“Sensory regulation” sounds technical, but it’s something we all do all the time.

If you’ve ever done housework to help shift your mood or manage stress, made a cup of tea when you’re feeling sad, played music to boost your mood, or gone for a run or to the gym to work through feelings – then you’ve used sensory regulation.

In fact, if you deliberately go outside for lunch, or work in a cafe to stay focused then you’re proactively using your sensory preferences to help regulate your nervous system, performance, and sense of general wellbeing. A ton of our “unhelpful” coping strategies are also linked to the way that the input from our senses can change our internal experience: “Eating your feelings”, staying in bed with the blinds drawn, or giving ourselves pain to help feel relief from difficult internal experiences are all (at least in part) examples of sensory regulation.

Sensory Regulation in mental health terms means deliberately engaging with your senses to help support yourself when you’re experiencing psychological challenges. Using a strong smell to interrupt panic before it takes over, using a ‘grounding’ exercise when your brain starts spiralling into rumination, or doing a bunch of pushups to help get back in your body when you’re about to lose your temper are all examples of in-the-moment Sensory Regulation.

Sensory regulation is also really helpful as part of a strategy for people building a wellbeing ‘toolkit’ for long term improvement in mental health: If you know how to get regulated and feel soothed when your ‘red flags’ of depression or anxiety show up, then you’re much more likely to feel confident about managing your mental health.

When you actively use sensory modulation techniques to change the way you feel in the moment you teach your nervous system – bit by bit – to understand that you are, in fact, “safe enough” and that it can let its protective ‘fight-or-flight’ response relax.

To use sensory modulation for yourself there are a few things to know

To keep it simple, this article is arranged in three major sections:

1 – Senses and what they are,

2 – The mechanisms and types of ‘Fight or Flight’ response, and

3 – Sensory regulation techniques.

There’s tons of good info and there might be helpful new stuff even if you’re familiar with the idea of the amygdyla and ‘fight or flight’, but if you’re in a TLDR space, no worries! Skip straight to the end and the “Sensory Regulation’ part.

First up… What are senses?

This is not as daft as it seems – we actually have 8 senses! In addition to the regular “five senses” of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, we also use proprioception, interoception, and vestibular sensation to navigate the world.

  • Proprioception:

The awareness of where our body is in space, including the position of limbs, and the amount of force we are using. Proprioception is sensed through proprioceptors – sense receptors in the muscles and tendons. Sometimes called the “sixth sense”. Proprioception is considered a “power sensation” that works very strongly to calm and regulate emotions. The other two “power sensations” are “vestibular” and “touch” – see below.

  • Movement/ Vestibular:

The awareness of the body’s position (i.e., lying down or sitting), the speed we’re moving at, gravity, size and balance. Our sense of movement is centred in our vestibular system in the inner ear. Our vestibular sense helps us to instantly plan future movement (such as where to step next on an uneven bush trail). Movement is another “power sensation” – this is why activities that include movement are so helpful for feeling better – for example, going to swim some laps or go for a walk or run can help turn a rough day around quite effectively.

  • Touch:

Touch is another one of the “power sensations”. Touch receptors live in the skin and come in different types – there are touch receptors for light touch, deep touch/ deep pressure, temperature, pain reception and vibration/ texture. Touch has a large range of uses in human life including giving us stimulus that can help us feel connected, know if we are safe, tell us if something is painful (which may also be pleasurable in the right amount for some people), and also allow us to experience texture and movement of the skin. Different types of touch are likely to feel pleasant or unpleasant. Some people will feel that a smooth slippery feeling is pleasant – such as a body oil or silky clothes, while others will prefer the textural feeling of a scratchy towel or body scrub. Considering which kinds of touch you like can help you and those you love understand how to help you regulate best when feeling distressed – for example, do you prefer a deep strong hug or a tickly feather-light stroke on your skin?

  • Interoception:

Interoception is the sense of what is happening inside your body. Interoception is thought to be generated by the insular cortex (a brain region that combines all sensory information), and to be used by the body to help us understand both what is happening inside us physically (for example, a tummy ache) and emotionally (as our emotions express themselves by giving us internal body feelings)! Interoception includes “breathing, hunger, thirst, heart rate, internal body temperature, stomach pain or discomfort, and the feeling of a headache, the urge to vomit, and the urge to empty the bladder or bowel”* as well as erotic, sexual or sensual feelings. Meditation is great at helping us tune in to subtle interoceptive clues – have you ever meditated and only then realised that you’re thirsty, have a sore muscle, or that when you focus on an ‘area’ of the body there’s a bunch of ‘emotional’ feeling connected to that part?

  • Visual:

The combination of what the receptors in the eyes register, and what the brain makes of the information. Many people have strong visual preferences – some people will feel best in bright, colourful environments, and others will strongly prefer a home that is dimly lit and visually minimalist. A home that reflects our visual preferences can be a helpful tool when managing chronic overwhelm, mental health symptoms, burnout or neurodivergence.

  • Smell/ olfactory:

Smell is detected by olfactory receptors in the nostrils, and processed by the brain according to preference, as well as our brain’s understanding of the smell and what it ‘means’. Our sense of smell very directly connects to the limbic system – which is involved with memory and emotion. Brainstorming which scents you find comforting can be extremely helpful. The scent of a favourite moisturiser worn by a loved one, for example, can be supportive and soothing to have around to help regulate when feeling overwhelmed. Conversely, the scent of something related to a distressing experience can trigger overwhelm by directly accessing memories and emotions related to the experience.

  • Taste and “oral motor movement”:

Taste uses five different receptors: salt, sour, sweet, bitter and ‘umami’ (the savoury sensor that registers the flavour of shitake mushrooms or meat). Texture is also a part of taste: The way the muscles in the face and jaw experience movement inside the mouth has a strong regulating impact: Sensations such as hard, soft, chewy or crunchy will add or detract to your enjoyment of it and can also be used to help emotionally regulate and self-care. Sensations not related to eating can also have powerful sensory impacts – things such as whistling, singing, clicking your tongue, humming or blowing up a balloon. Think of your favourite comfort food – what are the qualities it has that make it so appealing? When feeling extreme loss of emotional control, for example in an argument or when a fight or flight response has been triggered, a very (very) strong oral stimulus such as a super-sour lolly or ‘warhead’ hot lolly can provide a big sensory stimulus that can help interrupt the ‘fight or flight’ response.

  • Auditory:

We sense sound through our vestibular system, which detects vibration caused by changes in pressure in the air around us. The brain then ‘interprets’ the vibrations to produce what we hear as sound. Many people find that certain types of sounds are very helpful or unhelpful. Music can be extremely soothing and help us to regulate but might also cause overwhelm. Sensitivity to noise can express itself in unusual ways: A person might be extremely bothered by the sound of a voice coming through speakerphone in a public space, but feel soothed by loud and abrasive music, while another person may be unable to tolerate the sound of someone eating but perfectly happy to sit in a room full of people speaking loudly. We can manage our auditory environments by using strategies like noise cancelling headphones or white noise apps. For example, a fish tank with a running water sound from a splashing filter might help manage distress from ambient noise in apartment buildings.

Most importantly: Everyone actually has what’s known as a “sensory profile”- we all respond differently to sensory stimulus and we all have preferences for some kinds of sensory stimulus and aversions to others!

Although you can do tests to figure out your sensory profile it’s often useful not to overthink it too much – if a particular suggestion in the list at the end seems appealing that is likely to be because you’ve lived with your senses forever and just know. Keep in mind that if there’s an area you’re sensitive to (like sound, or flavour) then that might be a good place to choose a sensory modulation technique from – it might affect you faster and more strongly. But go with what feels best. YOU are the expert in what will work for you!

In order to get the most out of sensory regulation for mental health, it can be helpful to understand your own particular response to overwhelm. The Sensory Regulation Strategies listed at the bottom align with fight or flight types! 🙂

Second: About ‘fight or flight’ responses

A ‘fight or flight’ response is an involuntary, ‘irrational’, automatic and whole body experience in which your amygdala ‘hijacks’ the processes and actions of the body and brain in order to keep you alive or whole – both physically and psychologically. When this happens our thinking, rational, decision making, emotion regulating brain goes ‘offline’. This ‘hijack’ can happen suddenly and in a way that makes you feel as though you’ve ‘lost control’, or in cases of chronic stress or when the body/brain HAS to keep on functioning, ‘fight-or-flight’ can turn up as behaviours that we feel don’t fit who we are as a person, but we don’t seem to be able to stop. An example might be going into ‘appease and friend’ mode when you’re being bullied at work.

First up – some important info about your fight or flight response:

  • It’s more than ‘fight’ and ‘flight’: “Fight, flight, friend, freeze and flop” is a common way of expressing the range of typical responses. You’ll find more info below about this, so keep reading!
  • It’s really important to remember that ‘fight or flight’ responses are irrational by nature! They are designed to short-circuit your thinking brain to help make you safe, FAST.
  • ‘Fight or flight’ states are also involuntaryyou don’t choose to have them and cannot just rationally choose to stop them. Evolution has designed humans this way! Think of fight or flight as your ancient caveman-era brain ‘hijacking’ your body. Having to think and decide best outcomes before running away from a saber-tooth tiger would get you killed, so your body acts. The brain catches up a few seconds later by sorting through complex information to register that “it wasn’t a saber-tooth tiger, it was a yellow boulder” – so it’s okay to chill out.
  • We don’t try to ‘stop’ a ‘fight or flight’ response with Sensory Regulation – instead we try to help our prefrontal cortex (see below) get online again just enough to have a say in the situation. Just enough that we can get on with our days, or have the power to make choices even though we still feel the ‘hijack’ response. Feeling irrational, “triggered” rage at a partner AND having the ability to control your actions just enough to get yourself out of that room or not shout or throw things might drastically change the situation both short and long term for both you and someone you love.
  • A fight or flight response is NOT a reflection of a person’s personality or temperament. Neither is it a failure. The desire to better manage your fight or flight responses and willingness to try new things to help make that happen is a much better measure of good character. If someone you love isn’t willing to try learn or to take responsibility for their behaviours, then it’s time for some fierce boundary setting.

In short, a ‘fight or flight’ response is when your prefrontal cortex (modern thinking rational brain) gets shut down by your limbic system and amygdala (ancient emotional and life-saving brain) to keep you safe or alive.

Your prefrontal cortex: is the part of your brain that deals with short term memory, time (I’m here now and before I was there), rational decision making, and accurately and planning for the future, emotional regulation, self control, and planning for complex behaviours like “I’m busy so I have to get eggs today if I want to make a pavlova tomorrow”. The prefrontal cortex is ‘modern’ in terms of evolution. It sits on the front and outside of the brain, where it developed over millenia on top of the older brain structure.

Your limbic system and amygdyla: Among other things, your limbic system processes emotion and emotional memory, and it contains the evolutionarily ancient amygdyla – the part of the brain that deals with fear and with emotions and memories associated with fear, shame, rage or other ‘protective’ emotion states. The amygdyla has the capacity to ‘hijack’ the rest of the brain to try to protect us if it thinks we’re in danger – whether of the physical or psychological type. The Amygdyla and limbic system sit at the bottom and centre of the brain, right near the brain stem, and are very ancient in terms of evolution.

Note that the above neuroscience is very simplistic! See this page for more.

Changing the fight or flight response when it has gone haywire

We’re living very modern and information-dense lives with the brains of cave-people! Sometimes there’s just too much information and life to process and our brains need a tune up or some additional skills to keep up. Sometimes our life experiences have also set our brains up to be extra sensitive to stress or need a bit of extra support.

The best way to change unhelpful fight-or-flight responses over time is to get familiar with your early warning signs. Once we have an idea about what sets us off, what it feels like when we’re in fight or flight mode (and how we behave if we’re in fight-or-flight), we can learn to use sensory modulation and communication skills before the hijack part takes over.

By getting to know what triggers your fight or flight response and what your early warning signs are you can actually start to develop a sense of personal control. Put simply, using sensory regulation helps keep your in-touch-with-reality brain (your prefrontal cortex) working, even when your ancient lizard brain (your limbic system and amygdala) is kicking off!

Talking with your loved ones about what will help when you are hijacked is also cool as it helps them to use their own rational, thinking, planning brain to help you regulate while yours is temporarily offline. Janina Fisher calls this having an “auxiliary brain” – and it’s kind of genius. For example, if you know your sensory warning signs (i.e. you go cold and clammy and start to find it difficult to talk before going into a “freeze” response), then letting a partner know that’s what happens will give them a chance to cue you to try some gentle muscle tense-and-release or give you a warhead super-hot lolly to suck (or what works for you) to help keep your brain online just long enough for it to realise it is actually “safe enough” to let the “freeze” hijack pass.

Have a read of the “Fight or Flight” types below to see if something sounds familiar

The following descriptions might be triggering if you’re new to this!

Please take good care. If you notice yourself getting numb, teary, or feeling panicky or distressed, take a moment and have a move around, do some big, slow, long sighs, or tense and release all your muscles a few times. You can also skip right to the “Sensory Regulation Strategies” bit at the end x

  • Fight (Vigilance):

A person in a state of being overwhelmed who is experiencing the fight response may experience:

Angry, judgemental, mistrustful, self-destructive, or an urgent need to be in control. Suicidal thinking might also show up as a way to get some sense of control back when faced with hopelessness or loss of agency.

In an immediate physical response we might: push, fight, hit, shout, scream, struggle.

  • Flight (need to escape):

Distancing people or not answering the phone or messages, ambivalence about choices or relationships, social withdrawal, cannot commit – can also show up as addictive behaviour or disordered eating.

In an immediate physical response we might: Run, hide, step away – putting space between yourself and the danger.

  • Freeze (fear):

Frozen, terrified, wary, fearful of being seen, agoraphobic, panic attacks, social phobia.

In an immediate physical response we might: Lose the ability to move, feel immobile and stuck (or frozen) even though we wish to move, be unable to speak or make sounds or respond to external cues. This is an animal response to danger – used by small animals to ‘play dead’ so that a predator loses interest,

  • Submit or ‘Flop’ (shame or “dorsal vagal shutdown” during terror):

Depressed, ashamed, self loathing, passive, “good girl” mindset, caretaker, self-sacrificing.

In an immediate physical response we might: Act in ways similar to “freeze”, but in ‘flop’ or submit your body/ bain believes itself to be in extreme danger – muscles may become loose and you mind may ‘go away’. Some may fall asleep involuntarily. This is an (effective) way for your body to try to prevent you getting hurt, and to keep your mind from tuning in to what’s happening.

Trigger warning for sexual assault (but really good to know): There is a phenomenon called “arousal non concordance” in which the body responds to assault by producing sexual arousal that is related to fear NOT to desire. This sounds – and can feel – incredibly confusing, but the thought is that this body response protects the reproductive organs from damage in the short term, and also assists survival. This response is also completely involuntary and NOT related to the desires or responses a person would have when engaging in consensual, desired and chosen erotic activity.

  • Attach (cry for help – also called “Friend” (as in – to befriend the threat):

Craving rescue and connection, a sense of desperation, sweet, innocent (even if non-triggered self is not), being vulnerable emotionally and also gullible – believing things at face value, wants someone to depend on.

In an immediate physical response we might: Try to befriend or appeal to a person who is dangerous, bribe, bargain or offer to do things we don’t want to do to avoid other, worse outcomes. This can be a confusing response as we may feel we are participating in the situation by choice – it’s really important to realise we’re not. This is a survival response and automatic. We may also call out for help, or appeal to others for help.

You may have more than one ‘fight or flight’ response, or even all of them at different times. They may also overlap. The key isn’t to get nitty gritty about details, just to get to know what being ‘triggered’ feels like for you, what behaviours might show up (behaviours include thinking!), what it feels like when early warning signs turn up- along with the flip side of what you can try, what others can try and what doesn’t help.

Using these techniques can help us reduce the intensity of our responses over time as well as to gradually feel less scared about our triggers. They can also support our efforts to stop avoiding ‘triggering’ situations and be more flexible in how we live our lives!

Part three: Types of Sensory Regulation strategies and when to try them

Finally, we get down to business.

Now that you know what the senses are and what fight or flight responses are, you likely have some ideas about which sensory modes are most impactful for you, as well as a sense about how your brain responds to threat or chronic stress. Reading through the info below, get out a pen and jot down a handful (max five) ‘Sensory Regulation’ strategies that stick out for you. Less is more – too much choice can overwhelm!

A hot tip is to practice the ones you’ve picked when you aren’t stressed – this will ‘prime’ your body to be able to access them when you are. You can also write them on a set of ‘coping cards’ or a note that you keep in your wallet.

Sensory Regulation Strategies

These are grouped by the effect they have, and when to use them:


Use for: Feeling spacey or numb, anxiety, flashbacks, distressing body-feelings or emotional discomfort (when you’re not sure of the source), or dissociation.

  • Movement – exercise you like, especially repetitive movement that kind of “rocks” the body – like running, walking, or swimming.
  • Rocking (i.e., hammock, swing or rocking chair),
  • Jumping such as using a skipping rope for a few minutes or jumping on a trampoline.
  • Scent that you find soothing (with care – scent directly accesses the limbic system and can be triggering. Use scent you already know you like).
  • Deep pressure (books, bag on lap, binders or ‘shapewear’, weighted blanket.
  • Resistance (yoga stretches – the ‘salute to the sun’ sequence is perfect, resistance exercise band, isometric exercises, tense-and-release muscle exercise, pushing against something (i.e., push feet on floor).
  • Grounding exercise such as 5,4,3,2,1 or ‘Dropping anchor’.
  • Meditation of a style you know and like.
  • Tip: Lots of people note that they will clean when they feel anxious or are having sensory flashbacks or unwelcome and scary ‘internal’ feelings. Housework uses all your senses and is a superhero of sensory modulation: The smell of products (tip, buy cleaning products you like the smell of or with essential oils that can help ground you i.e., lavender, lemon scented tee tree or lemon myrtle, citrus), texture of items and cleaning implements (i.e., scrubbing brushes or cloths), resistance and pressure (ie carrying, scrubbing) and movement of bending stretching etc. Put on some music or a podcast for a big, robust grounding experience.


Use for: Feeling self-hatred or experiencing bullying self-talk, shame, sadness, anxiety.

  • Use strong stimulus!!
  • Engage large muscles of the body: long yoga stretches and big muscle movements – i.e., a ‘salute to the sun’ yoga sequence.
  • Deep pressure like weighted blankets, binders, ‘shapewear’ or close-fitting clothes, bag, or your pet on your lap.
  • Touch – a big hug, a massage, a hot bath, a hot water bottle on mid-upper back or chest/belly. Self-touch also helps – put one hand under armpit, other hand on shoulder in a ‘self-hug’, apply a nice moisturiser or do a manicure.
  • Singing, sucking, or chewing something crunchy or chewy.
  • Music (make a ready to go to playlist).
  • A loved one’s voice (a recording of them singing or reading something or being read to).
  • A safe scent like a moisturiser or perfume of a safe loved one, or a favourite natural smell.


Use for: Relaxation, chronic anxiety or stress, alternative to mindfulness if meditation doesn’t suit.

  • Progressive muscle relaxation,
  • Diaphragmatic breathing, or a breathing exercise that asks you to slow your breath and make the out-breath progressively longer and slower.
  • Visualising a safe space, do this actively in a quiet place. Think “safe enough” rather than “perfectly safe” to keep perfectionism from intruding.
  • Healthy distraction such as playing music, doing a puzzle or crossword, problem-solving style digital games,
  • Slow repetitive movement such as walking or swimming.
  • Anything that produces a feeling of “flow” – a kind of deep engagement that comes from doing an activity that is inherently enjoyable to you, challenging ‘enough’ to keep you interested or force you to pay attention, but familiar enough that you feel confident while doing it – i.e. drawing, a sport that requires problem solving such as bouldering or martial arts/ tai chi/ yoga, mountain bike riding or trail running.


Use for: Need to wake up or focus, depression, ‘hypo-arousal’ (for shutdown resulting from nervous system overwhelm use gentle alerting activity)

  • Daylight, sun on skin,
  • Bright lighting in house, blue light
  • Increasing visual stimulus like bright colours, and interesting patterns or textures,
  • Eating or chewing crunchy flavoured or chewy things or sucking a thick smoothie through straw.
  • Resistance exercise or activity such as taking a yoga break, skipping rope, resistance exercises using resistance bands, isometric exercise (squats, burpees, push-ups)
  • Simple body resistance such as pushing feet into floor or doing a tense and release muscle exercise.
  • Aerobic exercise if it feels good – Both alerting and grounding.

STRONG stimulus:

‘Strong stimulus’ covers a range of strategy types such as grounding and alerting. Use for: Panic, self-harm urges, substance use urges, loss of emotional control.

  • Splash icy water on your face or submerge your head completely – holding your breath while your head is submerged in cold water stimulates something called the “mammalian dive response” which produces an instant calming effect.
  • Ice pack on forehead, eyes, or the inside of your wrists.
  • Suck an intense lolly like a hot ‘warhead’ or super-sour sweets.
  • LOUD music of your choice.
  • Inhale a strong scent that you already know you like. Don’t experiment with smells while overwhelmed as scent directly affects your limbic (emotion) system and a smell that unexpectedly triggers you more is not helpful!  
  • Swinging on a swing, rocking in a rocking chair,
  • Do some isometric exercises like squats, burpees or push-ups.
  • If you have an aerobic or weight-bearing exercise you like such as running, lifting weights, yoga or swimming go do that (as long as you’re staying safe).
  • Very active and deliberate “sighing” – make your exhalation longer than your in-breath and make it audible (really sigh out loud). Pause at end of breath for a moment or two, let lungs inflate without effort (i.e., don’t try to take a deep breath) try to count the sighs until you reach 10.

Strong stimulus for persistent overwhelm that doesn’t want to quit over days:

  • VERY energetic house cleaning with lots of strong scents, big muscle movements, textures and healthy distraction (such as podcasts or mucic) is a frequent helper during persistent overwhelm for many clients. If this sounds like you, try out other things on this list as well – to give you some flexibility in how you manage your experience in the future.
  • Again, if you have an aerobic or weight-bearing exercise you like try deliberately doing that a lot over several days (within healthy boundaries – don’t make yourself ill)! This is especially good as an ongoing, repeated activity for strong urges to use substances or experiences of acute anxiety or body-memories/flashbacks that won’t resolve after hours or days. If using for substance use management, try doing your movement activity at the time you’re most likely to use (i.e. after work). At the very least you are disrupting a habit, delaying use and giving yourself a mood regulating booster of endorphins and social connection (if you’re going to a gym or group activity).

A basic worksheet idea for using sensory modulation

Copy and paste or draw this out on paper to get organised and get practicing 🙂

My overwhelm response type (i.e. “Attach”).The physical symptoms and warning signs I can identifyThe context or thing that is likely to ‘trigger’ meWhich sensory strategies I’d like to try outWhat might help me (i.e. for others to try)What doesn’t help me? (i.e. if I am self -loathing, please don’t try to talk me out of it – that just makes me feel misunderstood).

Finally, For those who are interested, here are the resources used in this article:

*The quote above is from Sensory Modulation Resource Manual by Jane O’Sullivan and Carolyn Fitzgibbon, from which this post is drawn, and which I could not recommend more highly for information, accessibility and usefulness.

I have also used the work of Winnie Dunn (and particularly her great book Living Sensationally) to inform this post.

Janina Fisher’s Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors is technical but also a wonderful, kind, and helpful resource for anyone who is healing from PTSD or CPTSD. It has a really friendly way of thinking about healing post-traumatic experience.

Not used in this article but worth exploring if Janina Fisher’s work is interesting to you but a bit heavy going is No Bad Parts by Richard C. Schwartz.