We often wait until we are overwhelmed or emotionally dysregulated to try and find something to help us cope. Coming up with a new coping strategy when we’re already in a high state of anxiety is a tall order. We benefit from having well-known grounding techniques at our fingertips, prepared and ready, if and when we need their support. Creating a sensory toolkit can help you to feel prepared with a highly personalized coping strategy if you find yourself overwhelmed or ungrounded. Knowing that you have the kit at your disposal can help to ease your mind.
While your mind can dwell in the past and future, your body is always in the present moment. Grounding is an attempt to take you from the mind, back into the body through the use of your very own 5 senses. Grounding anchors us to the present moment, and can shift our state of being from highly anxious to more relaxed, centered and calm. Creating a sensory toolkit is the act of obtaining a multitude of personally important items that correspond with the 5 senses. It’s useful, practical and it can be a lot of fun.
How to Create a Sensory Toolkit
Creating your own sensory toolkit is a straight-forward process. At the end, you will have a box that includes items that are personally connected with all 5 of your senses.
Remember that sensory awareness is a way to connect to the present moment. The present moment is often more palatable than the past, or future, which can go in thousands of different directions (because imagination, memories, etc.) The sensory toolkit is a somatic tool, one that allows you to activate your 5 senses and be brought into the here and now. The sensory toolkit is especially helpful for folks who don’t respond well to visualizations or “envisioning a safe place.” The sensory toolkit is something you can quite literally hold in your hands to reduce your anxiety.
Directions by Senses
Smell: Choose a scent that’s strong and compelling. When anxiety takes over, it helps to have a scent that’s strong enough to grab your focus. For some people, these might be essential oils like citrus, lavender or cedar-wood. You can also choose scents that are comforting for you, which may seem unconventional to someone else. Perhaps you choose a sample of your grandmother’s perfume if she was a supportive person in your life. Or maybe you like the smell of an old library book. This is for you, so pick what you think is best!
Touch: Pick an item that you can hold in your hand. Don’t be afraid to play here. Some people think back to childhood and discover that sensory “toys” like playdough, slime, silly putty or kinetic sand are perfect items to put into their sensory toolkit. The item you pick in the touch category can also be something like a trinket, or a smooth stone that you found at the beach. The goal here is to find an object that’s interesting to touch with an intriguing texture and shape.
Taste: In your sensory toolkit, it’s helpful to have some small food items that stimulate your sense of taste. For some, this may be a bar of dark chocolate, hard candies, trail mix, or chewing gum. You can get really creative here, but try and pick something that can remain safe and edible and does not need to be refrigerated. We want to be able to have our sensory items together and in the same place. You might consider a strong mint or spicy candy to really help you to focus on your sense of taste!
Sight: Pick some images that you find comforting or interesting. Images could be of a special place visited, a loved one or your beloved pet. It’s best to have the image in hand, printed out and easily accessible. Ideally, the image will go into your sensory toolkit. If you do not have access to a printer, you can try looking through a magazine. You might also try to find swatches of fabric, or fake flowers.
Sound: Choosing sound that will go into your sensory toolkit can involve your phone or computer. However, it might be helpful to write down a few songs or sounds and keep the written reminder in your sensory toolkit. This way, you don’t have to figure out what sound you need to hear from a state of overwhelm or anxiety. It’s also helpful to put your phone on “do not disturb” when listening to the song. The point is to focus on the sensory experience of sound and not field text messages that will pull you out of the moment. Another option is to play an instrument if you enjoy doing so, or choosing a sound that can be easily generated like crinkling a wrapper.
Bonus: Keep an excerpt from a book, a poem or a meaningful letter or note in your box. Perhaps you have a note from a close friend or family member that you hold close to your heart. We are loving beings and the experience of connection and care is a comforting way to help us settle into the present. Pick something that reminds you that you are loved.
Once you have accumulated your items, you can pick a box in which they will fit into. You can also make your own, or decorate one that you already have. Choose the box last to ensure that it can fit your items.
The sensory toolkit is a useful tool to have at your disposal. You can spend some time with your toolkit if you begin to feel anxious and want to ground yourself. You can also use your toolkit even when you’re not feeling overwhelmed as a way to practice being in the here and now. It’s helpful to train yourself to turn towards coping skills, and having a sensory toolkit is a reminder that you have a supportive tool if you begin to feel overwhelmed. Building a repertoire of coping skills is an act of self-care. We all get stressed, and we all benefit from having known coping strategies to fall back on.