What are grounding techniques?
When you are upset, anxious, tense or feeling overwhelmed it is easy to get lost in Junkmind thoughts. Worries circling around your head like a flock of crows, catastrophic judgments, obsessions, negative self-judgments, rising panic, or the thought that you just can’t cope any more. When you are very anxious these thoughts will chain rapidly, one from the other, creating a mental pile-up that seems impossible to escape.
If this has happened to you, then don’t worry – it happens to nearly all of us from time to time. And there is a direct solution, which is to switch your attention back to present moment awareness, coming back to your senses, and refocusing your attention on something that grounds you. In this article I describe some grounding techniques that help you do just that.
Mindfulness and grounding techniques.
Grounding techniques can be easier to perform if you practice mindfulness on a day-to-day basis. If you have chronic anxiety then it is strongly recommended that you take up regular practice. This will help you return to present moment awareness whenever you need to. It will also assist you in defusing from panicky thoughts.
Not everyone gets along with mindfulness techniques. If this is true of you then binaural beat programs can be another option. Or you might find that using any of these grounding techniques can work just as well.
You can use as many of these techniques as you like, one after the other. The key is to use them mindfully, with your full attention.
This is the oldest, and most used technique that goes all the way back to Ancient India. For it is well known that breath control slows down heart rate, which in turn signals the brain to slow down the nervous system.
Take a deep, slow breath from the solar plexus, filling up your chest, breathing in through the nose to the count of four. Then exhale slowly through the mouth. Breathe in slowly through the nose again to the count of five, and exhale through the mouth. Then, six, seven, eight, and go up as high as is comfortable for you, but no more.
More breathing techniques can be found here.
Cold Water technique.
I put this second because it is the one I find personally most effective. There are a variety of methods:
- Put an ice cube in your mouth, then on your neck, forehead, eyes, cheeks, jaw and back on your neck.
- If you are lucky enough to have a pool nearby, then dive into that. Otherwise, take a cold shower.
- Or fill a basin with cold water and splash your face liberally.
This technique works by sending a mild shock (not unpleasant) to your brain. Forcing the nervous system out of anxiety, and into calming mode.
Sensory grounding techniques.
These techniques work by refocusing your attention on external sensory facts. For example:
- Count three things you can see, and name them out loud.
- Count three things you can hear and name those.
- Count three things you can sense (or touch).
- Count three things you can taste (you might need to be be in a kitchen to do this)
- Count three things you can smell.
The last two are optional if you are outside your home. You can also ratchet up to counting five things you can see, hear and sense. Be sure to speak out loud as you name each fact, as the sound of your own voice is also grounding.
Tighten the muscles in your scalp and forehead, and count to ten. Then release tension and relax the muscles completely. Exhale as you release.
Now tighten the muscles in your mouth and jaw. Count and then exhale & release, and relax.
Do the same for the muscle groups in your neck/shoulders, back, upper arms, lower arms, chest, and abdomen
For a short video on how to use progressive relaxation with breath techniques see here.
This technique works by distracting the thinking centres, refocusing them on a complicated task.
Count downwards in threes from a number like ‘187’. Or try something slightly more complicated, like counting down five, then adding three, then counting down five again.
If you are a mathematician take any large number, then count down to each prime number. For example: From 187 to 181, 179, 173, 167, 163, etc.
Mental grounding techniques
These work in the same way as counting techniques, but focusing on an external aid. The emphasis is always on re-occupying the mind on a complicated task. For example:
Game apps: Bricks Breaker, Pokemon Go, etc. Video games: Football, Tennis, Pool, etc.
Dance, movement and exercise
Hard exercise works especially well if you are feeling panicky, as it drains adrenalin from the system. The more vigorous, the better.
Other movements work well in combination with music (fast and loud works for some people, slow and graceful for others). But any complicated series of movements will also reoccupy the mind. Some, like Tai Chi, will restore a peaceful energy.
After you’ve grounded
This can go one of two ways. You can continue refocusing on an activity that occupies your full attention, away from the mind-set you have just left. For example, a work project, cookery, repairing something, a trip to the gym, creative work, time with a good friend, etc. Whatever you choose to do make sure that it is rewarding and enjoyable to do.
Or, you can perform a defusion exercise on the thoughts that were troubling you a moment before. Once you have completed that you are free to resume normal activity.