Co-authored by Zamfira Parincu and Tchiki Davis
Sometimes life throws you a curveball and you find yourself overwhelmed. Maybe you experienced a loss. Perhaps you find yourself pondering the meaning of life. Or maybe the current state of world affairs makes you feel lost. Whenever you find yourself feeling anxious or stressed, you can use grounding techniques to reconnect with yourself and the present moment. This research-based strategy may be helpful for anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, or even dissociation.
Grounding techniques work by “grounding” you in the present moment and pulling you away from intrusive thoughts or feelings. This refers not only to having your “feet on the ground” but also your “mind on the ground.” When you turn your attention away from thoughts, memories, or worries, you can refocus on the present moment (Fisher, 1999).
Grounding techniques are useful because they help you distance yourself from an emotional experience. When you experience negative emotions—for example, perhaps you accidentally remember a painful memory—the brain's natural instinct is to start the involuntary physiological change known as the “fight or flight” response. Although this response keeps you safe by preparing you to face, escape from, or fight danger, memories do not present a tangible danger. If you find yourself in moments like these, grounding techniques can help the body calm itself and return to the present moment.
The 5-4-3-2-1 Technique
This is one of the most common grounding techniques. It helps by grounding you to the moment and reconnecting you to all five senses by naming:
- 5 things you can see. Look around you and name five things you can see. It can be anything that’s in front of you such as the phone or the wall. It can also be things that are further away, such as the buildings or sky.
- 4 things you can feel. This is important because it makes you pay attention to your body. You can think about how your hair feels on your back, how your feet feel in your shoes, or even how the fabric of your clothes feels on your skin.
- 3 things you can hear. Pay attention to your environment: Do you hear birds, construction noise, the AC working? Say any three things that you can hear.
- 2 things you can smell. Smelling is a powerful sensation, yet sometimes we move through life without paying that much attention to it. If you can, walk around a bit and notice the smells. If you can’t smell anything or can’t move, you can just name two smells that you particularly like.
- 1 thing you can taste. Can you still taste lunch, coffee, or gum? If you want, grab a candy or mint and acknowledge how the flavors taste.
The next time you feel anxious or that you are overthinking a problem, try the 5-4-3-2-1 technique to become more present in the moment.
Do a Meditation Exercise
Guided meditation is a powerful grounding technique to reduce stress, depression and anxiety, and it can help you get out of your head and reconnect to your body. There are many types of meditation, such as the body scan, moving meditations, or loving-kindness meditation, so it’s important to try to determine which one works best for you. Meditation has been shown to reduce stress, make you calmer, promote happiness (Mineo, 2018), and even reduce symptoms of PTSD in studies with the U.S. military (Seppälä et al., 2014)
Focus on Your Breath
Many clinical professionals use breathing exercises to help patients be present in the moment. Focusing on breathing is a great tool for reducing stress and anxiety (Stefanaki et al., 2015). Breathing exercises work because they help you disengage from your mind and not pay attention to distracting thoughts. You can do the simple exercise below before bed, when you wake up in the morning, or before an important meeting:
First, find a comfortable and quiet place to sit or lie down. Breathe in slowly through your nose, and notice how your chest and belly rise as you fill your lungs. Then, breathe out slowly through your mouth. Do this a few times until you start to calm down.
Grounding techniques are strategies that can reconnect you with the present and may help you overcome anxious feelings, unwanted thoughts or memories, flashbacks, distressing emotions, or dissociation. You can try as many techniques as you want: The more you try, the higher the chance you’ll find at least one that works for you.
Adapted from an article published by The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.
Fisher, J. (1999). The work of stabilization in trauma treatment. Trauma Center Lecture Series, Boston, Massachusetts.
Seppälä, E. M., Nitschke, J. B., Tudorascu, D. L., Hayes, A., Goldstein, M. R., Nguyen, D. T., ... & Davidson, R. J. (2014). Breathing‐based meditation decreases posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in US Military veterans: A randomized controlled longitudinal study. Journal of traumatic stress, 27(4), 397-405.