Many of us stay in a state of stress a great deal of the time. You may be in this state so often that you may not even realize how stressed you are feeling. Some people experience a great deal of anxiety—feeling that something bad is going to happen, not knowing what, but feeling it anyway—and this puts our body and mind in a state of stress as well. Sometimes you may know the reason for the anxiety, sometimes not. The body’s stress response—the fight, flight, or freeze mode that we are in when we are stressed, afraid or anxious—is controlled by our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). You may also have heard of the “tend and befriend” mode that some people, often women, move into when stressed. This can also be an uncomfortable state of tension and anxiety. Rarely does “tend and befriend” relieve the stress response for very long.
The opposite reaction to our stress response occurs when the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) becomes activated. This is also known as“the relaxation response.” There are certain things that our brain and body recognize as kinds of signals that allow the body and mind to switch from one response to another. One signal that switches on our stress response is when the muscles surrounding the face and neck and shoulders are tight, or drawn upward. Give some attention at this moment to your shoulders. See if you can release them down and away from your ears. To help, draw them up toward your ears, and roll them back and down. Now notice whether your shoulders feel a bit more relaxed. Releasing these muscles can help begin the process of switching to the PNS, or relaxation response. Another way to begin the shift to the relaxation response is to notice your environment. Giving attention to our environment can help us to know that we are safe. For example, right now, I can look around and see that there is no danger. I can hear no dangerous sounds nearby. I can see, hear and feel, based on sensory input, that my body is safe. When I do that, my parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. Like deep belly breathing, looking around our environment and using all our senses to confirm there is no real danger, actually causes our relaxation response to start and can relieve anxiety. Anxiety is not a bad thing. It can help us to perform better and to stay alive in dangerous situations. But when we are anxious for no real reason, or overly anxious in response to actual stressors, it can be counterproductive. Read on for more help with this problem.
A helpful exercise I have shared with a lot of people to stop anxiety and bring you into the present moment, is this simple, but effective practice of bringing your awareness away from anxious, fearful, worrisome thoughts and coming into the present moment where you can see, feel, hear and that you are safe. You’re invited to move through each one of your senses, noticing and paying attention to what you are experiencing right now, this moment. The following steps will walk you through this practice of bringing your awareness into the present moment through using your bodily senses. By the end, you should notice that the anxious, fearful or worrisome thoughts your were experiencing are lessened.
Begin by taking a deep cleansing breath, into your belly. Roll your shoulders or your head gently, pull your shoulders up, roll them back and down, creating space between your shoulders and your ears. Allow your spine to be long and tall, but not stiff. Let your hands rest where ever they are comfortable. Take another deep breath and then begin.
See. Visually seeing that we are safe can make us feel safe. If you experience visual input to be too stimulating, you can skip this one and move to Feeling.
If you choose to practice this one, simply look around your environment. What do your eyes see? You don’t need to think about it, you’re just ticking off the things in your mind that your eyes can see. If you are feeling particularly anxious, or having thoughts that are distracting, you may want to try naming things that you see out loud. Sometimes, the sound of our own voice can be comforting.Speaking aloud can also help divert your attention from anxious thoughts by engaging your sense of hearing as well.
For example: I can see my computer, I can see the texture of the wallpaper. I can see my salt lamp, the little stuffed birds hanging from my floor lamp, the silver arm that lets the front of my desk fold outward. I see my phone, I see the notebooks and mail inside my desk. I can see the crystallized formations on the piece of fossilized mud on top of the desk. I see that my bracelet is turned sideways on my wrist, the cushions and throw pillows on the chairs. I see a bird drinking out of a puddle outside the window, I see a red car driving down the street…
Just like that—you can continue with the visual scanning and noticing as long as you like, then move on to the next one. Some people find the visual exercise too stimulating and choose to close the eyes after a quick scan around the environment to determine safety, and move directly to Feeling.
Feel. What do you feel and notice with your sense of touch all over your body? Close your eyes if that is comfortable for you. If not, let your gaze be soft and focused on a point about a 12 inches in front of your toes. Begin with the soles of your feet and start to notice all the sensations you are feeling with your skin and body. Notice the pressure of the floor beneath your feet. Notice how your shoes feel on your feet, or if your feet are bare where the most pressure is on the bottom of your feet. Notice where your toes touch the floor or your shoe and whether the arch of your foot has space beneath it. Notice the feel of the chair against your legs, hips, bottom and back. Notice where you can feel the pressure and texture of your clothing against your skin. Do the various textures of materials feel different on different parts of your body—denim jeans compared to a lighter material of a shirt, or the fluffy feel of a sweater? Notice the feel and temperature of the air on your skin where it is exposed. Notice where all the parts of your body are touching and pressing against something else. Notice places on your body which are touching nothing, like the insides of your wrists or the back of your neck, or the arches of your feet. Notice how your belly and chest move, rising and falling, as you breathe in and out and how this movement changes the pressure of your clothing against the skin or the pressure of the chair against your back. Continue noticing until you are ready to move on to Listening. Listen. Bring your awareness to your sense of hearing. First bring your attention to any sounds that you can become aware of outside your space. What sounds travel to your ear from beyond the door, windows, or walls. Do you hear sounds far away or close by? What are they? Cars, traffic, a dog barking, birdsong? The sound of the heating or cooling unit, a fan? Wind in the trees, voices of other people? Sounds from another room?
Next bring your attention to the sounds inside your space. Do you hear the ticking of a clock? Your own breath? What sounds do you notice surrounding you? Just notice.
Finally, bring your awareness to any sense of sound within. What can you hear within your own body? Notice the sound of your own breath, moving in, moving out, inhale, exhale. Do you notice any other sounds? Is your belly or gut making sounds you can take note of? Can you notice the beating of your own heart, the vibration of the sound traveling through your body? Inner sounds can be very subtle. What do you notice in your own body? Continue until you are ready to move to Smell.
Smell. Bring your awareness to your sense of smell. Take a deep, belly breath, allowing your abdomen to expand with the breath, taking notice of the aromas you are breathing in. What can you smell? Can you smell familiar scents of your environment? A candle you were burning earlier, coffee still keeping warm, your own soap, shampoo or other toiletries? Your own personal scent? What can you smell? Whatever you smell, smell without any judgment. It just is what it is. Once you are aware of the actual smells in your environment and on your body, if you like, you can imagine taking a deep inhalation of your very favorite smell. This can help deepen your breath and to relax your mind.
Taste. Next bring your attention from your sense of smell to your sense of taste. What taste is lingering on your tongue? Your organge juice or double latte from this morning, your toothpaste, your chewing gum, the leftover taste of the last thing you ate or drank? What can you taste? Notice how your sense of smell and taste are related. Can you even begin to taste the things you noticed in the smelling exercise? What do those smells taste like? Continue to breathe evenly.
When you are ready, open your eyes. If your eyes are already open, look up from your downward gaze. Bring your sense of awareness back into the room and be fully present to the moment, and the environment surrounding you. Notice now how you are feeling. Do you feel calmer, less anxious than when you began? What are you feeling? How is your heartbeat, your breath? If you choose, you can write about your experience in your journal.
Any of these sense exercises can be practiced separately or in the series. Bringing yourself to the awareness of what you are sensing with your body can bring you directly into the present moment.
Know that you can be safe and secure in your own body and in your own space.