The following statements describe one of our senses.
- It involves two primary receptor organs and relies on information from other senses.
- Because this sense operates automatically and unconsciously, we’re relatively unaware of it. Until, that is, it becomes dysfunctional for some reason.
- It is often dysregulated in people who have experienced trauma.
Which sense is it?
The Vestibular System
Your ears aren’t just important for hearing. They aid in balance as well. Two receptor organs in the inner ear – the semicircular canals and the otolith organs – compose the vestibular system. They send signals to the brain that help you orient yourself and maintain balance by detecting the position and motion of the head in space. The semicircular canals monitor the rotation of your head while the otoliths – the utricle and the saccule – monitor linear movements of your head. They are positioned horizontally for the sense of acceleration and deceleration and vertically for the sense of gravity. The sense of balance also relies on integrating information from other sensory systems, particularly the visual, proprioceptive and interoceptive senses.
Balance is such an essential function and yet is taken for granted. We notice it mostly when it stops working like it should. A dysfunctional vestibular system may result in symptoms of dizziness, vertigo, fatigue, nausea, problems with proprioception, and a poor sense of equilibrium. Adults may easily identify these issues; however, children who can’t quite verbalize these sensations may avoid or crave:
- activities requiring their feet to leave the ground
- excessive spinning or rocking
- changing their bodily position
They may have cautious or slow movements, poor safety awareness, and impulsive actions.
The Vestibular System and Trauma
The vestibular system is quite fragile and can be impaired by brain injury, disease and inflammation. Recent research from Dr. Ruth Lanius shows that post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is correlated with a poor sense of balance. It appears that trauma and feeling off-kilter are related, not just psychologically, but physically as well. Specifically, with the worsening of PTSD symptoms there is greater disruption of vestibular system neural circuitry.
And the opposite, feeling physically unstable, may bring about feelings of instability both cognitively and emotionally. The field of embodied cognition addresses this issue. It is the study of the interconnections between our physiology and our feelings. It describes how bodily states and our thinking are entwined in a circle of cause and effect. A hopeful takeaway: therapies that improve balance might also improve our emotional resilience.
The multisensory, bottom-up input of the Focus System and movement activities leads to body organization. The result is the joyful sense of connection with the body and feeling grounded and balanced.