Depression is a mental illness, but it’s not all in our heads, it can also affect us physically – in a number of different ways, including our senses such as sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste.
Researchers have discovered that depression can affect our contrast perception. This means that when we experience depression, we’re not always as able to detect differences in black and white contrasts, so the world seems more grey. The more depressed we are, the more grey the world seems.
Anxiety and stress commonly occur alongside depression. Anxiety can alter our vision. It can cause us to experience visual irregularities such as seeing stars, spots, or shimmers. We might experience tunnel vision, lose some of our peripheral vision, feel as though our vision is dream-like, or struggle to focus. Additionally, any existing eye conditions we have can be worsened due to our anxiety or stress. These symptoms can either come and go or stay around all the time.
When we’re particularly struggling with anxiety or depression we might experience light sensitivity. This means that light levels that are bearable to other people can feel blinding and almost painful to us. When we’re particularly anxious, our body goes into fight-or-flight mode, causing our pupils to dilate. This dilation means that our eyes take in more light, so we become very light-sensitive. Further research around the connection between our mental health and our sensitivity to light is still ongoing.
For those of us who take medication such as anti-depressants, we could experience some side effects affecting our eyes such as blurred vision or dry eyes. If we’re struggling with the side effects of our medication then it’s important that we share our concerns with a medical professional.
There is a correlation between depression and decreased pain tolerance. This means that when we’re living with depression, it’s common to feel more sensitive to pain. We might also find that sometimes our brain interprets psychological pain as physical pain because both emotional and physical pain share some of the same brain areas and neurotransmitters.
As well as a sensitivity to pain, depression can leave us feeling sensitive to touch. This means that we might find things like hugs unpleasant or even painful. Certain textures might put us on edge, so we avoid them. Different types of touch and texture can feel intolerable to us. This can make intimacy difficult and might leave us finding it difficult to relax or wind down.
Depression can dull our sense of smell. The part of our brain that is responsible for our sense of smell, our olfactory bulbs, can be smaller in those of us with depression than the same part of the brain in those without depression. The more strongly we experience depression, the smaller our olfactory bulb is likely to be.
Our taste can be dampened by depression. We often don’t taste food as well as those who don’t have depression, which is thought to be caused by the reduction in certain chemicals, such as serotonin and noradrenaline, in our brain.
When we feel low, or emotionally exhausted, many of us experience noise sensitivity. This can cause us to find everyday sounds hard to cope with which can leave us feeling incredibly irritable and anxious. Some of us will struggle with loud noises, others might find specific noises particularly annoying, and some of us might find ordinary sounds quite painful.
Many of us will experience sensory overload. Sensory overload happens when we have more input from our senses than our brains can cope with. Because we’re often more sensitive to sensory stimuli when we have low mood, we’re more likely to feel overwhelmed by the world around us. This can leave us feeling confused, anxious, and sometimes quite distressed.
Using Our Senses To Help Us
Once we understand how each of our senses affects us, we can begin to manage them and use them to help us.
If we’re experiencing light sensitivity, we could try lowering the lighting in our house, applying the blue-light filter on our smartphones and computers, and wearing tinted glasses outside. Fluorescent and LED lights can be particularly harsh, so sometimes it’s helpful to use a lamp or desk light rather than the main room lights in our house. We might find colour-changing lamps or lava lamps helpful if we’re someone who finds patterns in the things we see to be calming – sometimes focussing on something can help us to manage any blurred or spotty vision that we might be experiencing.
Thinking about touch, if we find certain textures to be particularly abrasive, then we can try and make our environment as soft as possible. We could put soft blankets on our bed, sofa, or even in our car. If we struggle with the texture of our clothes, then we could add fabric softener to our washes, or we could try wearing a thin cotton top under our clothes so that we have a less abrasive fabric touching our skin. Sometimes being under something heavy can help us to feel calm, so a heavy jumper or weighted blanket can help to lower our anxiety.
Though our sense of smell can be dulled, if there are particular smells that we find helpful then we can make add them to the world around us – for example, we could use aromatherapy oils, or put one or two diffusers around our house.
Because our sense of taste can be blunted, we might want to add a little extra seasoning to our food or choose to eat spicier foods. This can make eating more enjoyable. Sometimes, having a consistent taste can help us to manage our anxiety, so using chewing gum or boiled sweets might help us to feel calmer, particularly in busy or noisy environments.
If we’re finding sound overwhelming, we could use headphones in particularly noisy or busy environments. We might find it helpful to turn down the radio and TV in our house if we’re feeling anxious.
We all react differently to the world around us, and some of us might be sensitive to some of our senses but not others. Some of us might find that we don’t have any sensitivity at all. Tuning into each of our senses to try and understand how they affect us, and how the world around us impacts our mood, can help us to manage them. It can help us to create an environment for ourselves which we find as relaxing as possible.
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