When a person starts to feel anxious their mind will often start to race and their heartbeat will begin to increase. With each passing second, the conditions will get worse and they may quickly begin to feel overwhelmed by their feelings and thoughts and begin to feel like they are losing control. They may be experiencing unwanted memories, flashbacks, or just negative and challenging emotions. One of the best ways to quickly pull away from these experiences is to practice something called grounding.
What Is Grounding?
When an anxiety or panic attack happens, a person starts to lose control of their thoughts and ends up focusing on issues away from their present. Grounding is a technique that helps them to come back to the here and now and therefore be able to calm themselves down. The focus of their mind is changed, from whatever past or future issues that it’s currently fixated on, into what’s happening to them physically, either in their body or their surroundings.
The technique aims to help a person stay in the present moment instead of worrying about things that may happen in the future or have already transpired in the past. Grounding is useful for anyone trying to create distance from distressing feelings in just about every situation, but it can be especially helpful for anyone dealing with:
- Anxiety disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Self-harm urges
- Traumatic memories
- Substance abuse disorder
How Does Grounding Work?
There is plenty of science to back up the effectiveness of grounding. When a person begins to think about something stressful, their amygdala, a section of the brain that’s located in the temporal lobe, flips into action. The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional responses, most namely fear. While it’s a critical resource for preparing for an emergency event, sometimes it may kick into action and detect a threat that doesn’t exist.
The typical process ends up looking like this: someone has a negative thought that brings on stress, their amygdala begins to flood the brain with responses to the perceived emergency, and as a result changes are initiated such as increased muscle tension, rapid heartbeat, and increased breathing. The amygdala will then interpret these physical changes as further proof that something is incredibly wrong which will then push it into overdrive and perpetuate the cycle making it worse and worse.
The best way to break this overwhelming cycle is to use grounding. By focusing on your body and the physical sensations of feeling, you can get out of your head and redirect your thinking away from the anxiety and stress-inducing thoughts.
The 5-4-3-2-1 Technique
Arguably the most famous grounding technique, the 5-4-3-2-1 Technique involves using all your senses in order to help get you back to the present.
The first step is to close your eyes and inhale deeply through your nose (counting to three) and exhale slowly out of your mouth (also to the count of three). Once your breathing is more controlled, open your eyes and name out loud or in your head:
- Five things that you can see. Look for small details like the pattern on a ceiling, the way light reflects off a surface, or an object you’ve never noticed before.
- Four things that you can feel. Pay attention to the sensation of clothing on your body, the sun on your skin, or the feeling of the chair that you are seated in. If possible pick up an object and examine its weight, texture, and other physical qualities.
- Three things that you can hear. Notice the sounds that your mind typically tunes out, like a ticking clock, traffic in the distance, or trees being blown around by the wind.
- Two things that you can smell. Try to focus on the smells in the air around you, perhaps an air freshener or recently mowed grass. Perhaps look around for something to smell like a flower or unlit candle.
- One thing that you can taste. Carry gum, candy, or other small snacks to best accomplish this task. Place one in your mouth and try to focus your attention closely on the flavors it’s provided.
Physical Grounding Techniques
These techniques are not as detailed as the 5-4-3-2-1 Technique and are just general ways to help move past distress. It’s important to experiment with different techniques in order to find one that works best for you.
- Place your hands in water. Focus on the temperature of the water and how it feels in relation to your fingertips, palms, and back of your hand. Use warm water first and then use cold. Go back to warm and see how different it feels now than it did before.
- Pick up or touch nearby items. Is the thing you touch hard or soft? Heavy or light? Warm or cool? Focus on the texture and color and think of the most specific color it represents. Instead of red, is it crimson or burgundy? Instead of blue is it indigo or turquoise?
- Hold an ice cube. What does it feel like in your hand? How long does it start to melt? What difference do you feel when it starts to melt?
- Move around. Take a walk or do some exercises and stretches. You could perform jumping jacks, push-ups, jogging in place, or stretch different muscle groups individually. Pay attention to the muscles that you use and how your body feels with each movement you make. How does the ground feel against your feet or your hands?
- Listen closely to your surroundings. Take a few moments and listen intently to what noises are around you. Are there birds tweeting? Dogs barking? Traffic nearby or far away? Do you hear people talking?
- Savor a scent. Take a deep breath of a fragrance near you. A cup of tea, herbs or spices, favorite soap, or scented candles can all have a soothing effect if they are near. Try to note the specific qualities of the smell: is it sweet, spicy, sharp, citrusy, etc.?
- Savor a flavor. Take a bite or sip of something you enjoy and let yourself experience the full flavor of the treat. Think about how the taste is similar or different to the smell and the specific flavors that linger on your tongue.
Mental Grounding Techniques
These techniques are focused on helping to distract you mentally and divert your thoughts away from the distressing and anxiety-inducing feelings and back into the present.
- Categories. Choose at least two of the following categories and name as many items as you can for each one:
- Sports and Teams
- Fruits and Vegetables
- TV Shows
- Memory: Look at a photo or picture for ten seconds. Turn the photo over and recreate the photo in your mind with as much detail as you can. List all the specific details you remember.
- Numbers: Thinking about math and numbers can help distract your mind. Try out one or more of the following:
- Run through a times table in your head
- Count backward from 100
- Choose a random number and think of five ways to create that number using math (5+4=9, 11-2=9, 3×3=9, etc.)
- Run through the prime numbers
- Anchoring Phrase: This is a phrase you create in order to center your mind. For example, “My name is X. I am X years old. I live in X, located in the state of X. The date is X. The time is X. I am currently at X. There are X people around me.” Continuing to add details to the phrase can help to bring your mind to the present and to help calm you. “It is cloudy outside and there is a little rain, but I can still see the sun. I’m a little cold so I am going to put on a light jacket. I am thirsty so I will get a glass of water.”
Grounding techniques can be very effective in helping someone that is experiencing intense anxiety to calm down. There are lots of different options and it’s important to try different ones and practice them a few times. It can be difficult to break a cycle of distress and anxiety but if you continue to ground yourself, eventually you will get through it.
Experiencing an anxiety attack can be very challenging to get through without using some version of a grounding technique. Letting your thoughts and mind race further away into the past or future will only make it harder to get them back to the present. While grounding techniques are good for dealing with the symptoms, it may be a good idea to seek a mental health professional to help deal with the cause. A psychologist can help discuss the issues that create the anxiety and a psychiatrist can prescribe medication that may dampen the severity of the attacks or possibly prevent them from happening altogether.