As someone who struggles with anxiety, I know firsthand how crippling it can be sometimes. Racing thoughts. Restlessness. Shallow breathing. Queasiness. Palpitations. And that debilitating feeling of the world closing in on you.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), around 40 million adults (19.1% of the total population) in the US have anxiety disorders. Moreover, it affects an estimated 275 million adults across the globe, states the World Economic Forum.
When you feel panicked or overwhelmed, you often get tunnel vision and feel consumed by your fear, worries and unpleasant physical sensations, says Dr. Vassilia Binensztok, a Miami-based licensed and board-certified counselor. Fortunately, there are many science-backed strategies that can help mitigate these feelings and cultivate calm. One of the most effective tools to ease an anxious or overwhelmed mind is grounding techniques.
What’s a grounding technique?
A grounding technique is basically an exercise or activity that helps you manage an intense emotion by helping you get out of your head—steering your attention away from distressing thoughts, feelings or memories and zoning in on the present moment.
Whenever you feel anxious or overwhelmed, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks your “fight or flight” response into gear. Engaging in grounding techniques allows your body to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that triggers the relaxation response, explains national board-certified counselor and life coach, Dr. Teralyn Sell.
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Easy Grounding Methods to Try:
So the next time you find yourself spiraling, try one of these simple grounding activities to calm your overwhelmed mind:
- Focus on your breathing. “The easiest and often most overlooked grounding exercise is breathing,” says Dr. Sell. When you inhale your heart rate increases, while an exhale decreases your heart rate. A fast heart rate—often experienced in anxiety and overwhelm—triggers your ‘fight or flight’ response which kicks in adrenalin and shuts off your prefrontal cortex aka your thinking brain. A decreased heart rate, on the other hand, can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, explains the licensed therapist. Make sure you exhale twice as long as you inhale. Breathe like that for five to seven minutes—that’s enough time for your brain to understand you’re not under attack and engage the calm-inducing PNS, adds Dr. Sell.
- Scan your surroundings. Instead of simply listing what you can see in your line of vision, move your head and observe, suggests Dr. Binensztok. For instance, if you’re at your workplace, look beyond your desk. Pay attention to the different sounds (the whirring of the nearby vending machine, your colleagues typing on the computer, beeping of the copier, traffic sounds outside the window, etc.) and smells (perfume, printer ink, the aroma of fresh coffee, etc.) in the room. This engages the brain in a different way than just flitting the eyes around a narrow range—helping interrupt anxious spiraling, says Dr. Binensztok.
- Engage your tastebuds. Use a piece of peppermint or cinnamon gum, ginger candy or something else that is spicy and concentrate on the taste and tingling sensation, suggests Dr. Binensztok. You can also try something super sour (like Warheads candy) that will make you focus on what’s going on inside your mouth rather than the intense emotion you’re experiencing, suggests Dr. Sell.
- Tap into your senses. Sit in a comfortable position and run through each of your senses—focusing on one sense at a time, suggests Vanessa Smith Bennett, LA-based psychotherapist, mindfulness coach and co-host of Cheaper Than Therapy Podcast. For example, notice how your feet feel on the ground or the feel of the shirt sleeves on your arms. Next, close your eyes and focus on anything specific you can smell, even if it’s faint. Then pay attention to the noise—starting with sounds that are close by, later moving to those that are far away. Next, focus on what you can see around you. Lastly, notice what you can taste. Smack your lips and tongue to see if you can still taste your coffee or the remnants of lunch, says the mental health expert.
- Try the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Similar to the technique mentioned above, this grounding exercise involves naming five things that you see around you followed by touching any four things around you (like your watch, chair, computer, etc.), then identifying three sounds that you can hear, two things you can smell and lastly, one thing that you can taste.
- Narrate the process. “Describe the steps in performing an activity you know how to do well,” suggests licensed mental health counselor Woody Schuldt in a post published in Therapist Aid. For example, how to play your favorite tune on a guitar, how to make your go-to dinner recipe or how to change a car tire, etc.
- Focus on a nearby object. “Find one thing in the room that you can focus on and then zoom in on it,” suggests Bennett. Focus on its shape, size, weight, color, texture, etc.
- Hold an ice cube. Take a piece of ice in your hand and focus on how it feels on your palm and fingertips. The cold sensation can help redirect your mind into noticing what you’re holding instead of focusing on your overwhelming thoughts or feelings.
- Categorize things. Pick two or three random categories like movies, sports, food of cars and name as many items as you can in each one, suggests Schuldt. “Spend a few minutes on each category to come up with as many items as possible,” he adds.
- Go for a short walk. “Psychologists studying how exercise relieves anxiety and depression suggest that a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout,” states the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA). So the next time you feel anxious, go for a quick stroll around the block. While walking, try to focus on the sights, smells and sounds nearby. Count your steps. Pay attention to your breathing. Notice how your feet feel when they hit the ground with each step.
If you continue to feel anxious or overwhelmed despite trying everything, please reach out to a mental health professional at the earliest.