Stress in low doses can be very useful. Stress can be beneficial when it is used to increase focus, build performance, and can provide productive energy. In life threatening scenarios, it’s the stress response which can help keep you alive. Stress brings on physiological responses including an increase in heart rate, tensing of muscles, and hypervigilance for threat. This is what will increase your chances of surviving a bear attack. Full disclosure, I’ve never been attacked by a bear, but it’s reassuring to know my body will produce the required level of energy if I need it. However, when stress is prolonged the neurological and hormonal responses our bodies produce can lead to unwanted changes to our physical and mental health. So, it’s the persistence of stress which is therefore more important to discuss.
The Impacts of Stress
Many of us recognise that our lives are increasingly more chaotic as we juggle an endless amount of responsibilities. Not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic, which has us facing additional challenges such as isolation, disruption to routines, and economic uncertainty. In certain cases, this also involves working from home and managing kids at home as well. Such repeated stress responses can have serious consequences. With chronic stress, those same lifesaving reactions in the body can disturb the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems. It can lead to interpersonal problems, headaches, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and put you at risk for mental health disorders. Not to mention your personal experience of chronic stress which can greatly reduce the quality of your life.
As a society we have not tackled this problem well and there are likely to be many reasons for this. I’d like to highlight one of these reasons, it’s called avoidance. As clinicians we often see people avoiding issues, thoughts and feelings that are uncomfortable. However, such a tactic is ultimately unhelpful, as we never end up facing the real problem.
We’ve recently had Stress Down Day, which is a day that reminds us to collectively pull our heads out of the sand and acknowledge that stress exists in every one of us and it can have serious consequences, but most importantly there are things we can do about it. So, it’s a good time to reflect and talk to others around you about how stress plays a part in your daily life and how you are stressing down.
Stress and our Senses
Thankfully, there are many ways in which we can lessen stress and its impacts. One such way is through the use of our senses. Evidence has found that by incorporating sensory strategies into our daily lives the physiology of the body changes and in doing so this creates a shift in how we think and feel. So let’s have a look at some ways in which sensory strategies can help with stress. We may even recommend playing with sand (just be sure not to stick your head in it).
Understanding our Sensory Systems
Our senses help us to process the world around us and to organise our bodies. Most of us recognise that we have five senses, but did you know there are actually eight? These are:
- Visual – the ability to understand and interpret what is seen.
- Auditory – the ability to detect sound and interpret information that is heard.
- Oral/Gustatory – the ability to interpret information regarding taste and sensation in the mouth.
- Olfactory – the ability to interpret smells.
- Tactile – the ability to interpret information coming into the body by the skin.
- Proprioception – the ability to interpret where your body parts are to each other and how they are moving. It uses information from nerve endings and sheaths on the muscles and bones to inform about the position and movement of the body through muscles contracting, stretching, bending, straightening, pulling, and compressing.
- Vestibular – the ability to interpret information relating to movement and balance. The vestibular system uses the semi-circular canals and otolith organs in the inner ear to receive information about movement, change of direction, change of head position and gravitational pull. It receives information about how fast or slow we are moving, balance, movement from the neck, eyes and body, body position, and orientation in space.
- Interoception – is the perception of sensations from inside the body and includes the perception of physical sensations related to internal organ function such as heartbeat, respiration, satiety, as well as the autonomic nervous system activity, related to emotions. Good interoceptive awareness means that we can determine when we feel hungry, thirsty, tired, anxious etc.
How can we use sensory strategies to stress down?
Everybody’s nervous system is different; the list below provides some ideas to help you to attain an appropriate state of alertness. You might find that some items increase, decrease, or even do both to your state of alertness, others may not be of use to you at all. Try some of these out and see what works for you.
- Watch a fireplace, the sunset, the beach, or nature.
- Trial different lighting, for example, blinds open vs closed, fluorescent lighting, or dimmed lighting.
- Listen to music, consider classical, rock, or even jazz. Rhythmic drumming can also have a calming effect on the body and soul.
- Trial working in either quiet or noisy environments.
- Sing or talk to yourself.
- Suck on a lolly, chew some gum or using a drink bottle that you use a bite and suck motion with.
- Drink hot/cold or fizzy drinks. Also try using a straw.
- Eat an ice block or chew on some ice cubes.
- Eat crunchy foods such as pretzels, chips, crackers, nuts, or crunchy fruit and veggies.
- Incorporate activities of respiration, for example, slow breaths, lazy 8 breathing, pursed-lip breathing or belly breathing.
- Trial different smells, for example, flowers, perfume or food, infusers.
- Trial different intensities of smells.
- Twist your hair.
- Receive a massage or apply lotion with firm, deep pressure.
- Wrap yourself tightly in a soft jumper or blanket.
- Take a bath or shower and trial different water temperatures or add bubble bath.
- Pat an animal.
- Fidget with items or tap your hands or feet.
- Complete heavy work activities such as mowing the lawn, scrubbing the floor, moving furniture around, or resistance exercises. Heavy work provides deep pressure to muscles and joints and 15 minutes of input can help to calm and focus the body.
- Do Yoga.
- Use a gym/therapy ball instead of a chair at your desk.
- Go to the gym and try lifting weights.
- Rock in a rocking chair, use a swing or office chair. Trial changing the intensity of the movements.
- Go for a walk, jog, or bike ride.
- Roll your neck and head slowly.
- Stretch or shake your body parts.
- Rock your body from side to side.
- Complete a body scan and recognize how your body is feeling then link this to your current emotions.
Tuning in to our senses can help to improve our mood and to assist with regulation for our daily activities. There is lots of great information available through a quick internet search that will provide lots more examples of ways you can support stress management for yourself or your loved ones, either through sensory strategies or other ways.
What to do if I have concerns about my child’s play skills?
If you have concerns about the levels and impacts of your stress or the stress of a loved one, a qualified and experienced professional can be a great help such as your GP, a Psychologist, or Occupational Therapist. Beam Health has a team of professionals that can help with support around stress for children and young people aged up to 25 years, so please do reach out if you need support.