Sensory Toolkit: Handbag Edition!

Autism & Anxiety

As an autistic person with additional anxiety disorders, the world is an overwhelming place at the best of times. Learning to cope is a never ending journey and finding things that help has been a lot of trial and error!

I am very susceptible to both dissociation and sensory overload (often at the same time, blah) and to combat these, or at least lessen the suffering, I use mindfulness and grounding techniques.

A really common exercise which a lot of folks who have been in therapy will recognise is the “54321” technique. The goal of this is to ground yourself to your surroundings, bring you back to the present and in doing so hopefully help diffuse a panic attack, dissociation or a meltdown. Step one is to name five things you can see, step two is four things you can feel and then continue down the senses with three things you can hear, two things you can smell and finally one thing you can taste.

I like to combine this with self-soothing techniques, “soothing the five senses” and stimming.

I use this to cope with stressful situations (say, walking down a busy street which is a trigger for me) in preparation to exposing myself to it or before I reach a crisis point.

Disclaimer: As with all therapy skills, this has taken a lot of practice!

I just wanted to share this little checklist of sensory experiences that I find helpful and I hope you find some benefit too.

All of these items are intentionally small, discreet and easy to carry while out and about, whether in a bag or a jacket pocket. You probably carry some of them everywhere with you already!

My sensory toolkit
Presenting: The contents of my handbag!

Let’s Build a Sensory Toolkit: Handbag Edition!

Sense: Hearing

Tools: Ear buds/plugs/noise cancelling headphones

Noise is a massive problem for me and a major trigger for sensory overload. Carrying ear buds is an easy way to combat this – play some tunes you find relaxing or even stimulating, whatever you prefer. Ear plugs are another option if you prefer to “turn the volume [of your ambient surroundings] down”. Flare make a plug called Calmer (review imminent!) which reduces higher pitched sounds that can be distressing to people with sensory processing issues.

My new personal favourite is my noise cancelling headphones which I can either play some music or just keep the noise cancelling function on on its own. I find these particularly effective around traffic, though if you choose to use them for this, be extra careful of your surroundings when crossing the road!

Sony noise cancelling headphones and Flare Calmer earplugs
My trusty Sony noise cancelling headphones and Flare Calmer ear plugs

Sense: Taste

Tools: Sugar free sweets/gum

Taste is a really good sense for grounding. Try carrying a pack of sugar free sweets, mints or gum or a sweet drink to bring yourself back to the present.

Sugar free sweets and gum
Sugar free chewing gum and hard sweets

Sense: Smell

Tools: Essential oils/fragrance

Smell is similar to taste in its grounding capabilities. Try carrying essential oils – something citrus based to energised or perhaps lavender to calm and soothe.

Scarfs with a scent on them are great when around overwhelming/triggering smells.

Another thing I like to do is carry something with a scent that triggers positive emotions. For example a bad day I will wear my partner’s aftershave or give a soft toy (more on those later) a spray with it. This smell makes me feel comforted and looked after.

Bergamot and lavender oil in bottles
Some essential oils I find particularly pleasant

Sense: Touch

Tools: Hand cream

When I’m very stressed and I dissociate, I become very disconnected with my body, particularly my hands. I have found using a hand cream (I’m very into Lush’s Dream Cream or Sleepy lotion at the moment) which feels and smells good helps me to reconnect. Given the quantities of hand sanitiser we’re all using at the moment, a good moisturiser is a good idea anyway!

Hand lotion and hand sanitiser
My favourite cruelty-free hand sanitiser and hand cream plus a fidget ring from Etsy

Tools: Nice feeling fabrics/objects

A lot of people subconsciously stim by stroking things. Wear soft clothing, carry a silky scarf or a small object that you find particularly tactile. Jewellery is good for this and there are even some pieces designed specifically as adult “fidget toys” such as spinner rings. I recently got one off Etsy and find it useful.

Sense: Sight

Tools: Images that invoke pleasant memories/emotions

By this I mean something as basic as pictures on your phone or if you’re old school, photos in your wallet! Set your phone wallpaper to a picture of a loved one/partner/pet/favourite plant and check in with it when you need a boost.

Bonus: I also carry a few little scraps in my purse, such as an Eevee (the Pokémon!) my partner drew for me, a funny passport photo of my sister and labels from birthday/Christmas gifts with my mum and dad’s writing on.

An iPhone with a pet bird as the screensaver
A photo of one of my pet birds, Hopper

Other tools:

Some other bits I use that soothe multiple senses are:

Fidget toys

I have seen other adults in therapy groups using more classic fidget toys like fidget spinners or cubes which seem to really help them – so don’t rule out anything you think is “for kids” if you think you might like it.

I haven’t got one yet but I’m really into the idea of chewies (products explicitly designed to be bitten). As a kid I used to obsessively chew anything rubber (notably, the buttons on TV remotes, ew!) so this really appeals to me, haha! I have seen a few that are designed as pendants made of silicone which can be sterilised and are almost attractive and wouldn’t look too out of place on an adult… I’m gonna get one, watch this space!

… A small cuddly toy!

My cuddly bat, Christopher, holds legendary status across all the mental health teams I have been involved with since 2017!

He is my “all in one” grounding object. He has a lot of positive memories attached to him – my partner bought him, he is made from a lot of different textures I like and wears a crystal bracelet around his neck one of my best friends bought me. He is great for applying scents too.

Okay, so not everyone will be into carrying a little stuffed animal around, but quite a few friends who struggle with anxiety who have met Christopher have gone on to find their own little cuddly pal too,so I had to put this on the list!

A plush bat and gallbladder toy on a table in a hospital
A candid photo of Christopher (and my gallbladder Craig!) during a hospital stay

As with all therapeutic exercises, they take lots and lots of practice. Be kind to yourself xx

This post was not sponsored in any way.

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