The Secret Stress Senses
The five senses are familiar to most of us: Sight, Sound, Smell, Touch & Taste. We often employ these senses to become more mindful of our environment.
There are three other senses that are incredibly valuable to recognizing our stress triggers and responses.
Those folks who say “I can’t dance”, I believe you can! Though it seems that coordination is innate, proprioception - the ability to know where and how your body parts are held in space - is a skill learned with practice. Whether it is your elbow, your knee, your shoulder muscles, or the top of your head, there are receptors in your muscles and joints that help you understand tension, relaxation, balance. Proprioception can temporarily falter when you are tired, experiencing pain, or distressed.
Practice: Blindfolded Balance
30 seconds standing on one leg, with your eyes closed (For the pros: Try doing this on a blanket).
The capacity to connect a physical sensation to your needs is a practiced skill as well. Yawning, tummy discomfort, a full bladder, butterflies in the belly, sweating, goosebumps, a racing heart, and breathlessness are all physiological signals that move us to act. If you aren’t paying attention, your actions can be delayed, mindless, or stress-inducing. The better you are at sensing our internal environment, the better you will be at decision making during stress. Interoception helps you recognize your reactions, adapt, and respond in a way that serves you best.
Practice: Break-fast Body Scan
On waking, you have likely not eaten for at least 8-12 hours. This is a great time to take a scan of your mood, your abdomen, your cognition. After eating a small amount, note what happens. What about if you eat a large amount?
Beyond your “gut sense” of physiological sensations, you have a “spidey sense”. Neuroception is involuntary: subconsciously assessing people, situations & environments for danger and safety. Depending on your history, your patterns of behaviour, and other factors, neural circuits can sometimes perceive danger inaccurately. In this case, safe situations can elicit fear, or risky situations can be entered without caution. The better your neuroception functions, the better we can take care of ourselves.
Practice: Soften your Eyes
The muscles around the eyes tense when we feel fear. This muscular change influences our cognition and decision making. Take 30 seconds on your daily commute (or another neutral situation): What does it feel like to harden your eye muscles? Then try softening them. Notice your default. Then, try changing it in a challenging situation.
Practice using all of your secret senses. These hidden senses are how your mind & body work together to signal and regulate your stress responses.