A staple in my recovery program is the Five Senses Limbic Training exercise. If you're familiar with my work and my Benzo recovery program, then you likely are already familiar with this. However, even some of my students still struggle to understand what it is and how to practice it best.
First, what the Five Senses Limbic Training isn't.... and that's a relaxation practice. It's not that simple, my friends. Many things are relaxing, and while things that promote relaxation certainly fall under the umbrella of lulling, the Five Senses training is unique. Please let me explain first why it's so essential to our recovery, and then let me give you some tips on practicing it.
There are two types of anxiety responses, generally. In the case of benzos, we can add a third dimension.
There is Cortex-based Anxiety, Amygdala-based Anxiety, and then there's chemical fear triggered by benzodiazepine withdrawal. The tough part in managing anxiety during Benzo withdrawal is that we are almost always getting hit with chemical withdrawal. However, don't lose hope because there's still much we can do to help!
Cortex-based Anxiety management consists more of a CBT approach, by which we attempt to calm our nerves through cognitive reframing, visualization, self-talk, and other similar methods. This makes sense because much of our anxiety is indeed in our minds. It's in our thoughts and that incessant narrative we entertain. It's that voice constantly tormenting us. Amygdala-based Anxiety is a bit different. You cannot speak directly to your amygdala to calm it. It doesn't speak that language. Amygdala anxiety is about conditioning two or more stimuli. You show the amygdala, for example, that we are safe by using our senses to ground us and communicate safety via pleasure.
The key takeaway here is that pleasure communicates safety to the amygdala.
This is important to remember, as so much of our anxiety during withdrawal becomes, in part, a problem of the amygdala. This limbic system part of our brain constantly scans our body and environment, searching for signs of danger. The problem is even when there is no danger present our fearful thoughts tend to communicate distress.
This activates the fight or flight center, which can produce hyperarousal. The limbic system pumps more fight-or-flight chemicals (cortisol & adrenaline), which only exacerbate our withdrawal symptoms.
Using our five senses to convey pleasure, we help communicate safety to our limbic system.
In fact, using the CBT (self-talk) approach can often backfire in benzo withdrawal because it can easily become obsessive. Suddenly, we find ourselves walking around all day, talking to ourselves, trying to convince ourselves that we are not in danger. The very obsessiveness of this can begin to communicate distress instead of alleviating it.
The limbic system begins to associate self-talk (especially during bad moments) as part of the problem. The limbic system doesn't really hear the hopefulness or positivity in those words and instead can get a bit more hyperaroused by the self-talk.
As if it were saying to us, "If everything is really going to be okay, why do you keep reminding me!"
Another point to remember is that the amygdala knows when we are lying. You cannot fool it. Being wholly terrified and not believing you're going to heal but telling yourself you're going to be okay is bound to have a weak effect, especially after enough time.
This doesn't mean we should avoid CBT and self-talk. Not at all. But we shouldn't be obsessed with it.
If you want to use some self-talk, visualization, cognitive reframing, etc., once or twice an hour, for example, that's not too bad. However, saying, "I'm going to be okay," 42x an hour can become problematic! And it won't be so effective either way.
Don't get rid of the CBT self-talk stuff. It's helpful. Just don't become so obsessive with it. The same can be said with constant reassurance seeking.
Regardless of self-talk, I strongly encourage you to practice the 5 Senses Limbic Training daily. At least 1x a day, as it takes time to really begin to work. Like many things in our recovery, it is all about repetition. We are firing the nerves and creating pathways through repetition.
How to practice the 5 Senses Limbic Training
Again, the idea is to hit all five of our senses with pleasure to communicate safety to our amygdalas. The best way of doing this, in my humble opinion, is to first begin with either a hot tub or a hot bathtub. A hot tub is best, but not all of us will have that option. A bathtub is perfectly fine.
Fill it with warm or hot water, perhaps a bubble bath. The hot water communicates pleasure and safety via our sense of touch.
Next, we need something pleasurable to smell. I often used lavender or vanilla bath balm or earthy hot tub scents. A nice candle, like the wicker candles, also works great.
Now we need something pleasureful to taste. I preferred a piece of dark chocolate or a stick of gum. Anything can work, though. Just as long as it tastes good to you.
We need something beautiful to hear. Classical music, ambiance, nature sounds, or, as I often used, Enya, Sarah McLachlan, Dido, Tori Amos, and Joni Mitchell, to name a few, work great. I always found soft female vocals to be very soothing. Again, anything can work just as long as it feels good. It could be gospel music or Zen meditation music. However, I might suggest avoiding heavy-speed metal!
We will also need something pleasant to see. A lovely candle or some flowers can do the trick. Or perhaps you have a window you can look out. I had a hot tub outside on my back patio, so I had plenty of nature to look at, but I would still often light candles or put flowers or plants at the end of the tub.
Well, there you have the basics. We hit each sense with something pleasureful.
Now. This part is also quite important. This isn't going to work very well if you're going to lay there doing all of this but stuck in rumination or playing on your phones. This is where mindfulness practices come into play. And also another reason why mindfulness training is so crucial during this process!
We want to practice grounding our attention and awareness into our senses. Feel how good that hot water feels. Taste how good that dark chocolates taste, or those flowers or bath fragrance smell. Enjoy the music or ambient sounds. Gently guide your awareness to the senses and the present moment. You don't have to stay fixated on the senses but use them to pull you back to the here and now.
It's not about clearing our minds or not having thoughts because thoughts will always come. No. This is about simply gently directing your awareness to your senses. Become more aware. Once you're in a better headspace, you can relax and engage your mind a little more or watch TikTok videos if you'd like. But don't return to the rumination. Not while we are doing this practice.
Be patient with this. It takes time to really begin to work. In fact, it may take several weeks. But with this exercise, we are communicating safety to our limbic system, and it's so powerful because it's a true safe space communicated through our body. It's not just self-talk. Think of it this way. No one has ever been mauled by a grizzly bear while lying in nice hot water, sucking on a piece of dark chocolate, listening to Enya, and smelling lavender! This confuses the chemical fear signal benzo withdrawal creates.
Another thing worth remembering is that our limbic system, this old dinosaur part of our brain, knows the difference between being sick, wounded, and injured. Otherwise, we'd break a leg or get the flu and develop an anxiety disorder. Which we don't.
Part of the reason we suffer so much is because the lines between fear and anxiety get blurred, and we begin reacting to everything as though we were in danger.
Anxiety is going camping and being worried about bears. Fear is when we see a bear, and it sees us!
We will talk more about that in another blog. For now, practicing the Five Senses Limbic Training daily will help create that pure, safe space, which is achieved through conditioning our nerves and creating pathways that communicate safety to our amygdala.
Believe me. Out of everything I did for myself while I was healing, this was one of the most effective. I cannot stress it enough. If you look at my level 1 Benzo Daily Checklist, you will see it listed as one of the first things we begin practicing. It's really that important, my friends.
One last thing. We do not always need to lay in a hot bath with candles burning. Sometimes, people find this to be just too much. On those days, please keep it simple. Find a way to get as close as possible to this. Perhaps it's a heated blanket, lying on the recliner, listening to music, or watching a comedy film. But do hit the senses. The more, the better. I really don't recommend watering down this practice, but I do understand there are exceptions to be made at times.
Until next time. You ARE healing. You WILL make a full recovery. Keep your head up.