Top Tip #2: Orienting to Safety

 Top 10 Tips for Troubled Times: Self-care tools to build resiliency and regulation

This is the second of my Top 10 Tips for Troubled Times – a guide to help you build your own First Aid Kit for dealing with times of stress and getting out of overwhelm.  I’ve built this up over a long time and these are my go-to tools, that you can build into your daily routine, to help build resiliency and regulation

This Top 10 Tip is probably the single most important practice I’ve come across, to help shift out of stress and overwhelm.

It’s simple, and for many people, it’s a real game changer.

Top Tip #2 – is Orienting to Safety

This is all about the importance of connecting with the FELT SENSE of SAFETY, in the HERE & NOW.

Because our bodies instinctively know what it feels like to feel safe, but sometimes we need to guide our survival brain to notice that we actually are safe in the moment – before our brain and nervous system will come out of red alert.

Why is this important and how does it work?

  • Sensation and movement are the languages of the (lower) survival brain and brain-stem – so using sensation (direct sensing) and movement are the ways to communicate with our survival brain
  • Safety is a FELT SENSE experience – not a concept or an idea.  Our body instinctively knows what safety FEELS like, no matter how unsafe we may be feeling in general in our lives at the moment
  • When we get into overwhelm inside our nervous system and our body, or we are in a really stressed state, focusing more and more on what is going on inside us – whether thoughts, worries, emotions, body sensations, flashbacks/images or a whole cacophony of all these – is not the way out
  • Instead, we need to notice and orient to our external surroundings – really notice if we are actually safe, RIGHT NOW, in this moment
  • Once our survival brain actually registers safety, we can start to come out of ‘red alert’

This practice works for a number of reasons:

  • We are using sensation to communicate with the survival brain:  This practice helps us slow down, and gives our survival brain the time to take in sensory information from our external surroundings – then it can register that we are actually safe right here and now, in this moment.  We are pointing our attention and guiding our survival brain to take in the information it needs in order to know it’s safe to come out of red alert
  • We are using movement to help communicate with our animal brain:  If an animal in the wild can look around, orient to its surroundings, know where it is – then it knows it is capable of responding if needed to whatever happens – it’s ‘online’, ready and able – and that is a good place to be! If we can feel that, we don’t have to be constantly in red alert…. we can feel able to respond appropriately IN THE MOMENT to WHAT IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING RIGHT NOW
  • We are shifting out of the locked focus tunnel vision that we go into when we are under threat:  When we are feeling under threat, our vision narrows down as we lock onto and track a perceived source threat.  This happens whether we are feeling under threat in general, or there is an actual source of threat there.  By widening our field of vision, opening up to look more broadly, we can shift out of a threat response
  • We are using movement to engage the evolutionary more recent human parts of our nervous system that can rapidly help calm us down:  By looking around, turning the head on the shoulders, we are moving and engaging the tissues of our Social Nervous System, the part of our parasympathetic nervous system that according to Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theory allow us to connect with others and performs a key role in in mediating our fight/flight/freeze responses to stress that are more primitive

Your Simple Orienting to Safety Practice

This simple exercise is great to do multiple times a day – to help build regulation and resiliency – and most definitely also in times of stress and overwhelm.

And the really fantastic thing about it – is that you can do it whenever and wherever you are – nobody need know you are even doing it!

Here are the simple steps below – give it a go, and see what you notice!

  1. Eyes open/Orienting practice – Sensing safety

This let’s your survival brain know it is safe in the HERE & NOW.

  • Feel your feet – maybe wiggle your toes a little
  • Find your seat – or any other point of contact – feel support under your pelvis, behind back, any other points of contact with your body
  • Slowly look around the room, one side then the other – make sure the head is turning around the shoulders – ORIENT to your surroundings, notice where you are
  • Whilst orienting to what is around you, Say out loud (if possible, but you can also say it inside to yourself), something like:
    • “ I can see that right now, I am safe”
    • “Right now, I am OK.  Right here and now, I am safe”

It is important to keep looking around slowly, keep engaging those orienting muscles and tissues in the neck, throat, face.  Keep looking around, slowly slowly.  Slow it right down.  

It can also help to gently squeeze or touch your own body, especially arms and legs – this can also be helpful to bring your attention back into your present day body

2.  Additional options

Some people also find it helpful to name (out loud or internally) what is around them – ‘Just the Facts’:

    • Notice colours, objects, shapes, around you – simply name them, just the facts e.g. red, square, door
    • Really notice who and what is really here, now, in the place where you are
    • Maybe notice some things in the room that you enjoy / attract your attention
    • Sounds you can hear – inside & outside the room e.g. name 5 different things you can hear

But see what works for you 🙂

It is good to practice this multiple times a day (I’d suggest 5 times a day to start with if you can manage that, 5 – 10 mins at a time), as well as whenever things feel challenging / unhelpful thoughts are coming in, or you are feeling overwhelmed

The most important thing is to stick at this until you notice something shift.

It could be a deep breath, yawning, stomach rumbling noises – which are all signs that your nervous system is down-regulating.  It might be a DECREASE in difficult feelings, thoughts or uncomfortable sensations.  You may also notice a change in your vision – perhaps seeing colours or objects more clearly, or noticing that your field of vision is wider, and you can see more clearly.  You might just feel more ‘here’.  The nervous system learns by noticing differences – and even small shifts are important.

It’s the doing it that matters, and makes a difference – both in the moment, and in the long run.

Because the more times you can find your way back to a sense of relative safety in the moment, the more you are growing new pathways in your nervous system, and building your capacity to stay in a more regulated place inside.

And it’s only when we can find a calmer, more settled place inside, and feel safer, that we can have the energy and the ability to deal with whatever we do need to in our external circumstances.

 Building Your Tips for Troubled Times – stay connected for more step by step tools to add to these fundamental ones!

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