for unique culinary experiences, gradually coming to appreciate how much the natural world has to offer. Foraging, at its core, is about sensory exploration. Its pleasure comes from noticing new tastes, shapes, or textures that we would ordinarily overlook and inhabiting a state of mind that is open to surprise. This seems logical when it comes to enjoying food and drink, but our work shows that our five senses can do much more. They can also support greater mental health.

In one of the largest neuroimaging studies of formerly depressed patients, we observed that negative emotion robs people of their ability to sense—it literally turns off the sensory parts of the brain. In the absence of sensation, brain networks for self-judgment and rumination run unfettered—a neural recipe for worry and hopelessness. The solution may lie in focusing the foraging lens inward and exploring our internal sensory world, a technique known as “sense foraging.” By activating sensory parts of the brain, we can disrupt habitual self-judgment and rumination by giving our thinking minds new information to consider.

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One of the brain’s most basic functions is to take random and noisy input from the senses and repackage it in ways that create order and meaning for us— which raises the question of how much of the input is dictated by someone else, whether a boss, a social group, a media company, or an advertiser. The good news is that you have a say in what you attend to, regardless of what others have in mind. Even on a busy day, peppered with distractions, your senses are still available for exploration. Our studies show that you can reclaim where you want to focus, rather than leaving your mind at the mercy of the attention economy.

Just by spending more time engaging in sensation, you can strengthen the attention pathways for that kind of awareness. By looking for how familiar and seemingly static sensations might really be made up of lots of changing parts, you are getting better at moving past only seeing what you expect to see or relating to your body in the same way. Our research shows that when you are practicing using your 5 senses, you are probably activating parts of your brain that tend to be neglected. If you keep activating these regions, you will start to form new neural pathways, literally changing how your brain is structured. The more time you spend in sensation, the more neuroplasticity will make sensation available to you, like adding a new friend to your contacts list.

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But what happens when you set aside the familiar names we assign to sensations and treat them instead as dynamic forms of energy being received by our bodies? Because energies such as light or sound have their own ebb, flow, and time signature, you can be more fully immersed in sensation by focusing on these particular features.

Change and movement in seeing

Find a wide, open space to look at. (A window will do if you’re indoors.) Take a moment to have a look around you, up and down and left and right. Now select one object in your field of view, near or far, and start to focus on the visual elements that stand out to you. For example, if you see a tree, notice any movement, parts that are darker and lighter, smooth and rough patches, contact with the ground and asphalt, symmetry and asymmetry, shadow and sunlight, and whether these elements stay the same or change in any moment. You might also notice the urge to name what you’re looking at (bark, branches, trunk, leaves), but try to resist. Try to experience these objects in a purely visual way. The first thing you’ll notice is that shifting your attention out of worrying and into sensing take a bit of mental efforts. Once you do it, however, you will find that sensing in this way helps to quiet the mind and puts the worry aside for a spell.

Change and movement in touching

One of our most common but commonly overlooked sensory experiences comes from contact with our clothing. For a moment, focus on the fabric touching your skin, the feel of each different texture. Do you notice places where there’s tightness, bagginess, roughness, or softness? Do these sensations stay the same or do they change when you walk or sit? Focus on the experience purely through your tactile sense and remind yourself that there is no problem here that needs to be solved. Compared to worry, curiosity and exploration can release us from searching for concrete answers and solutions that worry often demands.

Change and movement in hearing

Whether indoors or outside, stop for a minute and just listen to the sounds around you. See if you can notice how sound is layered, with the loudest and most familiar sounds coming through first: traffic, voices, running water, doors opening and closing, phones ringing. Then listen for sounds that are below that layer, perhaps your knapsack bumping against your body, your breathing, fingers touching a cup, or cutlery on a table. Notice the qualities of each sound, whether it’s near or far, intense or subtle, continuous or intermittent, surprising or expected. Notice also the space between one sound leaving and another arriving, as well as those moments of silence, when there is no sound at all. Try to stay with the qualities of the sounds themselves instead of labeling what you’re hearing. Sensing allows us to stay squarely in the present and this works against the tendency of worrying to pull the mind into the future.

Change and movement in smelling

Find five things around you, some familiar and some unfamiliar, and really smell them. These things could be coffee grounds, a bath towel, cooking spices like cinnamon, ginger, or curry powder, a bar of soap, boiling water, potting soil, your underarm, wet leaves. This time as you inhale, instead of putting a label on the scent, see whether you can describe its qualities, and whether it changes or stays the same over time. Is the scent intense or subtle, does it arrive quickly or slowly, does it register surprise, is it continuous or intermittent, does it fade into another scent or stay the same throughout? Do all the scents trigger memories or recollections for you, or only some? When we worry, we lose touch with our bodies, moving quickly into imagined scenarios, what if’s, and other mental conjuring. Using our senses to explore and investigate something as simple as smell brings us back into our bodies.

Change and movement in tasting

The next time you’re going to have a snack (maybe eating one or two things instead of a meal), see if you can make time for this exercise. Instead of naming any of the primary tastes, simply register a taste or tastes as present and describe its/their qualities and whether they change or stay the same over time. Is the taste intense or subtle, does it arrive quickly or slowly, does it register surprise, is it continuous or intermittent, does it fade into another taste or stay the same throughout?  A mind carried away by worry often means that activities going on at the same time are performed on “automatic pilot.”  Sensing tastes and textures helps us recover from automatic pilot and be more present with what we are doing.   

After any of these exercises, it might be a good idea to check in with how you’re feeling. Having extended some of your sensory bridges, did you have any experiences that surprised you or were unexpected? How did it feel to let new information in? Was it exciting or perhaps a bit anxiety provoking as you entertained the unpredictable nature of your senses? Regardless of whether you enjoyed the experience, did anything open up for you in terms of how you responded to your sensations? Did you change your mind about your preference for a smell or taste? Did you experience your body or the world around you differently?

It is also totally okay and maybe even a good sign if you aren’t sure what to take away from these experiences—by sensing the world on a moment-by- moment basis, you are getting a taste of what it’s like to value change over certainty. In this way, sense foraging can be an antidote to worry because, unlike worry where we are searching for certainty, this practice points us in the opposite direction. It can be deliciously unsettling to value the uncertainty of sensation in a world that valorizes certainty and action. Recognizing that sensing is not the same thing as thinking is all that you need to get started.

Excerpted from BETTER IN EVERY SENSE by Norman Farb and Zindel Segal. Copyright © 2024 by Norman Farb and Zindel Segal. Used with permission of Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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