What Is a Sensory Room?

What Is a Sensory Room?. GettyImages

Let’s begin with why the need for sensory rooms exists in mental health facilities. I have worked on several psychiatric units and can tell you that these units are not the havens of tranquility and comfort one would hope for people in acute distress.

They are absolutely sterile.

Psychiatric units have prioritized safety and the medical management of mental illness. By safety, I mean eliminating anything that could be used to cause harm, which is the vast majority of anything that would give physical comfort or familiarity to a place.

Imagine any typical coping mechanism you might use after a long stressful day: listening to music, baking, drawing, or even curling up under a quilt. Unless your coping strategy is walking back and forth through short hallways, there is a good chance there is not an outlet for it on a psych unit.

Enter sensory rooms. Sensory rooms are set apart spaces that provide a rich sensory experience and a feeling of comfort and safety. They are places for clients to either de-escalate from a crisis or head it off at the pass.

Why is a rich sensory experience important?

When someone is in acute distress, their sympathetic nervous system kicks into full gear. Their body gears up for fight or flight. In this type of mode, our bodies are not in a prime state to sit and “talk it out.” We are simply not wired that way.

Before talking through things becomes an option we need our parasympathetic nervous system to kick in to bring us out of our escalated state.

This system slows our heart rate and restores a sense of calm and clear-headedness.

One of the most effective ways of stopping the fight or flight cycle is by sending our bodies basic sensory signals that our environment is safe. Our sensory systems are powerhouses for regulating our emotional state.

The internal senses—the vestibular sense, the proprioceptive sense, and deep pressure—are your most innate options for combating stress. To read more about this, please refer to the article How Our Senses Help Us Combat Stress.

What Does a Sensory Room Typically Entail?

A sensory room is designed to be a set apart place that feels warm and comforting. Because of the stark white nature of most psych units, sensory rooms often feature welcoming colors and perhaps images of nature.

There are ideally options to trigger all of the powerhouse calming senses. For the vestibular sense, there is ideally a rocking chair. Weighted blankets or even a heavy quilt can provide deep pressure touch. For proprioception, Thera-balls or yoga mats are popular items. Other options, as suggested by OT Innovations, include:

  • Large Bean Bag Chairs
  • A Comfortable Rug
  • Book Shelf with a Variety of Self-Help Books
  • An Aroma Therapy Diffuser Kit
  • Meditation Bell
  • Journaling and Art Supplies
  • A Guitar
  • A Keyboard
  • Window Treatments for Lighting Options

    What People Are Saying About Sensory Rooms

    Sensory rooms have grown in popularity particularly due to their role in reducing seclusion and restraint incidents. Here is a helpful website from the New York State Office of Mental Health about their use of sensory rooms with adolescents. OT  Innovations is another go-to website on this topic. The site is run by Tina Champagne, an occupational therapist and pioneer in the use of sensory rooms.

    The benefit of sensory rooms is also recognized by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations and the National Technical Assistance Center, a division of the National Association for State Mental Health Program Directors.

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