How a sensory diet can help you get the marks you want

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As a student you probably have a set of strategies up your sleeve to help you cope with the demands of exam time. But when it comes to increasing and maintaining focus throughout the examination period and beyond, a sensory diet might be just what you need.

High numbers of Australian university students are stressed or anxious. With intense workloads, looming deadlines and financial woes - this comes as no surprise. But around exam time, the pressure to succeed and meet expectations can make you feel even more stressed than usual.

While it’s important to have a set of stress reduction techniques on hand, it’s also a good idea to step back and take a look at the bigger picture. Things like:

  • getting enough sleep

  • eating right

  • exercising

Ticking these boxes can make you feel better overall – leading to a more relaxed examination period.

But, just like a healthy meal needs a variety of different food sources to be nutritionally balanced, your brain needs the correct combination of sensory input to achieve the calm but alert state needed for optimal focus. This is where a sensory diet can help. A sensory diet is a menu of sensory-based activities used at various parts of the day to facilitate alertness, and promote optimal performance.

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The lowdown on sensory processing and sensory modulation

All day, every day, your brain is being bombarded by information – sensory input - from your seven senses. They are:

  • sight

  • smell

  • taste

  • touch

  • hearing

  • body awareness (proprioception)

  • balance (vestibular).

Your brain sorts and filters input via 'sensory processing'.

Sensory modulation refers to your ability to respond emotionally and behaviorally to sensory input in a graded and adaptive manner. When you are able to effectively modulate your responses to sensory input you will be better equipped to calmly deal with day-to-day challenges life throws your way.

These processes are complex - but usually they happen so automatically and effortlessly that they are taken for granted. People who have irregular sensory processing often benefit from strategies to help them cope with daily life, but this article is about how you can use different types of sensory input to help achieve maximum focus while studying.

Putting together a sensory diet for study success

Identify when you focus best

Spend a couple of days paying attention to your focus levels throughout the day. Write down when you are most commonly:

1. Struggling to concentrate because you’re under stimulated: groggy, lethargic, or lacking energy.

2. Struggling to concentrate because you’re overstimulated: can’t sit still, buzzing with energy.

3. Naturally and easily finding your focus and concentration. This may take some work – and a bit of getting to know yourself.

Create a study schedule

Maybe you already have an app that helps you schedule in study time for all your different subjects. If not, here are some tips to help you.

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Compare the information

You may be lucky enough to have a number of your scheduled study sessions match up to the times you are alert and ready for work. You may not need to do anything other than go with the flow in these cases.

But some study sessions will fall into times of the day where you are feeling low in energy- for example straight after an exceptionally long shift at work. In this case you may find that engaging in activities that stimulate your senses before you sit down to study helps raise your level of alertness. On the other hand, if you’ve just done something vigorous - like a high adrenaline workout- you might feel too stimulated to sit still and focus on study, and need some calming sensory input to bring your arousal levels down a bit. Being aware of your sensory needs at various times of the day can help you achieve a more productive study session.

It’s important to keep in mind that different people can respond differently to the same types of sensory input. What is calming for one person may in fact be arousing for another. It is worthwhile to take some time to consider what types of input, or activities ‘rev you up’ versus those that calm you down.

Calm vs stimulate your senses

Once you figure out when to implement your sensory activities and whether you need to be calmed or stimulated before a study session, you need to pick activities. The table below lists the senses along with activities that commonly tend to be calming or stimulating. But remember that each person has their own unique sensory preferences so choose whatever works for you.

Table 1: Sensory activities to calm OR stimulate the senses

SenseSensory input to stimulateSensory input to calm
Vestibular (balance) Bouncing up and down quickly, and unpredictably on a gym ball for short bursts of time Rolling slowly back and forth over a gym ball, on your stomach
Vision Bright lighting, looking at bright colours Low lighting
Auditory Upbeat background music Low-level, classical music – like Mozart
Smell Lemon or citrus scents Scents of familiar food, objects
Taste/Oral-Motor Crunchy foods – like carrots or ice Chewy foods – or chewing gum
Touch Cold bath, or light massage Warm bath, deep tissue massage, or heavy blanket
Proprioception (body awareness) Proprioceptive activities include anything that is done against some sort of resistance. They are also called ‘heavy work’ activities and are thought to activate serotonin, the master modulator. If you’re unsure of whether you need stimulating activities or calm ones, do heavy work. Examples: push-ups off the back of a chair, jumping, gardening, pushing or pulling heavy objects (like the sled at a gym), vacuuming, carrying bags of groceries.

If there are things you generally avoid – like crunchy foods because you have sensitive teeth – but you need a stimulating activity, simply target a different sense. Additionally, targeting multiple senses can promote learning.

The sensory diet: a powerful study tool

Uni students in particular may find sensory diets useful, because they are so time poor. Most people have a time of day where focus and concentration come naturally. But when you are waking up for a 9am lecture, followed by a 12pm tutorial and a 6pm shift at your part time job, the ideal study session can be hard to schedule. This is what makes a sensory diet such a powerful study tool: it can help you move into a more alert and focused state – no matter when you end up studying.

Take away message

Putting together a sensory study diet may take time, work, and a lot of trial and error, until you find something that works. We’re often educated on the right foods to fuel our bodies but feeding your senses is perhaps not as commonly discussed. Of course, you can seek the services of an occupational therapist if you’d like professional help tailoring a sensory diet, but until then, following the guide in this article can help you gain and maintain focus during exams, your degree, and beyond.


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