5 Simple Activities to Help You Feel Better . . . Right Now
I used to send these out as emails, but I decided to make it easier and just post them all on my website. They are simple tools that can help in the moment and that can also be practiced regularly to help with nervous system regulation. You might spend a little time with each one before going to the next one, some of them build on the skills that come before them.
#1 Orient to Your Environment
There is a lot of focus in therapy, yoga and other spiritual/healing modalities on looking inside. There is a lot of important stuff in there and many of us have learned to look outside to figure out what’s okay or to find something to make us feel okay. This way of focusing on the external at the exclusion of developing self-awareness doesn’t end up working so well. There is, however, a useful way to look outside and that’s what I am talking about in this first activity.
One of the things that makes us feel better as human beings (aka animals) is feeling safe. One of the ways we feel safe is by looking around and seeing that we are safe. In fact, we not only feel safer, but actually are safer when we are tuned into our environment. For instance, if I am out walking and step into the street without awareness of my environment, I could get hit by a car.
It turns out that looking around and seeing things in my surroundings actually engages the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS helps us settle down and return to equilibrium after we have been stressed, anxious, upset or even excited. It gets us into “rest and digest” mode. For a lot of us, we don’t spend very much time with the PNS running the show. The work of Stephen Porges shows that there are two branches of the PNS—one part goes to all of our digestive organs and the other part goes to our face and throat. Orienting to my environment activates the second branch. Pretty cool!
So here’s what you do:
Let your eyes wander around (and your other senses too). Just noticing—you don’t have to make any evaluation or think anything at all, you’re just seeing what’s there. It might go something like this:
I see the tree branches outside blowing in the wind. I see the bumpy texture of the wall. I see a blinking light on my computer. I hear a car driving by. I see an orange post-it note. I see my phone. I see my ring is turned sideways on my finger.
If you do a little check-in before and after, you might be able to tell a difference. If you do it when you are actually feeling a little agitated or upset, I bet you’ll be able to notice a change. You can do it for a few moments or longer. I suggest you take orientation breaks throughout the day, in addition to having it in your back pocket for first aid.
You’re not trying to distract yourself or push your feelings down, you are just remembering that there is a whole big world out there and you are getting your parasympathetic nervous system working so you will feel better.
This is a pretty easy practice for a lot of people, but there may be times when looking around feels really hard. It may even feel like you just can’t get your eyes to move around—don’t force it. If your eyes are open, then you can see something. Just start with whatever your eyes can already see; notice as much as you can and, who knows, maybe they’ll start to venture out. Another strategy if visual orientation isn’t happening so easily is to focus on orienting with your ears—notice everything you are hearing.