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Anxiety Tools: Orienting

The goal of this tool set is to help a person’s nervous system connect to the present moment. The way I understand it is that when people are upset, their mind is usually focusing on the past or the future. Helping the nervous system connect to the present helps it calm down. I find that these tools are helpful during stressful moments, but they can also can be used at other times to increase calm and relaxation. For example, I often use them to help myself get sleepy at bedtime.

One thing I did want to mention about these tools is that it often doesn’t feel like much is happening when I first start using one of them, but the process of focusing on it and working through it makes a difference. Sometimes that difference is small and sometimes it is surprisingly big.

This article is part of the Anxiety Tools Series. Click here for more tools that help with anxiety.

Please note that this article is not medical advice, nor is it a replacement for medical care. This is just me sharing some of my personal experiences and the tools that have worked specifically for me in the hope of increasing awareness.

The cute animal photo that goes with this set of tools is a pika cautiously looking out from a gap between two large stones. They have round ears and silky, red-brown fur that is paler on their chin and belly. Around them is melting snow and damp rocks.



The Tools

The podcast version of this tool set can be found here.

I’m listing these tools starting with the ones that help me when I’m feeling intense anxiety and ending with the ones that work better if I’m starting out in a relatively calm space. I find that these tools usually work best when I talk through them verbally, as that is one more physical thing to focus on, but sometimes when I’m sleepy I will do them in my head.


Quick Orienting

This is the tool that I do first in intense situations, like when I’m having a panic attack. It can be helpful to repeat this one multiple times, or to alternate between it and the Visual Only Orienting tool. During a particularly stressful day, doing this quick orienting whenever entering a new room can also be helpful.

  1. Look at each door and window in the room (the exits).
  2. Turn to look over each shoulder.
  3. Look down at your feet.

The idea here is that we are reminding our body that we can leave this space if we need to. This is about interacting with the fight or flight system in a calming way. The process of turning to look over each shoulder also does this by engaging the psoas muscle, which is part of the fight or flight system.


Visual Only Orienting

This is another tool that I use when I’m feeling overwhelmed or I’m having a panic attack. The goal here is to help my nervous system tune into the environment around me, while avoiding focusing on any senses that would bring my focus back to the physical experience of being anxious.

  1. Choose a color, such as purple, blue, red, or green.
  2. Look around the room you are in and name everything you see that is that color. Be sure to turn and look over each shoulder as you scan the room for items.

If someone is helping me, it works well for them to choose the color. They can also help me notice items I have missed in the parts of the room that I’ve already scanned, but it is important for the focus to be on me doing the looking. This isn’t about getting it “right,” it is about helping my brain connect to what is around me.


The Counting Tool

This is the orienting tool that I use the most. I use it to help me get sleepy for bed. I use it when I’m moderately anxious. I use it when I am feeling pre-panic attack symptoms. And I use it when I’m helping myself calm down from a panic attack. The only time that I don’t use it is when I’m feeling particularly intense anxiety, because naming things that I feel during those moments can bring my focus back to the physical experience of extreme anxiety.

  • Name six things you see.
  • Name five things you feel.
  • Name four things you see.
  • Name three things you feel.
  • Name two things you see.
  • Name one thing you feel.

I find it helpful to say the numbers as I count things. For example, “One is my closet door. Two is my wooden dresser. Three is my white noise machine…” or “I feel myself sitting up. That is one. I feel the blanket in my lap. That is two. I feel my hair being pulled back into a ponytail. That is three…”

If I lose track of where I’m at, I start the section I am working on over. For example, if I am naming four things I feel and I lose track of where I am at, I start counting the four things that I feel over again. During times when I’m having a lot of trouble focusing, I count on my fingers to help myself keep track of where I am at.

One of the things that I find so helpful about this tool is that it is just challenging enough to hold my focus, while still being easy enough that I can do it when I’m having a hard time. Also the counting specifically helps engage brain functions that can help the brain to shift out of emergency mode.

For times when I need a bit more challenge to keep my focus on this tool, I give myself additional criteria for the things I’m naming. For example, when naming things I see, I can choose to name things that are blue, that are small, or that make me smile. When naming things I feel, I can choose to name things that are soft, that have distinct textures, or that that I like. If I use this tool multiple times in a row, I try to name different things each time.

Note that this tool is one that I created for myself based on what was most helpful for me in The Five Senses Tool (below). That’s what this is all about, figuring out which tools are going to be the most helpful to you and adjusting them so that they are as helpful as possible. I chose seeing and feeling as the two senses to focus on for this tool because those are the two senses that I find the most calming to connect to. Also, going back and forth between seeing and feeling without repeating anything added enough challenge that it was better able to keep my focus. A different person using this tool may wish to adjust its length and the senses used so that it best meets their needs.


The Five Senses

For me this tool works best when I’m pretty calm and just want to be calmer, like when I’m getting ready for bed. However, sometimes when I am calming down after a panic attack and I’m using the other orienting tools a lot, I will use this tool once or twice so that I’m using a greater variety of tools.

  • Name five things you see.
  • Name four things you hear.
  • Name three things you feel.
  • Name two smells you smell. (Alternative: Name two smells that you enjoy.)
  • Name one thing you taste. (Alternative: Name one thing that would help you feel better right now.)

For me personally, naming things I smell can be kinda triggering because it makes me think about my breathing, which can be an anxiety trigger for me, so I usually substitute naming two smells that I enjoy. Remembering a positive memory is good way to help my brain connect to something positive while avoiding this trigger.


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