We are disorientated by traumatic and stressful events because in a variety of ways we may not have had the time to respond effectively or we may have lacked the ability to cope with them.
Sometimes our nervous system does not really return to ‘neutral’ once an intense event of this kind has ended. It is as though, after traumatic stress, there is an acceleration in the background of our nervous system even when we are trying to stop or rest. We may feel we would like to relax, take in the environment and unwind but instead we have a restless vigilance, searching out for any potential stress and ignoring the relative safety of our present moment.
In response to this, it is very helpful to practice a simple and mindful orientation exercise on a regular basis. In this process we can consciously use our awareness to connect with our bodies in relation to gravity as well as the sights and sounds around us and the experience of our bodily sensations. This can help to restore our orientation thus reconnecting us to our body, environment and senses.
An orientation exercise
- Find a reasonably quiet place to sit where you are unlikely to be disturbed by anyone for five to ten minutes.
- Get comfortable in your seat, ensuring your body is upright enough not to constrict your breathing. Have both feet on the floor.
- Take a few moments feeling the effect of gravity through your body, noticing how your seat bones meet the chair and your feet contact the floor. See if you can experience the solid support of the ground holding you up and the solid feeling coming up through your seat.
- Take a look around you at the room or environment that you are in. Observe and describe slowly and calmly four or five things that you see (eg “I see the blue curtain, the lamp shade, the view through the window” etc). You can describe to your self out loud or in your head.
- Now bring your attention back to your body and its sensations. Describe four or five sensations that you notice (eg “I notice the contact of my back with the chair, the warmth of my feet, my hair touching my forehead” etc)
- Next look around again and see if you can notice four or five more things in your environment. This time describe them with a bit more detail (eg “I see the mauve patterned wall hanging, the dappled light from the lamp shade, the deep green of the leaves of the tree through the window” etc).
- Now come back to your body awareness and again notice four or five sensations. This time see if you can observe with more detail or depth (eg “I feel a gentle warmth in my lower back that gets cooler at my upper back, I notice tension in my shoulder muscles with the right one holding more tension across the back than the left, I feel a slight fizzy feeling in my solar plexus” etc).
- Lastly return to having an outer awareness of your environment. Notice if the quality of your vision or the way things look has changed at all (eg things may look more solid, defined, lighter, more connected etc). See if you can have a balance between looking out at your environment and keeping some awareness at the same time of how your body feels.
You can practice this in the same way with sounds you can hear as well as things you can see.
(Thanks to Twig Wheeler and his ‘Where to start’ program for his inspirations that led to this exercise)