A New Way to Retrain your Nervous System

A New Way to Retrain your Nervous System

Life looks and feels completely different for many of us these days. A world away, or universe maybe, from where we imagined being before COVID-19 reared its ugly head. 

For those who were forced to work from home, we might have struggled for some time, slowly found our rhythm, and now find ourselves able to work productively, or even thrive from our home offices. Yet at the same time, there is an ever-growing number of us who are left feeling disconnected from our organizations, our teams, and our colleagues. In some cases, working from home leaves us disconnected from our very own bodies!

And while a healthy work-from-home lifestyle is going to be unique for everyone, we too often miss the abundance of support that is available to us through the living world. Not in an abstract, new-age, woo-woo kind of way, but in a practical way that builds on our neurobiology and what the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1910) first coined the ‘orienting response’.

What is the Orienting Response?

The orienting response is the automatic change in your attention when you detect something novel happening in your environment. It is the first step in a motor-sensory sequence that helps to ensure your survival – that alerts you to potential dangers in your environment. When you hear an unusual noise in your environment, it is the rotating of your eyes, the pricking of your ears, and the slight turning of your head. And when that part of you ‘clicks’ that there is no danger about, there is a return to an experience of safety, a sigh of sorts, and a stabilization of our nervous system.

So how can this orienting response help me in everyday life?

The orienting response is typically an involuntary process that takes place countless times throughout the day. What’s important here is that you can deliberately engage in orienting to help rewire patterns of stress and anxiety, and expand your level of resilience. This is known as ‘exploratory orienting’. If you are working from home, or feeling isolated, it can help to boost your sense of connectedness and enhance your level of wellbeing. If you are feeling stuck in a rut, or are frozen at your desk, this practice can profoundly ‘reset’ your nervous system state. It can be done while you are working, in between tasks, or at the start and end of your day.

With practice, this unexpectedly simple process has the capacity to slowly shift you out of nervous system states of fight, flight and freeze. And while it can be practised wherever you are, I find that the benefit is amplified when I orient myself to the living world. Something extra happens when you notice the greenish hues of the trees, the melodic sounds of the birds, or the sweet scents of the flowers. Go on, try it for yourself.

How to practice orienting

While you can orient using any of our senses, we will be using our eyesight for this practice:

  • Let your eyes go where they want to go.  Don’t force your eyes to do anything. Let them settle on something close by if that feels right. Or far away even. Or something in-between. If your head turns to follow your eyes, then let it.
  • Allow your eyes to settle on a neutral or pleasant object. If possible, try not to think about the object, or get locked into thoughts about it. We are just very lightly touching the object with our attention. Like a butterfly softly landing on a rose petal.
  • Notice any changes in your breathing, posture, or state of mind. Don’t concentrate on any of these changes. Just pay attention to them.
  • When you feel ready, once again, gently let your eyes go where they want to go.
  • Repeat this process for 2 minutes

Now don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this exercise. Just like a muscle, the more you practice it, the stronger your ability to orient becomes. With time, you will more quickly be able to soothe your nervous system, ease your anxiety and pull yourself out of a rut. It is best not to practice at first when you are having a hard time. Sharpen your skills rather when you are feeling good so that you are more able to tackle those more difficult times. Pick a regular time of day that you can commit to. And practice inside your house, as well as when you are outside in the presence of nature. Notice the difference it makes to your ability to manage your stress once you have become proficient in this new skill of yours.

If you would like to learn more about orienting and how it can help you to manage your stress, anxiety, or traumatic history, then reach out to our psychologist, Greg Hack at Mind Up. Greg has expertise in treating trauma, anxiety, depression, burnout, compassion fatigue, grief and loss, and phobias.