We all have moments in our day where life feels like too much, when we feel overwhelmed. When we don't know what to do and we feel out of control. Maybe we feel anxious or confused, maybe we feel sad or frightened. Maybe we feel disconnected from ourselves. Maybe we feel all these things, or other things that are uncomfortable and difficult for us. Here is a 5 minute reset that can be used in these moments. These simple actions will impact your body physiology and allow your nervous system to settle. They will bring you into your body and bring you back to a more calm, clear and present state.
Simple actions, profound effects. Sound good?
Ok. Let's begin :)
Look around and see where you are.
Let your head and neck turn and let your eyes go where they want to.
Name 3 things you can see, real simple.
Look around again, and name 3 more things you see, but get more detailed.
If looking around at a large area seems too stimulating, try a smaller area, or just gaze at one thing you see that is neutral or pleasant to you.
Now bring your attention to your body. What part of your body can you notice that feels neutral? That feels OK?
Maybe it’s the contact between the ground and your feet, your backside against the surface its on, or your hands clasped together gently. Spend a few moments really paying attention to what feels okay.
You may also be feeing something else at the same time that is unpleasant, but just try your best to put your attention to what is ok in your body.
If noticing your body is difficult, try tapping or rubbing your body with one of your hands and you can even say to yourself this is my chest, this is my arm as you touch each part.
Can you notice your jaw? Is it tight or loose? Are your teeth together or apart? Release it.
Can you pay attention to your breath? Don’t change it. just feel what its doing and allow it for a few moments.
Now try gently lengthening your exhale. In through your nose, out through your mouth. Don’t change your inhale.
Check in with yourself.
Do you feel any different than when you started? Don’t judge, try and be curious.
Are you more calm? Do you feel more in control? Do you feel more safe? Are you the same? Are you somehow totally different?
As you tune into yourself best you can, notice is there anything you feel an impulse to do?
Is there a sound your body wants to make? growl, grunt, cry, yell, laugh, speak something out loud?
Is there a movement or action your body wants to do? Tense your arms and fists, shake or tremble, move your legs or feet, retract your head, push away with your arms, collapse and get smaller? Or anything else?
Allow these things to happen if you feel them wanting to happen.
Look around again and see where you are. Name 3 things you see.
Now think of someone or something that makes you feel safe, strong, or calm.
This can be a person, place, an animal or object. It can be real in your life, past or present or made up. Like a beautiful beach or forest or your dog or a dog you wish you had.
Use your mind to create a picture like that person or animal is here or you are at that place or you have that object with you.
See as many details in your mind as you can. Really feel the realness of this image.
You can either see it through your own eyes or see yourself like a movie. Which ever feels more natural.
Place one hand gently on your forehead or on your chest.
See the picture in your mind like its real and happening at this moment, but also feel yourself here in the present by how your hand makes contact with your body.
After a few minutes, open your eyes and see the room again.
Turn your head and neck while using your eyes to see where you are. Name 3 things you see.
Check in again.
How do you feel? More calm? More present? More safe? No different? Very different? Try to be curious.
Finish by giving yourself a self-hug.
Place arm across your chest and place your hand under your armpit. Place the other arm overtop and other hand on the side of your shoulder.
Notice the containment that this self-hug provides.
Feel where your boundaries are and that they can contain all that you experience internally.
I encourage you to try this simple exercise when you are feeling like you need a reset, to give your nervous system the help it needs in these moments of overwhelm. It really appreciates it.
Thanks for reading!
Imagine, a herd of Impala in the woodlands. Standing by the stream, grazing and socializing, feeling safe and relaxed. Suddenly, from inside the brush, a noise. As if simultaneously with the sound, each and every head of the herd turns at the exact same time, as if connected by a thread, in the direction of the potential unknown threat. As quickly and as automatically as those heads turning, their sympathetic nervous system takes over and their physiology begins to charge up and mobilize for action. How will they defend themselves? Cortisol begins to rush through their bodies, their heart and breathing rate speed up and their muscles brace.
Moments pass, but nothing materializes. Alas, it was just a twig snapping when stepped on by another impala coming to join the herd. The lone impala steps out into sight and the herd realizes that there is in fact, no threat. What do they then do before going back to their grazing and socializing? Each and every impala scans their environment. They are biologically wired to do this scanning once they believe the threat will not materialize. They orient to where they are and see that they are in fact safe, and this allows their sympathetic nervous system to come back down and the physiological changes that occurred in response to that potential threat return to their resting baseline. Their nervous system returns to where it feels safe and where it allows for attuned social engagement.
This impulse to orient, as is wired into the impala, is also biologically wired into us. If you watch, after they are startled, healthy babies will look around their environment. However, as we develop, often, we do not follow this biological impulse like that baby, and that impala do, as our neocortex overrides it as it is focused on other things. In fact, overtime, this impulse can be extinguished all together.
As humans, in our constantly overstimulating, high stress environment, our twig is snapping hundreds of times a day. Each and every time our metaphoric twig snaps, our nervous system responds in the exact same way that impala's nervous system responds to that potential threat in the brush. When we have low nervous system resiliency, that sympathetic charge will be higher and those physiological changes will be more significant, and it will be much more difficult to come back down, and often, we simply don't.
When we purposefully orient we are helping our nervous system complete that stress response cycle. Every time we simply look and see where we are, we let our system know we are safe and there is no longer any threat. This simple act sends a message to our nervous system and says hey, you can chill out. All is okay. It was just a twig. This allows those physiological changes to return to our resting baseline, or at least, when we first start orienting, settle a little bit. This simple act "empties our cup". Remember, our nervous system is like a cup, it only has so much room, and when it is too full, it overflows and this is when we feel overwhelmed and incapable of doing the things we need to do. Sometimes we even feel helpless.
So, ORIENTING. You may think, come on, there is no way that simply looking around can help me to feel better. But you would unfortunately, be mistaken. Purposeful orienting not only allows our system to settle in the moment, but overtime, we are setting up the conditions to restore that process of organic resetting of the nervous system after stressful experiences. We are reestablishing that biological impulse so we can organically orient when we become stressed, without thought to do so. Orienting, it may seem like no big deal, and in action, it is no big deal, but in effect, simply looking around and really seeing where you are, is in fact, A PROFOUND TOOL OF SELF REGULATION.
Try it now. Look around you. Turn your head and let your eyes wander where they want to go. Name 3 things you see. If you see something you like, pause, really see it, and tune into your body as you look at it. Do you notice anything? Just be curious. If looking around seems too stimulating, choose one thing to look at that you like, or is neutral to you. Do this as many times a day as you remember. Let your system know, its just a twig.
ORIENTING. JUST DO IT.
All of us have heard from well intentioned friends, family members and colleagues “its ok, just calm down”, “its’ not the end of the world” and “just relax”. Of course, these words are offered to help us in a moment where things are often feeling out of control for us and everything that is happening is just too much to process. The hope when we are offered these pieces of advice is that we can hear this and rationalize in our minds that all is okay and if we just tell ourselves this we should just be able to change the way we are feeling and calm down. The problem with this approach is a critical piece in understanding the experience of “anxiety” is missing.
“Anxiety” or what we refer to in Somatic Experiencing as “activation” is an experience that is rooted in physiology not the mind. When we experience what we have term anxiety, our autonomic nervous system is perceiving danger and has begun to mobilize a fight or flight response. What we feel is an initiation of our stress response. The important thing to note here is our body responds the exact same way to psychological stress as it does to actual threat. So whether your spouse is yelling at you or a tiger is chasing you, the physiological changes in the body are the same as it begins to prepare to defend itself. Our muscles contract, out heart rate speeds up, our breathing rate increases and we build an internal state of survival energy that would be used to execute this fight or flight if that danger materialized. And it does not feel good. We can’t think and our thoughts start to race as we try and locate the source of that danger and our higher brain goes offline.
When we have dysregulation in our nervous system as a result of chronic stress, overwhelm and trauma, we are at a severe disadvantage when trying to process stress. We activate very quickly and once we have become activated and these physiological changes have occurred it is very difficult to come out of this activated state. The system just doesn’t know how to anymore. In fact, we often get stuck there and long after the situation resolves the system still perceives that danger and stays in that physiologically activated state. Over time, as this repeatedly happens our baseline changes and our system just no longer knows how to fully feel safe and settle. Furthermore, our nervous system is so full of that old unused survival energy that when we try and take in new stressors there just isn’t any room and we easily start the cycle again. We activate quickly, we can’t settle, more energy locks in the system and we get more dysregulation.
So no, we cant just calm down. No matter what we tell ourselves.
Somatic Experiencing addresses the dysregulation in our nervous system by helping to discharge that unused survival energy so we are no longer stuck in that physiologically activated state, lowering that baseline, bringing some safety back into the system and re-teaches the nervous system how to adaptively respond to stress.
i just read this quote "don't let your emotions immobilize you. View them as a choice" and i understand where this good intentioned guru is coming from, however what he is simply not understanding is that OFTEN EMOTIONS ARE A RESULT OF A LITERAL IMMOBILIZATION OF YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM. when you feel genuinely depressed, lifeless and immobilized it is because your parasympathetic nervous system is actually signally to your body and your brain that you are in a state of deep conservation due to an overwhelm of your stress response. Your system has perceived more threat (STRESS) in your environment then you have the capacity to take in and the nervous system has literally moved you into a state where you can fare better when experiencing this overwhelming threat that you cannot overcome or escape from. ITS CALLED A FREEZE OR IMMOBILITY and it is an unconscious, automatic, last resort response of the nervous system. And actually it is deeply needed when we are facing threat and we cannot fight or flee as it is way of dampening our physical experience of the threat if we must undergo it. Think when a possum plays dead when its about to be eaten by a predator. Problem is its suppose to be a time limited experience but for numerous factors this experience has become the dominant state of or reoccurring pattern in your nervous system. You actually have no choice at all but to feel immobilized (depressed, exhausted, unmotivated, lifeless, simply can't seem to get yourself to do what you want to do) because you actually are immobilized. Your physiology is literally directing you to be/feel that way. Its the same situation with anxiety, just a different branch and state of the nervous system, one of sympathetic fight or flight. More on that later. thanks for reading!