Two of the three stress structures in the brain, are also sensory structures. So if we get creative around combining bottom-up sensory activities with top-down cognitive behavioural practices, we CAN effectively and scientifically get down to the business of stress management.
We are heading towards the end of this year at a dizzy speed and, if you are anything like me, need to manage stress levels for survival. Sensory Stress Management is an alternative to traditional stress management tools and is as simple as getting down to the business of listening to your inner self.
The 3 major stress structures of the brain are the hypothalamus (controlling the stress and relaxation responses through the autonomic nervous system) the amygdala (the brain’s alarm center) and the prefrontal cortex (involved with higher cognition and thinking patterns). Two of those structures are also sensory structures (!) – let that sink in for a minute and allow yourself to be encouraged by the fact that a level of control over the stress response is indeed possible.
The hypothalamus and amygdala “sense” when there is danger, and triggers the stress response. They also “sense” when danger has passed, and triggers the relaxation response. But these structures do not have eyes, ears, a nose, a mouth or a skin! They simply respond to environmental and bodily sensory messages, which is why the sensory approach to stress management is so empowering and helpful.
When our prefrontal cortex is hijacked by the amygdala during times of stress, we literally have no access to reason. That is when bottom up sensory strategies are so important – it is something we can DO, a lifeline to help preserve relationships, until such time as we have our wits about us once again.
Bottom up sensory stress management makes use of the senses and the body/soma to impact the stress structures of the brain (hypothalamus, amygdala) through regulating sensory input triggering the parasympathetic nervous system for rest, digest, and relaxation.
Apart from sensory activities, controlled breathing is of course a well-known strategy to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. One big breath is sometimes all we need to communicate the end of danger. Breathe in as deeply as possible, hold, and audibly release. Block breathing (4 counts in, hold for 4, out for 4, wait for 4) is well known amongst military staff. I like the rhythmical element to block breathing, as the sensory system responds very well to repetitive rhythms. Twelve count breathing (in for 5 and out for 7) triggers the parasympathetic nervous system powerfully especially during the prolonged exhale.
Sensory bottom-up stress management only involves 2 out of the 3 stress structures, which is why I like to add another level, referred to as top-down cognitive behavioral practices for whole-brain stress relief, directly impacting the third stress structure of the brain: the prefrontal cortex.
On a visual level, go outside and enjoy the beauty of nature and, while receiving the calming bottom-up visual input, give thanks and practice gratitude for all you see. I am a well-known tree-hugger, but talking to them and expressing my appreciation for their beauty, their seniority, their gift of life-giving oxygen, is also something I do regularly, even if just quietly under my breath. Plants respond positively to loving conversation, the human brain too!
My personal favorite when practicing auditory whole-brain stress management, is music with a message/music with meaning. Combine the regulating and organizing bottom-up sounds, with a message which is meaningful to you. Preferably not when in the car with your children(!).
Tactile activities combined with cognition could be as simple as following a complex, involved recipe (or advanced cooking demonstration) where you have to focus and concentrate while enjoying the regulating tactile input.
For whole-brain stress busting on a smell and taste level, there is nothing quite as powerful as sharing a fragrant and enjoyable meal with loved ones, as we are also provided with the precious gift of perspective – something we all require more often than not. Hearing someone else’s opinion, listening to someone else’s heart, is one of the biggest gifts we could ever receive ourselves. This is called social buffering and a well-researched combater of stress.
Yoga is my number one whole-brain stress buster for movement, as it combines mindfulness and meditation with the sensory input of movement. Downward facing dog is like going on a six month holiday since it provides inversion (head lower than body) – one of the most calming and regulating vestibular/movement activities out there. Repetitive motor actions like walking or running are incredible too, since it could easily be combined with mindfulness while listening to uplifting music/podcasts.
Be encouraged by the fact that the stress and sensory structures of the brain are closely connected, and get creative around implementing whole-brain stress busting activities. It takes a whole lot of listening to your sensory self, and just a little bit of discipline. We will make it to the end of this year 😊