Stress and the Five Senses

September represents the end of summer, and for many that means a return to school, work, and . . .   stress. The physical impact of stress has been extensively explored in the medical world. Check out this link to read a summary of how stress impacts different systems in the body including the respiratory, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, and nervous systems:

Because stress impacts nearly every system in the body, one great way to manage stress is by intentionally engaging in soothing, enjoyable sensory experiences. Pleasant smells, tastes, sounds, touch, and sights can help our bodies to relax, thereby counteracting some of the negative impact of stress. In order to use sensory experiences for stress management, it is important to take some time to tune in to your senses and identify exactly what it is that you enjoy.

Art therapy is built on the understanding that images can be powerful communicators that can access and express the subconscious. You can use the power of images to elicit positive sensations and memories. For example, if you feel calm when petting your cat and hearing him purr, then it’s likely that simply seeing a picture of your cat will bring up positive memories and sensations and will help you to feel a bit calmer in the moment.

One way that you can use the power of images for effective stress management is by creating a visual booklet inspired by positive sensory experiences. This art task is based on Cathy Malchiodi’s self-soothing image book as described in The Art Therapy Sourcebook (Malchiodi, 2007, p. 159).

First, think about some sensory experiences that are pleasant or enjoyable for you. Think about places you like to go, spaces in nature, or a particular experience or event that makes you feel happy, content, or peaceful. Perhaps it’s somewhere you went or something you did this summer. Reflect on how these activities, places or experiences impact each of your five senses. Make a list of sights, smells, tastes, touches, and sounds that you enjoy.

Next, create a mini booklet. For a tutorial on how to cut and fold a single sheet of paper to make a pocket-sized 8-page booklet, check out this link:

Print photos or look through magazines to find images that represent the pleasant sensory experiences on your list. Insert your images into your mini book. You can categorize them by sense like in our example booklet, or you can arrange them in a way that looks nice to you. You can add words, or draw and paint in your book too. The goal is to create a book filled with pages that are pleasant to you and make you feel calm when looking at them. The images and colors remind you of positive physical sensations.

After you have completed your booklet, take a few minutes to reflect on the art making process. What kinds of thoughts and feelings were you having while you were choosing materials for your book? What kinds of sensory experiences did you choose? Are yours mostly about sound? Texture?  Sight?  Smell? When you look at your favorite image in the book, what do you experience? How are you feeling now that you’ve spent time focusing on positive sensory experiences? If you feel comfortable sharing, we would love to hear your responses to these questions! Post in the comments section below or email us at

Now that you have a booklet filled with colours, textures, objects, and sensory experiences that are soothing and pleasant for you, you can use this booklet as a tool when feeling stressed or when dealing with challenging emotions. Chances are that simply looking through your book will help you to feel a bit better. You can also use your booklet as a cheat sheet to remind you of pleasant calming activities that you can engage in when you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed out. Keep your booklet in your desk, purse, wallet, or car so that it’s easily accessible in those stressful moments.

While positive sensory experiences can help with stress management, sometimes stress becomes too overwhelming to manage on your own. We know from research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology that “chronic stress can lead to or exacerbate mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, bipolar disorder, cognitive (thinking) problems, personality changes, and problem behaviours” (

If you or someone you know may benefit from support in managing stress, art therapy can help! Individual art therapy sessions provide a safe space to debrief stressful experiences, while the art making process provides an outlet for stress and emotion. Our therapists at Art as Therapy guide clients through an individualized process of self reflection so that they feel empowered to use coping strategies that work for them. Taking a holistic approach to mental health, Art as Therapy also supports clients in finding appropriate resources for dealing with current situations and links clients with community supports as needed. If you are feeling overwhelmed by stress, you are not alone. Call 1-519-307-9000 or email today for more information or to book a consultation.


Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, Art Therapist at Art as Therapy