Grounding Techniques for Anxiety: A How To Guide
By: Alex DeWoskin, LCSW
Over the past year, I have given much advice to my clients in Chicago on how to manage their anxiety, uncertainty, distressing emotions and even past trauma. Let’s face it, it’s been a stressful year. Mindfulness is the name of the game when it comes to the practice of staying present and living in the moment.
Mindfulness creates a state of active, open, intentional attention on the present where we have control and where worry and rumination do not exist. Practicing meditation and breathing exercises are mainstays in the practice of mindfulness. But, meditation and breathing aren’t for everyone so I decided to explore this further and research additional techniques to help ground you in times of cognitive stress.
Anxiety is a normal human process. It helps us anticipate and prepare for threats. In healthy doses it is a beneficial. However, just like anything at too high of doses, anxiety becomes pathological and maladaptive. It can disrupt and negatively affect your life, job, and relationships.
When anxiety overtakes in intensity and long exposures, it floods your body with stress targeting hormones that can literally make you feel physically sick. This can include both anxiety and panic attacks.
Physiologically, when we start to think about something stressful, our amygdala, a section of the brain located in the temporal lobe, goes into action. The amygdala is the part of our brain that is responsible for our emotional responses, especially fear.
It is great for preparing us for emergency events but sometimes it kicks into action and detects a threat where there really isn’t any and causes physical manifestations such as increased muscle tension, rapid heartbeat and faster breathing. The amygdala then interprets these body changes as further evidence that something is actually wrong which further activates it and creates a vicious cycle where you become more and more anxious and physically and emotionally overwhelmed.
Grounding techniques take meditation and breathing to the next level. Grounding techniques are coping strategies to help reconnect you with the present and bring you out of a panicked state. They are also helpful for those struggling with trauma, PTSD, unwanted memories, distressing emotions, self-harm urges, substance use disorders, and dissociation. They help separate you from the distress of your emotional state or situation. And, serve as gentle reminders to stay focused and anchored in the present moment, which is what helps reduce the feelings of anxiety. Grounding techniques allow the body to calm itself so that it sends the signal that there isn’t an actual threat present and can help switch off that “fight, flight, or freeze” process.
Because there are so many options of behavior and cognitive tools to choose from, you can experiment and find what works for you. So, you know what to turn to in a pinch. Many grounding techniques can be done in most environments.
Starting with the basics, most everyone knows, breathing exercises help to calm, focus, oxygenate the blood and lower heart rate and blood pressure. Focusing on breath, by consciously taking deep breaths through your nose and exhaling through the mouth, is an effective strategy for returning to the present. Try these breathing exercises:
- Place your hands on your abdomen and watching them move up and down with your breath.
- “Boxed Breathing,” in which you breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and so on until you feel grounded.
- Tighten your muscles and release them while breathing, focusing on the breath.
- Perform light stretches while you focus on your breath as well, paying attention to the physical sensations that arise from the activity.
Another form of grounding involves self-therapy or self-talk. When you feel the anxiety coming on, talk to yourself (either out loud or in your head). Tell yourself that you are having anxiety and that everything is going to be OK, you have gone through this before and can get through it again. Remind yourself that you are strong enough to handle your emotions and the anxiety will subside shortly. Keep repeating positive statements until you feel yourself calming down. Use an anchoring phrase like, “I’m (your name). I’m (X) years old. I live in (city, state), today is (day of week, date, time), and I’m at (state specific location). Notice and describe your surroundings with as many details as you can muster.
Grounding techniques often use more of the five senses—sound, touch, smell, taste, and sight—to quickly help to connect you with the here and now. One very common grounding technique for anxiety attacks is the 54321 method. Working backward from 5, use your senses to list things you notice around you. Identify…
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can feel
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste
Here are additional techniques that also engage the senses:
- Focus on a particular sensation like holding an ice cube.
- Put your hands in water and focus on the water’s temperature and how it feels on your fingertips, palms, and the backs of your hands. Alternate between warm and cold water. Notice the differences.
- Pick up or touch items near you and notice their texture, are they soft or hard, heavy or light, warm or cool.
- Touch something comforting like a favorite blanket, a smooth stone, soft carpet, or anything that feels good to touch. Think about how it feels under your fingers or in your hand.
- If you have a favorite sweater, scarf, or pair of socks, put them on and notice the sensation of the fabric on your skin.
- Savor a food or drink by taking small bites or sips and letting yourself fully taste each bite. Think about how it tastes and smells and the flavors that linger on your tongue.
- Challenge yourself to think of specific colors, such as crimson, burgundy, indigo, or turquoise, red or blue and what comes in those colors.
- Is there a fragrance that appeals to you…a tea, herb, spice, scented candle, or essential oil? Inhale the fragrance slowly and deeply and try to note its qualities (sweet, spicy, sharp, citrusy, and so on).
- Look at a detailed photograph or picture for 5 to 10 seconds. Then recreate the photograph in your mind, in as much detail as possible. Or, mentally list all the things you remember from the picture.
- Choose one or two broad categories, such as “musical instruments,” or “baseball teams.” Take a minute or two to mentally list as many things from each category as you can.
- Try counting backward from 100 or choosing a number and thinking of five ways you could make the number (1 + 4 = 5, 6 – 1 = 5, 3 + 2 = 5, etc.)
- Recite a poem, song, or book passage you know by heart.
- Make yourself laugh by recalling a silly joke or funny memory or watching a favorite meme, cat video, clip from a comedian or TV show you enjoy.
- Visualize a daily task you enjoy and think about the process in detail.
- Describe a common task or activity you do often. Run through the process step-by-step, as if you’re giving someone else instructions on how to do it.
- Imagine yourself discarding negative emotions by gathering them, balling them up, and putting them into a box or throwing them away. Or imagine the thoughts you dislike being a TV channel that you can change or turn the volume down.
- Picture the voice or face of someone you love.
- Practice self-kindness and repeat kind, compassionate and affirming phrases to yourself about yourself.
- Hang out with your pet. Sit with them, pet them, focus on their breathing, notice how they feel and look.
- List three favorite things in several different categories.
- Visualize your favorite place using all of your senses to create a mental image. Remember the last time you were there. Who were you with, if anyone? What did you do there? How did you feel?
- Plan an activity to do alone or with another. Think of what you’ll do and when. Focus on the details, such as what you’ll wear, when you’ll go, and how you’ll get there.
- Write or mentally list four or five things in your life that bring you joy and visualize each of them.
- Listen to music. Focus on the melody and lyrics and how the music makes you feel physically.
Grounding yourself isn’t always easy. It may take some time before the techniques work well for you, but don’t give up on them. Practice, start early when you first start to feel bad vs waiting until you are too distressed. Check in with yourself and note your progress by rating your distress between 1 and 10 both before and after the grounding exercise. And try to avoid closing your eyes since it’s often easier to remain connected to the present if you’re looking at your current environment.
The goal is to try to achieve overall physical and emotional well-being. While grounding techniques are certainly effective when you feel flooded and overwhelmed, you can also practice them when you’re calm and composed as part of your overall healthy lifestyle.
Make sure to take care of your physical and mental health by maintaining a balanced diet, sleeping well, exercising, limiting your alcohol and caffeine intake, meditating or practicing stillness, practicing yoga, journaling, and maintaining health support systems. And, remember if life becomes too stressful and all your self-care may not feel like enough, reach out to a mental health professional, coach, spiritual counselor.