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Coping With Distress By Using Your Senses

If we have a tough time dealing with distress, we might turn toward (or away) from food or crank up our body-bashing. Of course, this not only prevents us from solving the problem, but it leads us to feel worse.

That’s why it’s so important to take a compassionate approach and find ways to soothe ourselves.

In his book, The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Ending Overeating, author and clinical psychologist, Ken Goss, DClinPsy, suggests immersing ourselves in pleasant sensory experiences to help manage distress.

While the focus is on overcoming overeating, I think this tip is important for coping well in general. Focusing on our senses can help us to feel calm, content and safe. It’s a healthy way to cope with negative emotions.

Below are several suggestions from Goss’s book on soothing each of our senses.

(He purposely leaves out taste, because he says: “Taste can also be a powerful way to bring the affiliative soothing system into play; however, as you are trying to break the association between eating and feeling soothed, it’s more helpful to avoid this sense as a way to soothe yourself…”)


So often we tune out our surroundings, especially when the sights are familiar. But try to pay close attention to the pleasant sights around you. For instance, Goss’s clients have found it helpful to look at a beautiful flower, candle or pebble.

Other sights he suggests include visiting a museum, admiring nature (while taking a walk) or watching the stars at night.

If you’re close to a beach, sitting by the ocean tends to be calming for most people. If you’re surrounded by trees or a garden, looking outside for a few minutes can offer instant relief.


Music is a great way to soothe yourself. In fact, we’re very sensitive to sounds. Goss explains that “Babies in the womb can be calmed by certain types of music or startled by loud noises.”

Nature sounds, such as waves, rain falling or birds chirping, may be soothing for you, Goss says. He’s comforted by certain voices.

I usually like to listen to classical music (but I’m very selective; it can’t be too loud or fast).


According to Goss, “Our sense of smell is our fastest-acting sensory system.” You might like smelling certain perfumes or natural scents such as flowers or fruit, he says.

I personally love scented candles, such as French vanilla, cinnamon or apple. Even a few sprays of air freshener can be nice.


Goss notes that being touched by a loved one can minimize our anxiety faster than an anti-anxiety drug. A massage can be incredibly calming, whether you go to a spa, ask a loved one or give yourself one.

Touching your pet can be helpful, too, he says. So can applying lotion, brushing your hair, taking a warm bath or sleeping on fresh, silky sheets, he notes.

When identifying the sights, sounds, smells and tactile experiences that soothe you, make it into an experiment, and have fun with it. Remember that everyone is different. The key is to find what calms and relaxes you.

What are some ways you soothe your senses? What helps you when you’re feeling distressed? 

Coping With Distress By Using Your Senses

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

Margarita is an associate editor at She writes about everything from taking compassionate care of yourself at any weight, shape, and size, to coping healthfully with difficult emotions. Her goal is to give readers practical, empowering tips to better their lives, and to remind you that whatever you're struggling with, you're never, ever alone.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2012). Coping With Distress By Using Your Senses. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Jun 2012
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