Come to Your Senses 2: How Touch and Sound Soothe Pet Loss
Strong emotions like grief don’t just affect the mind and heart. We call our emotional reactions “feelings,” and for very good reason: we experience emotion as physical sensations throughout our bodies.
In another post, we examined how the physical sense of smell can help soothe the pain of losing a beloved animal.
The senses of touch and hearing, too, can be assets in a journey through grief.
The power of touch
Our skin is our largest organ; the average adult’s skin covers 21 square feet and is wired with four million sensory receptors. Touch is the first sense we develop in the womb and it is crucial for survival, both physically – avoiding excessive heat and pain – and emotionally.
When you are suffering from grief, you may experience a wide array of physical sensations, from nausea to chills to pains almost anywhere. The good news is, you can turn your millions of sensory receptors into allies by providing them with pleasant and uplifting sensations.
Tiffany Field, the head of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, says, “The physical effects of touch are far-reaching.”
“The right kind can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels, stimulate the hippocampus (an area of the brain that is central to memory), and drive the release of a host of hormones and neuropeptides that have been linked to positive and uplifting emotions.”
Caress to de-stress
When you’re mourning the loss of beloved creature, there may be no better way to physically console yourself than by petting, stroking and caressing another animal. It can be like a booster shot of hope to the heart.
If there are other animals in the home, showing extra physical attention to them can be beneficial for both you and the pets. Animals often sense the loss of a family member and show some signs of grief and stress.
Stroking and petting animals has been proven to release oxytocin, the feel-good hormone that bonds babies and parents, in both the person and the pet.
If there is no remaining pet in the home, borrow one! Invite a friend and pet over or visit them. Go to a dog park or other place where people and pets mix. Volunteer at a local shelter or rescue group. Better yet, foster some rescue pets!
If caressing an animal much like the one you’re missing is too painful, try interacting with a different type of pet. Dog, cat, horse, hamster, rabbit, ferret, even turtles respond to stroking and affection.
And so does your brain.
The human touch
A hand to hold, a warm hug, an arm around your shoulder, all of these bolster and encourage us in the best of times; the effect can seem doubled when you’re feeling sad and alone. Touch is a literal connection to another person – when you’re adrift in grief it can be a lifeline.
Your personality, upbringing and culture will determine how much you touch and like to be touched by others but when you are suffering the loss of someone or something very dear to you, it pays to be especially “touchy-feely.”
At such a time, don’t be hesitant to ask people you trust for a hug or a hand to hold. If they care for you, they’ll want to help you feel better. A simple moment or two of human touch is one of the most valuable gifts they can give you.
A touch deeper
Stress and sadness is reflected in the body in tight muscles, constricted breathing and myriad aches and pains. Massage can be a wonderful way to break up and release some of the physical symptoms of grief – and benefit from the positive hormone rush that comes with human touch.
These days there are dozens of forms of massage to try: Swedish, deep-tissue, Thai, shiatsu, craniosacral and more. Some forms upgrade the effect with acupuncture needles or warmed stones and cups.
You can read the details on different massage styles in a great Lifehacker article here.
Whether a friendly shoulder-rub from a loved one or the precise muscle manipulations of a trained therapist, massage can provide healing benefits that are more than just skin deep.
“Bodywork” is the term often given to types of physical/psychological therapy that range from intense body manipulation such as Rolfing to merely moving the palms over the body to guide internal energy flow in Reiki.
Legitimate practitioners can sometimes unlock deeply buried emotions and release long-held pain resistant to other methods; there are also plenty of quacks in this realm of therapy who will leave you bent out of shape literally and emotionally.
Check references and credentials before putting yourself in the hands of a bodywork therapist.
Wash stress away
It's hardly ground-breaking to suggest a long, relaxing soak in a warm bath to help you release tension and stress. But a reminder never hurts that sometimes the simplest and most primal comfort rituals can smooth the path through grief.
In times of trauma, we sometimes neglect our own personal needs: eating, sleeping, basic health and hygiene. Take 20 minutes to immerse your 21 square feet of skin and four million receptors in a return-to-the-womb sensory experience and you'll be better for it.
If you want to boost the sensory uplift, try adding bath bombs or oils scented with the five most uplifting scents as suggested by aromatherapists: lavender, chamomile, bergamot, ylang ylang, and sage. (Read more about healing scents here.)
The Soothing Power of Sound
In times of stress and shock, such as when we lose a beloved animal, our senses can seem to go dead. Food no longer tastes good to us, once-bright colors are drab to our eyes, our fingers may feel as numb as our minds.
Employed wisely, though, our senses can be great allies as we strive to heal from grief and mourning. They can indeed help us “come to our senses,”– restoring our focus, lifting our mood, and comforting us with warm associations.
Smell is our strongest sense
Our olfactory system runs straight through our noses and directly into our deepest inner brain. We process smells immediately, reacting subconsciously to them before we can even identify the scent.
In an earlier post, we explored ways to raise your mood and uplift your spirit in times of stress using certain time-proven smells. In this post, we’ll suggest ways to use your ears to soothe some of the discomfort of loss.
Now hear this...
Research says the eight sounds people found most comforting in general are:
It’s easy to see why these are so popular – all these sounds (and silence) are extremely common and familiar, the background “hum” of many of our lives. When we hear them, they illicit feelings of normality, of life going on.
When your life is turned upside down by the grief of loss, the sounds of normal life can be subtly reassuring.
There is also a hypnotic effect to the more rhythmic of these sounds – rain, showers, trains. These sounds can cause us to relax and can even slow our hearts and breathing to calm us.
Noise of many colors
When grieving, mental and physical pain can rob us of rest. Many people, myself included, resort to what’s commonly called “white noise” to mask changes in background noise – traffic noises, children playing, etc. – that stir us from sleep.
I find that it can also help mask some of the repetitive thoughts and doubts that can bedevil you when you’re grieving.
Technically, white noise is a sound that contains every frequency within the range of human hearing (generally from 20 hertz to 20 kHz) in equal amounts. In practice, white noise is a sound like television or radio static or the sound of rushing water.
(Actually, there are many more colors of this kind of noise – pink, brown, gray, violet – each having a distinct pitch. I prefer pink myself.)
There are recordings of white noise you can buy, sometimes mixed with music and natural sounds such as birds and ocean waves to add to the relaxing experience. There are white noise and natural noise machines to use by your bedside.
These days, of course, there are myriad white noise and natural sounds apps available for your phone and smart devices. One of my favorites is called, unsurprisingly, White Noise.
Amazon Prime members have free access to a collection of wh at they call “Ambient” videos. These are videos of natural sounds like waterfalls and, yes, rain on a window (and on a tent and on a lake and on leaves and on pavement…)
These videos also offer peaceful or darkened visuals to help you relax or sleep, some are eight to nine hours long for all-night use. These have helped me unwind on many occasions, I’ve found they calm and soothe my pets to sleep too.
YouTube has become a treasure trove of relaxing sounds, tones, images and music. Just search for white noise, rain sounds, box fans, vacuum cleaner sounds, Tibetan singing bowls... almost any sound you can think of. Some are mixed with relaxing imagery, others fade to black for sleeping or rest. Some have voice-overs of guided relaxation and meditation, others use subliminal messages of uplift.
Music hath charms
You already know music can completely turn your mood around – we’ve all had the experience of hearing a favorite song and instantly experiencing a flood of memories, associations and emotions.
Psychology Today says, “Music and mood are inherently linked.”
So, you probably already know that listening to familiar, upbeat music can help brighten your attitude. But how about listening to SAD tunes?
Counter-intuitively, for some people who are grieving, listening to melancholy music can be “uplifting.” It’s not just that we like music that reflects our current situation, there is likely a biological reason for it.
According to Science Alert:
“Some scientists think melancholy music is linked to the hormone prolactin, a chemical which helps to curb grief. The body is essentially preparing itself to adapt to a traumatic event, and when that event doesn't happen, the body is left with a pleasurable mix of opiates with nowhere else to go.
Thanks to brain scans, we know that listening to music releases dopamine – a neurotransmitter associated with food, sex, and drugs – at certain emotional peaks, and it's also possible that this is where we get the pleasure from listening to sad tunes.”
And if you’re stuffing your grief feelings, burying them inside you instead of venting them in a healthy way, listening to sad music can open the emotional floodgates. Remember it’s only by owning your grief, by actively mourning and coming to terms with your loss, that you will finally heal.
But if you're ready to let go of feelings and relax...
Here's the world's most relaxing song
Marconi Union, a British ambient music group, collaborated with scientists to create what has been named “the world’s most relaxing song” by Forbes Magazine and others.
The resulting eight-minute song, “Weightless,” can induce a 65% reduction in anxiety and a 35% reduction in usual physiological resting rates.
Forbes describes it like this: "With the goal of lowering a listener’s blood pressure, stress levels and heart rate, the song utilizes a peaceful production landscape filled with dreamy rhythms, melodies and complimentary instruments (featuring piano, guitar and electronic samples of natural soundscapes)."
Besides the eight-minute original version (above), the group has created a ten-hour version to lull listeners for a full sleep cycle.
If you’d like variety in your soothing, the UK newspaper The Telegraph, suggested nine more choices of relaxing music tracks to check out (it’s a bit Brit-centric):
1. Marconi Union - Weightless
2. Airstream - Electra
More resources to explore:
Music to Soothe and Calm – Listen to over an hour of relaxing music to calm your soul right here on Furever.Co.
Related Post on Coming to Your Senses for Pet Loss Grief Relief