Orienting...... A Natural and Powerful Anxiety-Reduction Practice

“The difference between misery and happiness depends on what we do with our attention.” ~Sharon Salzburg

Anxiety is something that nature has provided human beings with to survive in dangerous situations. In prehistoric times, a felt sense of fear made one run faster from the charging tiger or react to any sign of danger more quickly. In more modern times, anxiety remains a fear-based emotion, but one largely related to fearing something specific that may happen in the future.

In spite of this development, it is possible to distinguish between healthy anxiety and unhealthy anxiety. Healthy anxiety helps one reach personal, professional, or academic goals. Its what gets one motivated to study extra hard for an exam, thoroughly prep for a job interview or important meeting. Unhealthy anxiety, on the other hand, will likely stop one from doing something that is perceived as too threatening, too dangerous, or just too difficult to tolerate. Unhealthy anxiety can be experienced in myriad ways such as persistent worry, racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating, stomach aches, migraines, a pounding heart beat, obstructed breathing, the need to fight, freeze, or simply, run away. Do any of these experiences sound familiar to you?

So how can you tap into your own capacity and find more ease and resiliency, even when your experience of anxiety begins to get the best of you? Consider doing a little “orienting.” The simple act of looking around in your current space can have a calming effect on your nervous system. By paying attention, on purpose, to your actual surroundings, you provide an opportunity for your body to move from a “fight or flight” experience to a more balanced state. When you orient and look around, the actual movement of your head and neck, as well as the external focus of your eyes, stimulates neurotransmitters to send messages to the brain that all is well. Orienting is one way to help your nervous system naturally settle into a feeling of safety and relaxation.

Here is how you can “orient to the environment” and take control of anxiety before it takes control of you:

  1. STOP. Take a pause, on purpose, from whatever you are doing.

  2. Let your eyes wander freely, where ever they want to go.

  3. Allow your head to move side-to-side, up and down. Pay attention, on purpose, to the space around you, including shapes, colors, textures, or whatever you are drawn to in that moment.

  4. Notice how you are feeling in your body. You may already feel your breath naturally deepen, or feel a softening or sense of relaxation in your body.

  5. If not, perhaps a little mindful breathing will help s-l-o-w things down. As you continue to orient, engage in 4/5 breathing. Inhale slowly for 4 counts. Exhale completely for 5 counts.

That’s it! There is really no specific amount of time to orient and no special place where you need to do this practice. The best thing about “orienting,” is that its free, and accessible anytime, anywhere. Give it a try and be curious to what might unfold.

What Brought You to Mindfulness?

Mindfulness relates to paying attention, on purpose, without judgment, and with a willingness to allow things to unfold in their own time. This contemplative practice won’t take away burdens, cure physical or emotional illness, resolve conflicts, or protect anyone from pain. So why do it?

From my experience, the formal and informal practices of mindfulness help me recognize problems for what they are. Taking a mindful pause allows me to sit with conflict a little more constructively, and make choices that feel more helpful. I experience life with greater attention, with less judgment, and less reactivity. I still have to work problems out, but bearing witness to my own experiences helps me get it right far more often than wrong!

My personal journey towards mindfulness was rather indirect. I was introduced to the idea of the present moment during my yoga-teacher training in 2007. My yoga instructor travelled to India as a young man and was trained in the Iyengar and Ashtanga systems of yoga. Both of these yoga traditions are closely tied to a philosophical understanding of the world that is much more profound than the physical practice of asana (yoga poses). This training included learning about and integrating yoga philosophy into everyday life, as well as learning how to cue different yoga postures. It was like a door opened up and I was ushered in to a whole new way of being!

In the beginning, I found the notion of “living in the present” very agitating. For some unexplained reason I associated being mindful with being selfish. I really had to read about mindfulness, think about what it means, ask questions, wonder with curiosity, and finally, I had to experience it to truly understand its power. I still find a sense of freedom when connected to the present. Here is my story:


What brought you to mindfulness?

With warm regards,


Finding Mindfulness On the Up-Escalator

It happened in the middle of winter many years ago while riding an up-escalator. I was returning from a coffee break, and going back to the world in which I worked for years. For whatever reason, my mind was consumed in negative thoughts about me, events from my past, and bad choices that only I was responsible for making. In other words, my inner-critic was working overtime. Ruminating on why I did this, why I didn’t do that, and all the “should have-could have-would have” thoughts that kept emerging in between. Sound familiar?

As I approached the top of the escalator, I looked down to exit carefully when the most amazing thing occurred. In that very moment, I consciously noticed my two feet on the escalator and felt an immediate sense of relief. I thought, “I am here, on the up-escalator! I don’t have to be in those terrible thoughts.” What an unexpected sense of vitality to finally understand the power of the present moment and experience what it feels like to be right here, right now.

As human beings, our minds are designed to think, plan, evaluate, and all kinds of other fascinating cognitive processes. But when your inner critic takes over, or when you find yourself ruminating on something that happened in the past, or worrying obsessively about something that hasn’t happened yet…. Take a moment and look down at your feet. With intention, notice, really notice, where your body is, in that specific moment.  Put words to this noticing.  “I’m in a meeting. I’m playing with my child. I’m golfing, running, or walking. I’m in a conversation with my friend."

Wherever you are, that is where you need to be. The present moment is your moment of greatest power. Leverage your own greatness by paying attention, on purpose, and connecting to the present throughout your day.

And the next time you find yourself on an up-escalator, please enjoy the ride!

Slow, paced breathing.... Find your calm, even in chaos

Regardless of whether you experience gripping anxiety, or find yourself uncomfortably nervous before a big presentation, slow, paced breathing can be your secret weapon to feeling calmer, clear-headed, and more in control. 

Inhale for five seconds.... Exhale for five seconds.... Repeat.... That's it!  

I've often shared this practice with patients to help them manage difficult emotions such as anxiety or anger. First, we work on cultivating an awareness of what it feels like when the difficult emotion starts to emerge. For some, this might mean feeling hot, nauseous, or short of breath. Others notice their hands start to sweat, or their heart begins to pound, or they freeze and can't move at all. 

Second, we practice slow, paced breathing together, so they learn how to do this practice in a way that it will be most helpful. We sit up tall, with both feet on the floor, and with hands in the lap. Some individuals enjoy closing the eyes, others prefer to keep their eyes open. Either way is fine as long as it feels comfortable. We practice paying attention, on purpose, to the feel of the breath as it moves through the body... inhaling for five seconds, exhaling for five seconds, and repeating the process for 10 breath cycles. 

Third, I give suggestions for a regular practice while at home, at school, or at work. It's your call as to how much time you give this practice ... one minute, two minutes or 10 minutes.  I often suggest using a timer so you don't have to worry about counting breaths or how much time has passed. What's really important is not how long you practice, but that you practice, especially when you're not feeling overwhelmed.  The more you practice when you're feeling fine, the more accessible slow, paced breathing will be when you need it most. 

Finally, the moment you feel your physical symptoms of anxiety or anger emerge, start to slow things down internally. Pay attention, on purpose, and begin to breathe with intention... Inhale for five seconds.. Exhale for five seconds.. Repeat..

Connect to your calm even in the chaos of everyday life. It'll be your little secret.

For more information on this mindfulness practice, click on the following link:


Mindfulness Madness:  Its Everywhere!

Mindfulness is everywhere; yet starting a mindfulness practice can be daunting, full of frustration, and ripe with doubt about whether or not you are doing it right. The following post shares answers to five of the most commonly asked questions by those new to the practice.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose, with openness, curiosity. It involves accepting things as they are in the moment, and without judgment. Although it’s a state of mind we can all access, its more readily available with a regular, daily practice.

What do you mean by a mindfulness practice?

Living mindfully is easier said than done! Think of all the times you might be lost in thought, high-jacked by your internal critic, or worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet. These are often patterned ways of thinking that actually cause more suffering than provide any sense of relief.

It takes practice to change patterns of thinking, like it takes practice to gain status in any notable activity. Think about it… Weight lifters need to lift successively heavier weights in order to achieve greatness in their sport. Marathon runners need to run long distances on a regular basis to survive their grueling 26.2mile competitions. Pianists, guitarists, drummers, and any other musician needs to practice endlessly to achieve fame or first chair status.

Practicing mindfulness makes being mindful more routine!

What are different ways of practicing mindfulness?

Mindfulness can be practiced formally or informally.

The most common formal mindfulness practice is mindfulness meditation. Sitting in stillness, paying attention on purpose to the feel of the inhales and the feel of the exhales of your breath, noticing when your thoughts take you somewhere else, and kindly redirecting your attention back to your breath… again, and again…  Its like bicep curls for the brain and breaks up the patterned ways of thinking by cultivating greater attention and concentration on a single anchor. Another benefit of meditation is that focused breathing often engages the relaxation response naturally, so many individuals feel calm and refreshed afterwards.

Informal mindfulness practices refer to paying attention on purpose to any activity in daily living such as work presentations, exercising, walking the dog, eating, writing a paper, washing dishes and most importantly, actively tuning in to interactions with family members, friends, or colleagues.

Inviting mindfulness into your life might feel strange or even frustrating in the beginning. With practice, being more present, without the need to judge or constantly evaluate, opens the door to living with less reactivity, more fulfilling relationships, more attuned parenting, and the possibility of greater joy.

How can I meditate when my mind keeps thinking about other things?

The human mind is designed to think. During meditation, the mind will always move towards other thoughts and this is normal, even for experienced meditators. The idea isn’t to stop your mind from thinking. The idea is to begin to notice the moment your thoughts take you elsewhere, notice where they took you, and redirect your attention back to your breath (or whatever anchor you are using). In a mindfulness meditation practice, failure is actually a success! Your mind takes you away, you notice where it took you without judging, and come back to the breath, over and over again. This IS the practice. This IS the bicep curls for your brain. This IS what cultivates attention, focus, and peace of mind.

In daily living, just think about how many times you aren’t paying attention, how anxiety can quickly overwhelm you, the ways in which your inner critic impacts your confidence, or how susceptible you might be to reactive behaviors. Cultivating self awareness and attention through mindfulness practices, can help you notice the inattention or notice emotions as they emerge, so you can be more grounded, more in control, and respond in ways that are helpful.

What if I need to move my body during the meditation?

Then move your body. Get more comfortable. And begin again!

Sit up tall, in a dignified, but not too rigid way. Reconnect to noticing the connection between your body and the chair or cushion beneath you. Reconnect to the feel of the breath as it moves through your body.  When your thoughts take you elsewhere, kindly notice where they took you and come back to the breath, again and again and again.

“So, what exactly do you do, and how can it help me?”

These are two questions commonly asked by those new to therapy.  My answer is simple. “It’s not really what I do; it’s what we do together that will encourage your own growth and transformation.”

That said, a helpful therapeutic relationship can make you feel more alive, more connected, and more secure. The way we work together can help you feel listened to and understood in ways that strengthen how you feel about yourself. It can help you figure out ways to tolerate stress with less distress. It can help you navigate significant transitions and work through feelings of sadness and loss.  Feeling validated and responded to can create space for healing from toxic, deeply engrained effects of trauma and other early experiences. It can help you find your own voice and break down barriers that prevent you from achieving your true potential.  The work we do in our therapy relationship can help you gradually change longstanding patterns of thinking or behaving, and ultimately, improve the way you navigate life. 

If you are curious and motivated, therapy can be a very rewarding experience.  Very often, you get to meet the person you've always wanted to be!

For a confidential phone consultation, please contact me at 224-408-0115, or email me at: rstrauss@thrivepsychotherapyllc.com

Need a break but can’t get away?  Try a mini-retreat for everyday..

We can’t all go on vacation at moment’s notice…. but we can find a few minutes to relax, center, and take care of ourselves, every single day. Explore these ideas for giving yourself a mini-mindfulness vacation just by paying attention, on purpose, to you and the world in which you live.

1) Greet the day with kindness.  You just woke up and you’re lying in bed. Instead of racing ahead towards all things you should do, give yourself a moment to start the day some kindness. Say to yourself:  “May I be happy and well. May you be happy and well. May all living things be happy and well.”

2) S-L-O-W D-O-W-N from time to time. Set aside a few minutes to be mindful with a warm drink, a few conscious breaths, or a long over-due conversation with a friend. However you pay attention on purpose, your deliberate awareness can help you slow things down, see the ways you act on autopilot, force of habit, or on impulse. Take a moment to pause, pay attention to what you are doing, and enjoy the gifts of being present.

3) Try a little 4/5 paced breathing… to calm the nervous system and help you reconnect to your own sense of power and control from within:  Inhale slowly for four counts, 1-2-3-4; exhale slowly for five counts, 1-2-3-4-5.  Repeat 10 times.

4) Take a mindful walk. When you savor the journey—even if it’s just a brief stroll—you escape autopilot-ness and feel more alive. Try this mindful walking exercise for daily self-care.                

  • As you begin, walk at a natural pace.
  • Count your steps up to 10, and then start back at one again. If you’re in a small space, as you reach ten, pause, and with intention, choose a moment to turn around.
  • With each step, pay attention to the lifting and falling of your foot. Notice the movement in your legs and the rest of your body.
  • Your mind will wander, so without frustration, guide it back to the sensation of walking, over and over again.

5) Sit in stillness, anywhere.  Set a timer for 5 minutes, this way you won't have to think about the time that passes, or when your mini-retreat will end.

  • Sit in stillness. Begin to pay attention, on purpose, to the inhales and exhales of your breath. The moment you notice your thoughts take you away from noticing your breath (which happens to everyone, all the time), notice where they took you…. and come back to noticing your breath. Continue until the five minutes is up.  That’s it! There’s just something wonderful about finding a little stillness in the middle of a hectic day.

Here’s hoping you find a few moments to enjoy being mindful this week.

Unhelpful Thoughts: How we get hooked and unhooked

I just finished a 20-minute mindfulness meditation. I almost always feel better after I practice mindfulness in such a formal way.  In this practice, I paid attention, on purpose, to the feel of the breath as it moved through my body. Thoughts came and thoughts interrupted, but once I noticed I was being taken away from paying attention to my breath, I came back ... over and over again. I felt renewed.

Mindfulness meditation can feel like a mini-vacation. You don’t have to worry, you don’t have to think; all you have to do is pay attention to your breath. But what happens when you are actively engaging in life and suddenly you’re highjacked by unhelpful thoughts, regrets, or worries? No matter how much, how long, or how often one meditates, thoughts quickly hook us in, often resulting in a lack of attention, a disconnection, or sudden feelings of sadness, guilt, fear, worry, or shame. Generally these thoughts have something to do with the past, which already happened, or the future, which hasn’t happened yet. Either way, they take us away from the present and cause a lot of suffering along the way.

So, how do you unhook from unhelpful thoughts?

In daily living, just like in meditation, you unhook by observing where your thoughts took you (“That’s interesting. I’m starting to feel sad").  Be curious about all the elements of unease (“I wonder why I feel so sad all of the sudden”).  Acknowledge the life cycle of all thoughts and feelings (they all eventually pass). And finally, you unhook by gently guiding your attention back to whatever you are doing, whether it be talking to a friend, attending a board meeting, studying for an exam, or spending time with your kids. Your thoughts take you away, and you come back, over and over again.

Wherever your body is, that’s where your mind can be, too.  Be present and feel renewed.

Create a Little Space Between You and Your Anxiety

How do you experience anxiety?

  • Does it prevent you from doing things you need to do or want to do?
  • Do you miss out on what’s happening now because you’re so lost in your fears?
  • Do you feel your throat tighten, your heart pound, have difficulty breathing, sweat profusely, or feel your stomach tighten into knots… for no apparent reason?
  • Do you obsess about not living up to your potential?
  • When things don’t go according to plan, do you automatically think the worst?
  • Do you have trouble falling asleep because of relentless “what if” thoughts?
  • Do you walk into public places and feel like everyone is looking at you?

Essentially, anxiety is an emotional condition that rests in one’s thoughts.  It’s an uneven state of mind that marinates in future fears without much influence from the facts at hand.  And anxiety is uncomfortable because it’s felt in the whole body, leaving one breathless, nauseous, sweaty, unable to think clearly, and many times, speechless and immobile.

In a very general sense, its often helpful to uncover the source of your anxiety. In other words, "How has it come to be, that you instinctually move into this anxious state?"  The process of psychotherapy can help with this unfolding and make meaning out of your experiences. But in the meantime, it’s equally beneficial to have concrete skills to reduce your chances of being highjacked by anxious thoughts.

So, how can you learn to control anxiety, so it doesn’t control you?

Try creating a little space between you ……….. and your anxiety.  Creating space might look like the following:

  1. Mindfully pause, and s-l-o–w…  t-h-i-n-g-s… d-o-w-n
  2. Name the triggers to tame the triggers. Pay attention, on purpose, to possible triggers    (things that happen right before the anxiety emerges).  Cultivate awareness of these triggers so you can plan for them, rather than avoid them.
  3. Observe what you are experiencing with curiosity, and without judgment.
  4. Identify, with words, the physical signs of anxiety as they emerge in your body (what and where you feel the discomfort). “I notice my heart is racing, and my face is hot.”
  5. Remind yourself this too will pass. Thoughts and feelings always pass. Anxiety is no different.
  6. Engage in 10 rounds of 4/5 Breathing: Inhaling deeply for 4 seconds, exhaling fully for 5 seconds.  Did you know that slow, conscious breathing is the fastest way to engage the relaxation response and ultimately, calm the nervous system? In fact, give it a try. Inhale deeply, 1-2-3-4. Exhale completely, 1-2-3-4-5. Do it a few more times and you will feel better.

Practice doesn’t make things perfect; it just make things routine.  Practice creating space, even when you aren’t feeling anxious. Periodically pause, pay attention on purpose, observe what's happening in your body and mind, notice with curiosity and without judgment, slow-things-down with 4/5 breathing, and give your nervous system the ability to balance naturally. You'll be glad you did.