Imagine a zebra grazing in the savanna. Quiet. Peaceful.
A twig snaps! He stops. Freezes. He looks for danger. He doesn’t sense any danger. He looks around a bit more and then, continues grazing. If on the other hand, he did sense danger he’d flee. He’d run until safe (granted he doesn’t turn into someone’s else’s dinner), and then he’d stop. He’d take another look around, and then continue grazing.
What Does This Have To Do With Our Stresses?
I want to highlight the two words in this scenario “look” and “around”.
This “looking around” is technically termed “orientation”, meaning orienting to the surroundings, the present environment, or the here and now.
In the wild, it’s what an animal does to stay alive. It’s instinctual, biological and built into them.
It is also built into us.
Enter The Human Being
Here’s what us Western* folk forget: We too are animals, and we too must establish our safety – look around & orient – after stressful events.
A stress enters the body and one of two things can occur.
We can go into fight or flight mode, also known as the sympathetic nervous system response, or the adrenalized “got to get the heck out of here, or fight my ass off” response. The second response can be freeze, also known as the parasympathethic nervous system response, or the “if I just be really still and get really small, no one will notice me” response.
Both responses serve a purpose and we must use them if we are in a stress response as they can protect us and save our lives.
The Trouble with Westernized Cultures
We STAY in these stress responses even when the stress is no longer present. Being jumpy (fight/flight), or sullen (freeze), or anxious (fight/flight), or feeling anti-social (freeze), are really just representations of our nervous system looking to protect and stay alive.
Cleanse That Stress Response with Orientation
Just like the zebra grazing in the savanna, we too must look around and orient to our environment and really know that there’s no need to be on constant alert.
By taking advantage of this primal and biological necessity we begin to re-set and actually re-boot our nervous system: heart rate and breath rate go down, spontaneous breath emerges, adrenaline and other harmful stress hormones decline in our bloodstream.
An Exercise in Orientation
During this busy time of year, when the next stressful event occurs try this before you go on to your next errand, or jump in your car, or make that next phone call.
- Sit, or stand comfortably.
- Let your eyes look around the space you are in, and actually allow your eyes to instinctually go where they want to go.
- If you feel they don’t want to move at all, gently focus on something, like a picture on the wall, and then scan over to another picture or another object you might see in the room. You want to roughly move your vision over a space about 1-2 feet.
- Be sure to do this movement very slowly and smoothly.
- Notice the movements of your head, eyes and neck. Know that you are moving your attention into the environment and away from your body sensations. Feel it.
- Pause when it feels right.
- Keep scanning your environment until a deep spontaneous, rather than forced, breath emerges and you sense your heart and breath rate come down.
This need not be done in a quiet space. It is actually beneficial to do this in public busy spaces and anywhere where you might get anxious or stressed.
The more you can insert this orientation exercise into your day, the more your body will let go of its stresses, leaving you with greater capacity to actually be in the here and now and celebrate the creative qualities that we human animals have as our birthright.
*I make a distinction between Western Folk and say other tribal, or Eastern cultures that live in closer proximity to the hunter gatherer lifestyle where such concepts are still practiced freely.
Irene Gutteridge, www.thehumangroove.com
Check out Irene’s site and watch for her “Nervous System Cleaning 101: Your Virtual Guidebook to Living with Less Stress and More Genius in the Western World”, coming this Spring 2012!