Saturday 30 January 2021

Sensory Hobbies and Activities That can Help You Manage Mental Health

Natalie shares her approach to dealing with mental health difficulties, using sensory experiences to cope, feel well, energised and positive about the future.
- Natalie Betts

I’m Natalie, a musician and educator living in Bournemouth. I’ve been a student at Bournemouth Uni, Southampton Solent Uni and the Royal College of Music and I now work as a Music and Creative Arts lecturer within prison education. In 2012, at the age of 22, I finished my undergraduate degree in Music Performance. A week after I received my final grade I broke down. Everything I had been avoiding in my personal life came to the forefront of my attention. Without the structure of my degree, with my student house tenancy coming to an end, and my friends moving back home, I felt lost and purposeless. For the next eight years I experienced episodes of depressive lows and manic highs, I had an immobilising anxiety disorder and suffered from depersonalisation. Hours were spent with psychotherapists and councillors, whilst I battled to keep myself awake and energized against the side effects of mounting antidepressants. I lost my sense of self and began pushing away my friends and family. 

However, throughout this, my work as a musician meant that I continued to meet with diverse people. I met people with learning difficulties and autism, disabled people, people with mental health conditions, people with dementia, and people in prison. Through delivering music sessions with these different groups, I saw first-hand how important sensory experiences are for our wellbeing. Our five senses alter our perception of the world; they affect the way we think, feel, understand and behave. When we stimulate our senses, we can improve our mental health. With this idea in mind, I decided to apply the same idea to managing my own mental health. Now when I am struggling, I prescribe hobbies and activities that engage my senses. 

Whilst I still recognise the huge value in therapy, and take antidepressants as advised by my doctor, sensory activities help me to cope and feel well. They also help me to feel energised and positive about the future. The important thing is that the activities and hobbies I take part in are practical and fun. My hobbies range from paddleboarding to listening to podcasts, from hosting gameshows to conquering the art of slow cooking. Each of these hobbies are very different from one another and each one stimulates my senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) in a unique way. Each of these hobbies also have unique sensory and mental benefits that are a tremendous help to me. And they were especially helpful when I began struggling with my mental health again. 

I finished my Master’s degree in September 2020 and those same feelings of dread that I felt in 2012 came flooding back. I wondered, "What should I do next? What is my purpose now?" It's a very intense experience to focus on a degree for so long and then feel as though you are being thrown out into the unknown. So, when I felt confused and I needed comfort, I turned again to my sensory hobbies; this time, I found refuge in skateboarding, learning to DJ, cycling, and indie gaming. I’ve decided to now write about my ideas, putting them all together in a book called Senseful. Senseful will be a guidebook, outlining my new approach to staying mentally well. Whether you are feeling low, struggling with a mental health condition or just want to inject some positivity and adventure into your life, Senseful outlines 42 hobbies and activities that can help you to find happiness in a way that makes sense. I’m writing to 22-year-old me, lost after graduating from uni and dealing with the anxiety-inducing tasks of becoming an adult, living independently, paying bills, and finding work. I hope that my approach will resonate with other students coming to the end of their degrees. I hope that Senseful will provide fun and practical solutions for anyone who needs support to manage their mental health. 

For further information about adjusting to life after uni, please see these resources from Student Minds.

I am Natalie, a music lecturer and researcher within prison education. I also run a charity called Superpeople, supporting disabled people, neurodiverse people and people with mental health conditions. After graduating from my first degree, I suffered a mental health breakdown that lasted throughout my 20s. I have now discovered a wellbeing approach and want to share with others.

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