How Our Senses Help Us Combat Stress

How Our Senses Help Us Combat Stress. GettyImages

The way to battle a cluttered, racing mind isn’t by adding more words and thoughts. The most effective techniques for achieving a state of calm are physical. Maybe for you it’s going for a run? Or taking a bath? Or simply rocking back and forth in your easy chair?

There are many mind-clearing physical activities that we rely on day-to-day to keep our mood in balance, but have you ever wondered what makes these simple tricks so effective?


Many calming activities you engage in have something in common—they activate your internal senses.

Internal senses gather foundational information for processing the world around us. Infants rely on these senses to understand the world around them before they can cognitively assimilate their surroundings.

Triggering these senses in ways that signal to your body that your environment is safe allows your body to release stress. As occupational therapists, we call the following four senses your “powerhouse senses” because of how effective they are at stress regulation.

If the concept of internal senses is completely new to you (as it is to many people) consider reading the article 4 Underappreciated Senses before proceeding.

The Vestibular Sense

The vestibular sense is your sense of balance and movement. When activated in the right way, this sense can be extremely relaxing. Have you ever wondered why infants find rocking so calming or why rocking in your chair makes you want to doze off?

It is because these slow rhythmic movements activate our vestibular sense in such a way that it influences our parasympathetic nervous system—which slows our heart rate and helps our bodies calm down. As this author puts it, rocking synchronizes the brain for sleep.

When all other coping mechanisms have gone out the window, this is often the sense your body will turn to.

Think of someone who is in extreme distress hugging his or her knees and rocking back and forth. Their body is working to trigger their vestibular sense to provide some level of calm.

Deep Pressure Touch

Our sense of touch is broken down into several layers. For example, there is the unique set of sensory receptors for light/superficial touch—things that might brush up against your skin. There is a totally different set of receptors for touch that provides more pressure. These deep pressure receptors can trigger a calming mechanism.

Think of when someone is holding you, or you’re receiving a massage, or how good it feels to have something sit on your lap.

A classic study of this is research by Temple Grandin, who due to her autism found it difficult to receive deep pressure touch in common ways, such as hugs from family members. Read here about the “squeeze machine” she invented. She reports that this squeeze machine, which she used on a daily basis to receive deep pressure touch, helped her nervous system calm down.


Proprioception is a sense of where your body is in space. This sense has a unique set of receptors in your muscles and joints and is activated by movement. While this sense can be closely related to deep pressure (for example, if you are giving someone a hug you are both activating your deep pressure sense of touch and also your proprioception sense from the effort your joints and muscles are exerting), it is distinct.

Proprioception is the sense that is being triggered when you are pounding the pavement on your jog or doing hard rhythmic work such as shoveling.

Here is a blog from a parent of a boy with autism and the specific proprioception techniques she uses throughout the day to avoid meltdowns and help her son function in day to day situations.

The Oral Motor Sense

This sense often does not make the list of senses, even underappreciated ones. But, as OTs, we like to keep it in its own category because of how effective it is.  Oral-motor refers to rhythmic sucking or chewing.

This is another of our most primitive senses. A baby calms when nursing or taking a bottle, not only because his or her belly is filling up, but also because the sucking, which stimulates the oral motor sense, is in itself extremely calming. That’s one of the reasons pacifiers are so effective.

In adults, the drive to activate this calming sense might translate to gum chewing or the desire when you are stressed to have something to munch on.

The Sensory Connection Program, an OT developed program, outlines ways to utilize this sense in programs in mental health facilities. 

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