Grounding is a simple but powerful idea. It just means paying attention to your physical environment in order to interrupt the cycle of negative thoughts. Grounding is especially useful for people with anxiety disorders or PTSD, but it can also be used to interrupt the rumination common in people with depression. When you feel anxiety, it typically begins with a thought, usually of the form “What if something bad happens?” You start to worry about that possibility and invest more energy into it. Your heart speeds up and you get tense, which only makes your brain believe the threat is more real, so you worry more. This cycle can lead to intense anxiety or even a panic attack.
The problem is that the thing you’re worried about isn’t real; it’s just in your head. However, when you’re prone to rumination or anxiety, especially if you’ve suffered a trauma, worries can seem as real as something that’s happening right now. The way to break this cycle of worry and physical response is to actually pay attention to what is happening around you. You can’t focus on your anxiety-producing thoughts and your physical environment at the same time. Grounding is essentially a series of techniques designed to get you out of your head and into the present moment. It’s essentially emergency mindfulness.
Mindfulness works by engaging the parts of your prefrontal cortex that control attention. This mutes the part of your brain that becomes preoccupied with negative possibilities.
Unfortunately, mindfulness takes quite a bit of practice before it’s effective in an emergency. Grounding techniques are essentially mindfulness techniques you can use right out of the box to control anxiety. Here are some common grounding techniques you can start using right away.
Taking a few deep breaths is powerful for two reasons: it grounds you in your body and it activates the vagus nerve, which calms you down. Psychologists and practitioners recommend diaphragmatic breathing (or “belly breathing”) in which you imagine there is a balloon in your stomach that you inflate as you breathe. To get the most out of deep breathing, pay attention to the sensations of your breath. See what’s most prominent. It could be the cool air coming in your nose, the rise of your stomach as you breathe in, or the faint sound of the exhale. Notice these sensations as you breathe. Next, while you’re noticing these sensations, start breathing to a steady count. A standard way of doing it is to breathe in for four seconds, breathe out for four, and repeat. You’ll notice counting changes some of the sensations you feel while breathing. Counting also engages more of your attention so your mind can’t wander back to the anxiety-provoking thoughts. Although it sometimes helps you to relax by breathing with your eyes closed, for the purposes of grounding, it’s better to keep your eyes open to be more aware of your surroundings.
Use your senses.
Anything that engages your senses helps ground you. Most of us are in the habit of relying primarily on sight, but engaging more sense helps you feel more grounded. You may start by paying more attention to the feeling of your breath, as noted above, or to your weight in your chair. One surprisingly powerful technique is to pay attention to your feet. Most people never notice the feeling of their feet pressed against the floor or the slight pressure of their shoes. This is a fast way to ground yourself, literally, by noticing your connection to the ground.
One common technique that makes this more systematic is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. You start by naming five things you see in front of you, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste, perhaps traces of the last thing you ate or drank. This has the advantage of not only engaging your senses, but also engaging your meta-awareness by making you keep track of how many items you’ve noticed.
Do a reality check.
“Reality checks” can be useful for grounding too because they make you engage with your environment and pay attention to what happens. Common reality checks include looking at the clock, noting the time, then looking away and checking the time again to see if it’s the same; trying to push a finger on one hand through the palm of the other hand; touching your thumb to the tip of each finger, counting “one, two, three, four,” then doing it again; and writing your name or a short sentence on a piece of paper. These things can help connect you to the present moment.
Turn on some music.
When people ruminate or worry, they often do it subvocally. That means they do it in words, and often repetitively. Music helps interrupt this process. Just as it’s hard to have a conversation with loud music on, it’s hard to listen to your own worries. Music is easy to pay attention to and the right music can be a powerful way to change your state of mind, making you more cheerful or more relaxed. If you want to quickly boost your mood, professionals recommend listening to your favorite songs from a time in your life when things were happier and easier.
Writing is a good way to ground yourself for several reasons. First, it makes you aware that you’re worrying or ruminating. It’s strange, but often when we slip into episodes of worry or rumination, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. So if you decide to write down what you’re thinking about, you first have to recognize that you are thinking. Second, writing is tactile. You have a pen in your hand and you’re scratching it against paper. It’s very physical. Third, writing engages your higher reasoning. You have to make a lot of decisions when you write and that engages your prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is most important for regulating emotion.
Relaxation and self-regulation are both meant to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system—the part of the brain that calms the fight or flight (sympathetic nervous system) response. The more breathing or grounding you can do and master, the more ability you have to slow this response and, ultimately, lead a more balanced life.
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