How Noticing your Surroundings Can Change How you Feel
I was sitting at a workshop several years ago, feeling like rolling my eyes, and wondering why I had paid the small fortune it cost to participate. How could something so simple actually work? If disbelief was something palpable, I would have been cloaked in it. You see, I had personally experienced so much growth in talk-therapy, I could not imagine how tapping into my body could be helpful. I thought it was nothing more than some “woo-woo” practice, and the thought of communing with my body and surroundings, frankly, sounded like nonsense.
I’ve gotten used to being wrong with age, and this is something I definitely did not get right, at least not at first. Well, the practice is called orienting. “What’s that?” You ask. Orienting is the simple practice of tuning into your parasympathetic nervous system to sense for safety and calm. That sounds more complicated than it really is. All you need to do is, invite your eyes to wander, moving your neck and body, to notice everything around you. To really see, as if for the first time, the living room you sit in with family, or the bedroom you sleep in each night. It is the practice of looking around, from the vantage point of your back porch, at the trees and the birds, listening to the rain, or smelling the freshly cut grass. Or maybe looking out into the bustling city around you, noticing the vibrant color and the sounds of living.
Wherever you orient, you do it by using your senses. You feel into the world around you, and you allow your system the time it needs to notice that it is safe. You are safe. Our bodies are quite magical, and we all have an autonomic nervous system that feels into the environment. We also have complex brains and, within, we all have a little set of neurons, about the size of an almond, called the amygdala. This tiny “almond” is housed in the limbic system and it serves as our alarm system.
This amazing sensor lets us know when we are in trouble. It makes sure we step back when crossing the street if we hear a car coming toward us, or gets us ready to run if confronted by an attacker. It also helps gauge, along with the Polyvagal system, if someone feels friendly or if their tone of voice is threatening. You see, we need the amygdala, along with the nervous system, to keep ourselves safe, not just in threatening times, but on the daily. And, the language of the amygdala is the senses. By orienting, using our senses, we are able to notice safety and, by default, our nervous system begins to settle. We interrupt any sense of overwhelm and anxiety.
I like to do this practice throughout the day. It is especially helpful when transitioning between locales and also when moving into a new activity. For example, you might find that it helps you feel into your day when you wake up, or you may notice that it helps ease the transition between tasks. Whenever you practice is up to you, but you will surely begin feeling the difference.
I was wrong, I admit, and I am so grateful for it. I am grateful I stuck it out through the workshop and then signed up for more. I am grateful for my body and the amazing ways it keeps me safe. I am grateful that something so simple, actually works. It will work for you.
You can get more information on how our nervous system works and how it links with the functions of the brain in the following texts:
Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/100541/waking-the-tiger-healing-trauma-by-peter-a-levine-phd/
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/313183/the-body-keeps-the-score-by-bessel-van-der-kolk-md/
You can also learn about the Polyvagal Theory, by reading Stephen Porges’ book, The Polyvagal Theory https://www.stephenporges.com/books
Dr. Barbie Hessel is a Trauma Therapist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner who works with women to help them renegotiate trauma and feel embodied. She runs, Simply Being Therapy, a private psychotherapy practice. To learn more about her practice, visit or follow her on Facebook @drbarbiehessel and Instagram @simplybeingtherapy.