Anxiety seen through the lens of the senses.

Anxiety seen through the lens of the senses.

In the last article we looked at the 12 senses and how they give us the doorways through which we meet our own body, the surrounding world and the other people in that world.

How can we understand anxiety through these doorways, and Can we support the senses to help children/adults who suffer from anxiety?

Our Self makes first a connection to our own body, from there to the three dimensional space around us, the world as it is made visible through our smell, taste, vision and warmth, and then to the other people in that world, what they say, how to understand their thoughts and get to know their Selves.

This knowing of ourselves through the 4 body senses, gives us a reference point from which we can know the world and the other. This means that there needs to be a constant balance between the point (self) and the periphery (world and other). Our point gives us stability while we go out and explore the world. And from going out into the world, we come back to our Self, to our own point of reference. Like breathing in and breathing out in our physical breath, we also breathe out into the world and the other, and breathe in when we come back to our Selves.

We need to stay in touch with the point when breathing out into the periphery, and the other way around, not lose contact with the periphery when I breathe in, come back to the point.


point periphery


Babies and young children’s sense of Self is still very closely linked to their sensing of their environment. They fully are one sense organ, what happens in their environment has an immediate effect on their Self. The environment, with everything in it, and the child, are one. It is only slowly and gradually that the separation of self and environment happens. There are milestones along this path: the first smile is an early recognition of the other, recognition of unfamiliar faces and people around 8 months is another step. Saying ‘no’ around 2, saying ‘I’ around 3, are all steps along this development of finding the point as a centre within the wider world around them. Around the age of 6, with the physical changes of the body and features in the face, losing the roundness of the kindergarten child and becoming more formed, another level of awareness of that Self, that now is ready to go to the big school, is achieved. The 9, 10 year-olds who become more aware of each other’s differences, stand with a bit more separation between Self and the other in the world, etc.

Every step along that developmental path, is like a little milestone, which is achieved when it can build on strong foundations of previous milestones, if the environment gives the child the opportunity to take each step in its own time.

This gradual process of separation has a very important consequence, namely: when the baby and young child are still at one with their environment, everything that can be sensed through all the 12 senses is informing the child. And this informing, these impressions that enter the child’s body, nervous system, emotional being etc. not only informs on a cognitive level, but down to the physical level. All our experiences, our memories are held in our body.

This means that all sense impressions we give through all the 12 senses: what we give the child to touch, how we touch the child, the rhythms of the day, the sleeping and waking, the movements they can make, what they smell, eat, drink, how warm they are feeling, their body temperature they are thought to regulate slowly etc., and what they see and hear, what we speak, how we speak, what we think, spoken or unspoken, even what lives in us unconsciously, and who we are, our own Self, are all working formatively on the child that is growing up in our midst. For better or worse.

This may seem daunting, because none of these senses can at all times be nurtured to 100% perfection. We are all human, striving to do the best with the tools we have in our basket, in a modern world in which it is very hard to support the senses. It is at the same time also very empowering, as this gives us the opportunity to keep trying and improving in many ways and areas. To keep learning and working on lots of different levels to improve what we can offer the children/people in our lives, and what we can offer ourselves. To be lifelong learners in many different fields, to be aware of who we are, what we think, what we say, do and offer etc.

What does the home look like? Is there screens, TV or radio on all the time? Is there space for creative play? Is plastic the only material toys are made of or are there natural materials to explore? Do we go out to the supermarket and mall often with all their overload on sense impressions? And what does school look like? Is there constant noise? Are all the walls covered with children’s work or is there opportunity for auditory and visual respite? Are the teachers open to meeting each individual child?

All these impressions will have an effect, and these effects can last all through adult life as well. Our senses need to be looked after with care and nurturing, so that our Self, who meets the world through those doorways, can find within the body that secure reference point.


If the development of that separation of Self and environment meets some obstacles, if the reference point, the sense of Self is not strong, not securely anchored in the body, then that can be a cause for anxiety when the child/adult goes out, or is drawn out into the world. This anxiety can show in different ways:

Some children/adults may not be able to breathe out enough or in a healthy way: not venture out much into the world and be overly shy, not speak in certain situations, withdraw into their own world, or meet everything that comes to them from that world with a protective gesture of ‘no’. (for example: selective mutism, oppositional defiant). Others may venture out with a need to control or change that environment, so that a sense of security is brought to otherwise unpredictable situations. (for example: bullying, being bossy, compulsive behaviours)

Some may struggle with the breathing in process, and be overly sensitive and always be aware of all that happens around them in that periphery. Every tiny detail is registered, so that there are no surprises or unexpected impressions to deal with. Like someone once told me: “No one can surprise me, it is like I have 2 or 3 computers going all the time, so that I always know what is in front, beside and behind me.” Or some may project their own experiences out onto the world, find blame and see themselves as victims, of the other and the world.


All these ways of coping have an effect on all areas of life: academic learning, social skills and relationships, emotional wellbeing and physical health. Underlying states of anxiety mean that our body is under constant influence of stress hormones, which have an effect on the whole chemical balance/imbalance in our body. Blood flow is reduced to less vital functions in order to survive a sense of immediate danger, and the digestive system is seen by the body as less vital in those situations. Being able to run away or fight is more important. Anxiety can then lead to digestive problems, if this is present over a longer period of time.


The 4 body senses:

I would here like to give you the description of the 4 body-senses again: the sense of touch, life, movement and balance, as they appeared in our last newsletter. These 4 senses give us our point of reference, and in helping children/adults with anxiety, strengthening this point in the periphery, is often a starting point. In this way, the breathing in and out can be strengthened.

(To place these senses in their context of all the 12 senses, please go the last newsletter, which you can find here:


The first 2 senses, the sense of touch and the sense of life, are the primary senses that tell us about how we embody our physical body. The following 2, the sense of movement and balance, tell us about how we can use that embodied body to move and start to orientate in the world.



  • Sense of touch.

The organ for the sense of touch is the network of nerve endings around the hair follicles and below the surface of the skin, it is distributed over the whole surface of the body.


In the traditional way of understanding, the sense of touch is described as telling us about the qualities of the objects we touch: is something hard, cold, alive, dead, wood, plastic etc. Looking at that more closely, when we know if something is soft or hard, warm or cold… we have also moved, applied pressure. We have used other senses, like movement, warmth and proprioception to become aware of what it is we have touched.


Taking all those other senses away we understand touch in a different way:

then touch tells me where the boundary of my body is. The sense of touch in my skin is where I become aware of that boundary: everything within that skin belongs to me, everything outside that skin belongs to the world and is foreign to me. My Self, ‘I’ become aware of my own boundary when I come into contact with the physical world around me either through being touched or actively touching. My skin separates me from the world around me.



A healthy sense of touch gives a feeling of safety, feeling secure. It means I can feel sure that the world and all that it has in it, will stay outside of me, and I will stay inside of my boundary and won’t lose myself in my environment. This not only gives me a sense of boundary surrounding myself, but also my awareness when I cross over that boundary and/or into other people’s boundaries.


The saying that someone or something can ‘get under my skin’ is often used when we feel invaded, or our boundaries are not respected by someone or something coming too close.


An oversensitive sense of touch can show as irritation from labels in clothes, certain materials, pressures on the body from a belt etc. not liking to be touched, not knowing how hard I touch someone, etc. It can also show as irritation from lumpy food in the mouth and difficulties with bowel movements. Our food only becomes a true part of ourselves once it crosses the blood barrier, once it has gone through the lining of the intestines into the bloodstream. Our digestive tract is part of the boundary that separates me from my environment.


I am within this boundary, what is within my skin is me.




–     The sense of life.

The sense of life, also called the sense of wellbeing, tells us about the health and condition of the physiological processes that occur within the boundary of the skin. If all is well, then we have a sense of contentment. We are totally unaware of all these processes going on in our bodies, when we are healthy. A healthy sense of life gives a sense of contentment. An unhealthy sense of life shows in pain, discomfort, tiredness, chronic colds, poor sleep etc.

After a long day of hard work, our sense of life lets us know that we are tired and need to rest. When we eat too much, our sense of life tells us that we have gone over what would have been ideal for the health of our physiological processes and that they are now burdened. If we don’t spoil these physiological processes through eating unhealthy food, not respecting the signs of fatigue for example, then we instinctively know what is good for us. With a healthy sense of life, we know when to stop running and rest, we know when to stop eating and rest.


The organ for the sense of life is the automatic or vegetative nervous system with the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. It makes sure that all movements and organ activities are in tune with what is needed by the physiological life processes.


Rhythm is the rule of how these organs and processes occur in our body. They all have their own rhythms of activity and rest, like breathing in and out, being awake and sleeping, breaking down and building up etc.



I am my body, at one with my body, and when my body is well, I am well. If my body is unwell, I need to withdraw from the world, give it rest and time to recover. Being active in life, directing energy towards to outside world, is then hard and would further disturb the physiological processes.



I am this body and I am well.




  • The sense of movement.

For the new-born baby movements are uncontrolled and unconscious. The sense of movement develops when these seemingly chaotic movements can come to rest and the child begins to control its own movements. To develop control over movement we need to move, to develop the sense of movement we need to have periods of rest between movements, so that we can become aware of when our body moves and when not. A child that is constantly moving, where the movement system cannot come to rest, will find it hard to develop a healthy sense of movement.


The sense of movement not only gives us information about how and where our body moves, but also gives us the inner knowledge of where our limbs are in relation to our body and to each other. Our sense of movement is also involved when we are for example reading. If we see a ‘w’ or an ‘o’ we inwardly move up and down or the circle, and so are able to recognise the form of letters.


As the sense of movement develops, movements become more and more in control. We can choose, make a decision when and how to move, we overcome gravity and levity can arise in our movements. If the sense of movement is not healthy, we may feel bound to the heaviness of the body. Movements can become clumsy and uncoordinated, or uncontrolled: Then movements are controlling me instead of me making my body move. With a good sense of movement, I am the rider on the horse (my body), I am in control of the horse. With an under developed sense of movement, the horse (my body) takes me for a ride.

There needs to be the right balance between relaxation and tension in the muscles to achieve this sense of control and freedom over our movements.


The organ for the sense of movement is the whole muscular system, with the tendons and ligaments around the joints. That whole muscular system is involved in every movement, even if we only move our little finger. To become aware of movements, we need nerves that sense our movements in the muscles and joints. In this sense, motor nerves are also sensory nerves, sensing the movements we make.


In the joints and ligaments lie proprioceptors, “self-sensors”. Deep strong touch, through firm hugs, playtime on the hard floor for example, stimulates those proprioceptors and helps us to feel where our body is. This works calming and reassuring, while soft touch stimulates the nerves in the surface of our skin and is more awakening, alerting. Children that always lie on a soft surface find it harder to know where their body is in space and to develop a good sense of movement.



I am not hindered by this body, I can move it in freedom.




–     The sense of balance.

When the child has learned to stand up, the weight of the body is overcome. He stands up in levity, against gravity. We don’t feel the weight of our body when we can stand freely. This overcoming of gravity develops from the head down. At first we can hold our head up, then we can hold our spine up and sit, and then we can stand first by pulling ourselves up, then by the support of only our legs.


The development of control of the movement system, and the connected sense of movement, is closely linked to the development of the sense of balance.


Once the upright position is achieved, then the exploration of the different directions of space can start to happen. The sense of balance is the starting point of that orientation. From our uprightness in stillness we know where in front and behind is, where left and right are and above and below. In this way the sense of balance is the first one that is not strictly limited to giving information about our body, but is a starting point to its relation to the three dimensional world surrounding it.


The organ for the sense of balance is the vestibular system. This is located in the inner ear, in the hardest bone of our body: the petrous portion of the temporal bone. It consists of two parts. One that tells us if we are in a vertical position, the other perceives our movements in the three dimensions. It is through the connection of this organ with every muscle in our body that we are able to hold our balance.


The ability to be still in our centre of the three dimensional space, allows us to recognise that others also have their own centre. This is necessary to freely share that same space with others and become social human beings.


With a healthy sense of balance, I know that my point of reference is different from the other’s point of reference, and that difference is not threatening to the sense of who I am.



I am I, wherever I am within the wider world.




How can we help with overcoming anxiety, supporting these four senses?


Firm touch, deep pressure touch, stimulates the proprioceptors which lie in the joints, tendons and ligaments. These proprioceptors or “self-sensors” tell us where we are, where the boundary of our body, our self, is and reassure us that we are held within these boundaries.

Swaddling a little baby, giving a firm hug, wrapping a child up tightly in a blanket, adding some extra weight to the bedclothes etc. are all ways we can help anxious children and adults to come back to a safe sense of self.

Therapeutic massage, touch therapy through oiling and compresses in the nursing therapies, floor time for the baby and child, feeling the pressure of the body against the hard floor, can all be helpful.


Rhythm is not the same as routine. Rhythm is living, is a ‘lived in’ passing of time. Time that repeats itself but is each time newly experienced, is each time a new breathing in and new breathing out, a new stop and a new beginning. It is not just repeating what we did before, but re-creating a moment, an action, and bringing it each time to a close, so that we can re-start again the following time. Start – carry the action – stop, start – carry the action – stop… and by being awake to the newness of each re-created action, rhythm allows for change, and meeting each situation as if it was the first.

Rhythms in waking and sleeping, activity and rest, outgoing and coming back in, eating and digesting, breathing in and breathing out, work and play, giving and receiving, are all important to a sense of wellbeing and safety. Awareness of daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally, yearly rhythms and making connections to these in our activities, play, seasonal food etc. bring us back to our connection with the rhythms of nature, connecting our little microcosm to the big macrocosm.

Rhythmic movements, being rocked or rocking on swings, hammocks etc. are helpful.

In your relationship with an anxious child, always start where the child is at. If going out is hard, starting with short moments of outward activity, if coming back into the point is hard, starting with short moments of rest and stillness, and repeating those daily until a sense of safety builds, and expanding as the child is ready for more. Respecting the child’s reality, will allow him to build up trust and self-confidence.


Predictability is knowing what is going to happen next. Knowing that when I wake up, my parents/partner will be there to greet, without any fear or uncertainty. Knowing that when I get home from school, someone will be there to greet me, and that caregiver is going to be available, mentally, emotionally as well as physically.

Connecting with nature, with the dawn in the morning and the dusk at bedtime, with the growing, flowering, fruiting and dying of plants, with the seasons etc. also gives security in the predictability of the wider world.

Predictability is not having to worry about the mealtimes, about the rhythm of the day. All these things are taken care of by the adults around the child, and he doesn’t need to be burdened by the choices involved in all of that. Giving a child too many choices can be unhelpful when we need to build up a sense of security. The child needs to experience that the world is good, and it is there for them to step into and play in, in a dreamy unconscious way. If the child is asked to make lots of choices, they are asked to be responsible for what they cannot carry, they are woken up out of the playful dreamy consciousness they need to fulfil first, before they can make the next steps into more awareness.

Freedom to move and be still:

Starting from day one, having the freedom to move the head, arms and legs, while lying on the floor, and practicing these limbs until they are ready for their next skill, the freedom to come to rolling, sitting, crawling and walking in his own time, when all the muscles and bones are strong enough to carry that movement, is important. Even in it happens a bit later than another child or than the books say, allowing for each child’s own time in that development is the basis for all further development, for self-esteem, for the strengthening of their own will to go out and explore the world.

The freedom to move and explore all dimensions of space, what is it like to be under something, under the table, chair or bed? What is it like to be above, behind, in front of something? What is it like to walk in a very narrow little lane, or on the open grass field or beach?

Using the whole body to explore these dimensions, to really experience what climbing and sliding feel like, moving through space, is very important, as well as allowing for time to be still. Allowing for rest, allows the body’s nervous system, balance system etc. to integrate all these impressions into a healthy sense of body geography and spatial awareness.

Freedom to play:

Play for the child and adult is where the digestion of experiences happens, by repeating, re-creating a story or event that happened to them, and giving it space and time to become a constructive part of our being.

Play for the little child is about exploring the world through all its senses, it is learning about the body and the objects and people they meet, it is about developing the physical skills that will make the body that secure point of reference to meet the world from.

Play is about exploring different physical challenges, beyond the floor and play mat, knowing our body’s skills with balance and strength, building up muscle tone to allow for an uprightness to carry the Self.

Play for the older child is also about exploring social and emotional situations, building houses with cloths and furniture and acting out the situations they are meeting in their daily lives. Is learning the social skills of taking turns, sharing, giving and receiving.

Play is where we all learn life skills to meet the challenges life throws at us, from birth till 100 years.






Lut Hermans

June 2016






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The Art of Sculpture and Therapy