The holiday season can be a tough time for people in recovery. Many people are anxious about getting together with family—especially this year because of complications caused by the ongoing COVID pandemic. Others are depressed because they fear not being able to live up to perceived holiday expectations.
Many people with addiction are triggered by emotional turmoil and relapse during or immediately before the holiday season—so it’s important to be mindful of triggers and keep toxic thoughts and experiences in check.
The recovery community appreciates additional support during this stressful time. Recovery Ways would like to be a part of that support network. The team at Recovery Ways has been offering a seven-week course of community outreach and support groups via Zoom with specialized expert facilitators. In the fourth meeting, Recovery Ways’ Life Skills Program Director, Stormy Hill, M.D., explained a unique specialty utilized at Recovery Ways: Sensory self-regulation to calm the mind and nervous system.
Unhealthy emotions often pave the way to relapse. Decreasing anxiety, agitation, pain, and anger are paramount. Reducing the effects of depression can also go a long way to prevent relapse. Dr. Hill explained that humans have eight senses instead of the customary five. In addition to vision, smell, taste, hearing, and touch there is also the proprioceptive sense, the vestibular sense, and the visceral sense (interoception).
Proprioception refers to the awareness of the position and movement of the body. The vestibular sense refers to the sensations of body rotation and gravitation. It arises in the inner ear where hair cells send signals via the auditory nerve. Interoception refers to sensations from inside the body. It includes the perception of physical sensations related to internal organ function such as heartbeat, respiration, satiety, as well as the autonomic nervous system activity related to emotions.
All eight senses can be modulated using a variety of tools and exercises. Isometric exercises such as pressing down on your knees while in a sitting position can engage multiple senses and produce a calming effect in many people. Red and yellow lights tend to wake people up, while blue usually has a calming effect. A similar modulatory effect can be achieved with aromas.
“What works best depends on individual preferences and the current state of alertness of the person,” explained Hill. “People with anxiety are often in a state of high alertness, displaying frenetic behavior and fast thoughts while clients with depression display sluggish behavior and slow thoughts.”
Anxious individuals benefit from calming input like low lighting, earthy smells, and deep pressure while depressive individuals benefit from stimulating input such as sour or salty taste, light touch, or highly stimulating lights. Sensory modulation aims to get both groups to a balanced state of calm alertness. Recovery Ways utilizes two multi-sensory rooms to assist clients with calming or stimulating the mind.
There are many exercises people can do on their own, such as pressing the palms together or pressing down on the knees, using colored light bulbs, music playlists, fidget toys, squeeze balls, or aromatherapy—there are lots of tools to choose from.
If you’re worried about holiday stress, exercise before going to an event and bring sensory support (fidget toys, stress balls, etc.) along if possible. Dr. Hill finished the session with a simple one-to-two breathing exercise. She asked participants to sit comfortably, close their eyes, and exhale fully. They were then asked to inhale silently through the nose to a moderate mental count, and then gently exhale through the nose for double the count, i.e. twice the duration of the inhalation. This was repeated several times. It’s a simple calming exercise you can do almost anywhere.
We hope you are able to stay healthy and emotionally balanced during this holiday season and beyond. If you, a family member, or a friend are struggling with addiction and/or mental health issues, Recovery Ways wants to help. We are dually licensed to treat mental health disorders and addiction. Don’t delay seeking treatment because of the holidays. Our admissions coordinators can recommend a plan of action, suggest an interventionist, or speak with your loved one. For more information, please call us at (888) 988-5217.