Stress and perception

Stress is a function of our perception of our own circumstances, and perception is unique to the factors of our experience. What are the factors that form and shape your perception?

First you need to look at the role of bodily experience in forming perception and how that plays into your capacities to manage stress. By understanding this mind-body interaction, you’ll better understand the power of using the body to shape the mind.

Many programs of stress management focus on mentation. Thinking differently can certainly change your outlook, attitude, and overall resilience. Dr. Amit Sood, Chair of the Mind-Body initiative at the Mayo Clinic, has developed one of the better approaches to stress management, but … where is the body?! The body is the sounding board, the completion of the feedback loop of self-awareness. You cannot ignore the vehicle through which you experience the world, yet many people do.

The thinking function of the brain is called cognition and happens in the neocortex; the organizational function of our brain happens at the level of the subcortex; and what we would term emotion mediates that interaction. Neurologically, 95% of our activities as humans are automatic, i.e. happening at the subcortical level.


Automatic behaviors that dominate our subcortical processing are learned, adaptive, and thus unique to our personal filters of perception.

While we commonly believe we can use our cognition to tame emotion, this is a top-down hierarchy that neuropsychologist Dr. Leonard Koziol refutes. There is an interactive dependence between subcortical organization and neocortical cognition.

To understand brain organization and cognition on a broad level, we have to go back to our development in the womb. The moment our perceptual capacities begin to function in utero, we are interacting with our environment. The experience of sound waves, light waves, pressure, movement, chemicals, and nutrients interact to create a matrix of experience that is unique to our circumstance in the womb.

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Coming out of the womb,

...we emerge into an environment that retains all the elements experienced in utero, yet those elements are organized differently. The certainty of the umbilical cord is replaced by the certainty of gravity. Amniotic fluid is replaced by atmosphere. The filters through which we perceive the elements of phenomenological experience are emotional, developmental or familial, cultural, and historical.

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From the beginning of our life, our emotional responses (according to psychiatrist Dr. Stanley Greenspan) are the first layer of perception that guide our actions for survival; we associate the concept of safety with the necessity of survival. The requirement of bonding trumps comfort as we learn strategies for survival because as babies we cannot survive on our own. As we develop within a family system into independent beings, we learn to stand, literally and metaphorically, on our own two feet. We additionally learn to make sense of the world through the filters of the culture and the era into which we are born. Our belief systems, arising out of these filters of perception, come together to form meaning. Indeed, even on the level of a single concept neuron, we are forming meaning.

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What we perceive as meaningful impacts the memories we have of our personal history and the expectations we have for the future. But it is the present moment where we have the most influence. Humans are not great with clarity across time: memories fade or are reshaped in the retelling; expectations are wildly out of proportion to current reality or cannot be imagined with detail. What we are exceptional at, according to artificial intelligence scientist Dr. Hans Moravec, is processing the present moment, particularly with respect to:

-walking and movement

-perception and pattern recognition

-social adaptation.

When your felt experience of the present moment is consistent with conceptual understanding of yourself, the world, and your role in the world, there is a harmony that is both expansive and centering. It is an experience that practitioners of many mind-body disciplines seek, yet perhaps poorly articulate. It is a state of effortless effort, of seemingly non-doing, where you hook into a flow that is larger than yourself.

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Like surfing, the work is to drop into the wave and play on its energy. Observation, timing, balance, and skillful alignment can create an exhilarating ride. Like tai chi, you find the just-right coordination and it feels as if you are allowing energy to move through you.

To do this in everyday walking is to ride the force of gravity in a graceful way. You recycle the force of gravity through you. You dance with gravity as your partner.