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Managing Anxiety with Grounding

If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present
― Lao Tzu

Grounding exercises comprises of techniques that acts as an anchor in bringing one’s attention back to the here-and-now. This is helpful for those who are out of touch with the present, such as individuals who experience anxiety. The not-so-secret beneficial effects of grounding exercises is found in the science behind our anxiety response (e.g. quicker breathing and heart rate, tensed muscles, high blood pressure, sweat, etc.) (Hofmann et al., 2010). Specifically, grounding strategies put a brake on the anxiety response that our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for. It does this by stimulating our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – which automatically prompts our body to relax!

Grounding strategies are frequently used as a “first aid” as it can immediately reduce the intensity of the anxiety. However, unless practiced regularly, grounding would be difficult to perform in the heat of the moment. On the other hand, incorporating grounding and mindfulness into our routine primes us to become more aware of the warning signs of overwhelm. It turns “grounding” into something that we can do instinctively, therefore enabling us to self-regulate with more ease even during times when the anxiety is at its high.

Nevertheless, it is vital to remember that developing a new habit – in this case, of becoming more mindful – is similar to training a muscle. It will likely be challenging when you start this journey because you are leaving your “comfort zone”, and consistent effort is required to be able to maintain progress. Lastly, there is no one technique that works for everyone, and not all techniques work at all times. Hence, it could be helpful to have a selection of grounding strategies that you can utilize. Another alternative is to assemble a grounding kit that we could easily access when we feel distressed. So, without further ado, here are a few strategies that you can try for yourself!

Sensory Awareness

One method of grounding incorporates sensory awareness and composes of strategies that engage our five senses (i.e. sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch). An example of this is the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique. To do this, look around your immediate vicinity and name out loud (and/or touch):

  • 5 things you can see.
  • 4 things you can feel.
  • 3 things you can hear.
  • 2 things you can smell.
  • 1 thing you can taste.

Here are also ideas for other simple techniques:

  • Hold an ice cube in your hand or in your mouth. What does it feel like at first? How long does it take to start melting? Notice how the sensations change as more time passes and the ice melts.
  • Place both feet uncrossed on the ground. Be mindful of the different aspects of your experience as you press your left foot down. How does the ground feel beneath your feet initially? Do you notice more tension in one leg than the other, or is there equal tension? What do the heels and soles of your feet feel like? Repeat this with the right foot.
  • Hold a grounding object. It can be anything from a stone, a piece of jewellery, to even fidget toys. What is important is that you have a positive feeling/memory associated with it. Focus on how it looks and feels in your hand: its weight, texture, how the light reflects off of it.
  • Smell something with a strong scent and savour it. Again, pick something that appeals to you and that you have a positive association with. This could be the fragrance of coffee/tea, a specific scented candle, or a favourite herb or spice. Notice its various qualities (e.g. spicy, sweet, citrusy, sharp, etc.) and what it reminds you of.

Cognitive Awareness

Techniques with a focus on increasing cognitive awareness involves re-orienting yourself to the present place and time. One way this can be done is by answering some or all of the following questions:  

  • What is my name?
  • How old am I?
  • Where am I?
  • What day, month, and year is today?

We can then turn this into a mantra that we repeat to ourselves until we feel sufficiently grounded. An example of this would be something like “My name is Jodi. I am 19 years old. Today is January 20, 2022. I am in class for my Finance lecture. I am safe.”. Additionally, as we are doing this, it could also be helpful to focus on our breath. This very act typically causes most people to slow down and deepen their breathing, thus further aiding us in regulating the anxiety.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

The Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) exercise works through each of the muscle groups in progression. We tense the muscles in a muscle group while inhaling, hold for 10 seconds (though this may vary depending on which script, video, or audio you are following!), and relax the muscles while exhaling.  By intentionally tensing each muscle group when we are in an anxious state, we would be able to identify areas of our body that already have pre-existing tension. This enhances our bodily awareness and subsequently helps us relax the muscles with more ease.

However, because of this, it is also important to note that this exercise is not advisable for people with physical injuries. Our goal is to promote relaxation, not to cause further pain! So if you have a history of physical injuries and/or problems, it would be advisable to consult your doctor beforehand.

Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises generally require us to manipulate our breathing pattern in a way that directly engages our PNS and triggers the relaxation response as well. Unlike what some might think, just intentionally slowing down our breathing is not the most effective way to do it. Instead, we need to ensure that our exhalations are longer than our inhalations (as opposed to the brief to no exhalation and often longer inhalations that we do when we are anxious or panicked). This helps to eliminate the toxins in our body and also connects to our vagus nerve, which is part of our PNS (Bergland, 2019). The vagus nerve then slows down our heartbeat, which further supports relaxation.

There are many different variations of breathing exercises. It ranges from mindful breathing (which is the only type of breathing exercise that does not require us to change our breathing pattern), to diaphragmatic breathing (fully engaging the stomach, abdominal muscles, and diaphragm), to exercises that also involves movement/touch such as Lazy 8 breathing or five-finger breathing. Some of these exercises are more easily accessible and can be performed without the need of extra tools, which is perfect for the purpose of “first aid”. Others may be more effective when enriched with activities that engages other senses (e.g. Lazy 8 breathing while painting/drawing) and when done over a longer period of time; and therefore is better suited as an addition to our routine (e.g. before we sleep) to prime our body to be more relaxed. Alternatively, we could also find ways to tailor the breathing exercise to our specific needs – either with the help of a psychologist/counsellor/psychotherapist or resources we can get from good old Mr. Google.

Learn more about anxiety with this article at Seribu Tujuan.

Bergland, C. (2019, May 9). Longer Exhalations Are an Easy Way to Hack Your Vagus Nerve. Psychology Today.

Hofmann, Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169–183.

Raypole, C. (2019, May 24). 30 Grounding Techniques to Quiet Distressing Thoughts. Healthline.