On Being Calm and Strong: the Surprising Feet-Brain Connection

feet-brain connection, strength, calm, Karyn Shanks, Karyn Shanks MD

Did you know that our feet give rise to nearly half of all sensory information transmitted to our brains?

Wow.

And this feet-to-brain relationship leads to powerful things (that make us powerful), like:

  • Support.
  • Stability.
  • Strength.
  • Safety.
  • Focus.
  • Clarity about where we are in space.

That’s right. Our feet strengthen us in our center. When activated, the feet-brain connection has the potential to move us with calm, certainty, and security through our lives.

Biomechanically, our feet were designed to support us and keep us safe in these critical ways, but our cultural practices negate this potential.

How?

We confine, pad, constrict, and elevate our feet in shoes—blocking our ability to feel our feet and the ground beneath us. Additionally, we sit more and move less, decreasing the challenges and sensory inputs that strengthen and engage our feet—that literally turn our feet on.

This loss of use and perceptual contact with our feet disrupts the powerful feet-brain connection.

The result?

Just like wearing earplugs, blindfolds, or tying our hands, by limiting our feet’s rich potential for sensation, we restrict what we know, how we feel, and what we can do.

Our feet become weak and we lose their rich sensory communication to our brains. Not just less strong, supported, and tuned into our environments, we don’t feel safe on our own two feet.

How our feet calm our minds: hypofrontality and optimal performance.

The sensations of our feet can lead to calm and confidence—both necessary for optimal performance.

Our feet, unencumbered, send such a huge rush of sensory information to the brain that it interferes with mental activity—like anxious thoughts (you know, about the past that is no longer here, or the future that is yet to come).

The resulting body-focus of the brain fully connected to its feet leads to greater calm, concentration, and engagement with what’s happening in the present moment—key to calm and confidence.

Elite athletes call this “hypofrontality.” Sensations in the body (the feet in particular) improve performance by interfering with excessive frontal lobe activity (fewer anxious thoughts to get in the way).

This is one reason why athletic shoes are so important. Note how minimalistic they have become with regard to padding, arch support, and weight. And increasingly, athletes are learning the value of training without shoes. In addition to stronger feet and fewer injuries, this helps athletes feel their feet and benefit from the feet-brain connection.

Not just for athletes—we all benefit from engaging our feet. Strengthening our feet-brain connection keeps us more aware and in our bodies. And less in the busy, anxious thoughts that interfere with present moment awareness—the key to doing our best.

Let your feet calm and strengthen you!

Rediscover your feet. Free them from their confines, restraints, pads, and elevation. We need their sensation to strengthen the feet-brain connection—to strengthen us.

Get to know your feet.

First we breathe, right?

We start with deep breaths that fill our chests and torsos. Breaths that bring us life-giving oxygen, and contract our diaphragms to expand the chest and massage the vagus nerve—delivering rich relaxation molecules throughout our bodies.

And slow letting-go exhales…

Like this: Take a deep breath in. Let it expand to fill your chest and body. Then slowly exhale… one, two, three, four, five… let it all go. Nice.

Then move your attention to your feet.

Shoes off. Feel the soles of your feet against the ground. Feel the textures and contours of the ground. Feel the weight of your body against them. Sense the balance of your body in space—yes, on your own two feet!

With this simple practice, feel the peace that flows in as your mind shifts into present moment awareness.

Simple logistics for strengthening the feet-brain connection.

Spend more time in bare feet.

Wean yourself from wearing shoes that are confining, excessively padded, have arch support, or are elevated. This freedom allows the intrinsic muscles of your feet to strengthen and the many motor and sensory functions of the feet to become restored.

If this feels awkward, or your feet feel tired or sore, begin slowly like you would with any new practice.

Initially become familiar with your feet against the ground while sitting. Gradually spend time standing and walking in bare feet. Work up to spending many hours without shoes every day.

With time and practice, your feet will become strong, more mobile, and increasingly capable of delivering the information you need to feel strong, calm, and in control of your life.

Let’s reclaim our feet!

Let’s take back the strength, balance, confidence, focus, and safety we get from the powerful feet-brain connection.

p.s. What I do: I go barefoot as much as possible. In fact, I’m in bare feet most of the time at work as well as in my office. I’ve even ditched my shoes at the gym!

My shoes are becoming increasingly minimalistic (if I must wear heals, they come off as soon as possible!).

My feet are stronger and more flexible and I have no pain or fatigue in them, even when I’ve been standing and walking in bare feet all day. Most importantly, I can attest to feeling much more grounded and calm as I move through my days.

Try it for yourself and let me know how it goes!

Resources:

Karyn Shanks MD. Anxiety: Simple Ways to Calm and Soothe By Fine Tuning Your Biology. 2017.

Karyn Shanks MD. The Upside to Being An Anxious Person. MindBodyGreen. 2017.

Katy Bowman, MS. Simple Steps to Foot Pain Relief: The New Science of Healthy Feet. 2016.

Steven Kotler. The Rise of Superman: Decoding Science of Ultimate Human Performance. 2014.

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