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Grounding techniques for coping with anxiety
The Challenges of Coping with Anxiety
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem in the United States, affecting 18 percent of people each year. You might think anxiety is a minor psychological problem but it can have a severe impact. Anxiety takes over your thoughts, causing you to ruminate about your past actions and what lies ahead. It also activates our natural fight or flight response. When this occurs, our body becomes agitated and it is difficult to remain calm. Anxiety can be both overwhelming and debilitating. It can assume control of your life if you don’t have the tools to combat it. For example, panic attacks can make you feel like you are going to die and the fear of them can keep you from engaging in life.
Anxiety disorders are very challenging to treat. People with anxiety tend to let their thoughts run wild. They are worried about what happened or what will happen in the future to the point that they can no longer focus on what they need to get done. Further, they feel restless and uncomfortable in their own skin. As a result, people want to avoid anything that has to do with anxiety. They don’t want to talk about it or approach any situation that might bring about anxiety. The problem is that running away from your worries just makes them worse. So, how can someone learn to cope with their anxiety if all they want to do is avoid it? Enter grounding techniques.
What are Grounding Techniques?
Grounding is a mental and/or physical exercise used to take back control of your mind and body from anxiety and other problems. Besides anxiety, grounding techniques can be helpful in dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), dissociation, and general stress. Flashbacks or unpleasant memories from trauma can bring on considerable anxiety and distress. Grounding helps people focus on themselves in the present rather than worry over aspects of their life that may be out of their control.
Grounding exercises are not a cure for anxiety, but rather they are an attempt to center yourself in the moment so it is not so overwhelming. First, they can be used as a preventative technique to keep anxiety at bay. This is important because If you can learn consistent ways to tolerate your anxiety, you can then take steps to permanently eradicate it. Maybe most crucially, however, they are one of the few techniques that can be used when you are in the middle of severe anxiety, such as a panic attack.
One of the strengths of grounding is that it can be done anywhere in almost any situation. These techniques are relatively simple and can be learned by people of all developmental and intellectual abilities. All you have to do is have one or two in mind when anxiety strikes. Think about it as a versatile and effective resource in your anti-anxiety toolbox.
Some grounding techniques are physical and others use cognitive skills. The most constructive engage both your body and your mind. The following are common and effective grounding exercises:
· Deep breathing is a classic and effective grounding and relaxation technique. When performed most effectively, breathing is done through the abdomen rather than the chest. Breaths are taken in through the nose, held in the abdomen, and then exhaled through the mouth. The focus on your breath within your body provides the grounding effect. There are many variations of this technique.
· Progressive muscle relaxation is another common grounding exercise. In this practice, you are asked to tense and release muscle groups one at a time. The focus on muscle tension calms the body and helps one concentrate on the self.
· Maybe the most popular grounding technique, the 5-4-3-2-1 coping exercise asks you to pay attention to your senses in the present. You are asked to notice five things you can see around you, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This puts your focus on the interaction of yourself with the environment rather than your worries.
· Splashing yourself with cold water may seem a bit strange as a grounding technique, but it works on a lot of different levels. Cold water helps to counter the body’s sympathetic response to stress and calms you down. It can also be a shock to the system and distracts one from their anxious thoughts. Similarly, holding onto something cold, like an ice cube, may provide a similar effect and allow you to focus on your sense of touch.
· When you think of practicing mindfulness, you might picture someone in a quiet room sitting in the lotus position. And while you can practice mindfulness in that way, you might be surprised to find that you can apply the same principles in almost everything you do. You can practice while walking, eating, and even when working. Mindfulness is all about allowing your thoughts and feelings to wash over you without assigning them judgments. The goal is to stay in the present and learn to tolerate stressful and unpleasant emotions. Achieving a state of mindfulness is one of the more difficult grounding techniques, however. It requires practice to stay focused and learn how to endure a variety of thoughts without judgment. Want to learn more about practicing mindfulness? Start with apps like Calm or Headspace.
· Exercise is good for almost every problem we have. As far as grounding is concerned, it serves as a release for built-up agitation. Sometimes anxiety has us so wound up that we can’t even think clearly. In those times, physical exercise might be the only activity that can be done successfully. After engaging in exercise, the release of adrenaline may make it possible to try other mental grounding techniques.
· Distraction is not a permanent solution for anxiety but it can be extremely useful. Anything that takes our mind off our stress and worries for a short time can break the chain of anxiety. Distractions can take almost any form, including listening to music or watching a movie. You just have to find the one that is the best at occupying your mind.
· You might ask how examining an object qualifies as a grounding technique. However, objects can employ many of our senses and help us focus on something in the moment. Ask yourself what the object looks like, smells like, feels like. It is a good idea to choose an object with some texture. Food makes for a good object because you can taste it, see it, feel it, and it usually has a specific smell.
· Another classic grounding technique is the body scan. Body scans can be done in several ways. The most common is in a chair. While sitting, you go through the senses and see how they are impacting each part of your body, from head to toe, and your relationship with the chair. It is almost like a check-in with yourself that makes you aware of how you are interacting in the moment. Another popular variation has you performing the scan while lying on the floor.
· There is a whole class of grounding techniques that involve mental gymnastics. Some of the most popular of this type of grounding include counting backward and memory games. These exercises require you to think enough about how to accomplish something that they take the focus off your worries. For instance, counting backward by a certain amount makes you pay attention to your mathematics skills. When you concentrate on math, you can’t focus on your anxiety. Other popular grounding games that occupy your cognitive resources are the categories game, where you list items within a certain category, and the biography game, where you are tasked to come up with your own biography.
Resources for Finding Grounding Techniques
If you look on the internet you can find literally hundreds of sites that list different grounding techniques. Here is a smattering of some of the best resources:
· There are numerous pages of grounding exercises associated with universities. Here are a couple of good ones from Murray State University and the University of Sydney.
· Some other resources come from therapy practices. Here is an excellent one from the Growlery practice in Minneapolis, MN, and Sarah Allen, Ph.D.
· News sources and sites that specialize in psychology also have some well-thought-out articles on grounding techniques. These include this article from the Insider and another from Positive Psychology.
· A relatively newer source of information are video conferencing platforms used for psychotherapy and telehealth. These sites often have blogs and other resources filled with useful knowledge. Theraplatform, for example, has a worksheet entitled Quick Tips for Reducing Anxiety that summarizes several grounding techniques in one place.
· As with all therapy concepts, certain sites offer numerous worksheets/activities. Here are some sites for grounding techniques, including Psychology Tools, Therapist Aid, and Teachers Pay Teachers. Some of these resources are free while others require a subscription or payment.
Some Tips When Using Grounding Techniques
Some things to think about when you decide to use grounding techniques for anxiety:
1. Practice. Not all of these grounding techniques explicitly require practice, but they are almost all going to be more effective if you do. And some do require practice. For instance, you will not be successful in employing mindfulness if you don’t put in some practice beforehand. But, once you get them down, you can use them quickly and productively in almost any situation. Further, practicing grounding techniques will help you believe in their efficacy when the time comes that you need them.
2. Use self-talk for confidence. It is important to remind yourself that these grounding techniques work. This is especially true when your anxiety is rising and you start to catastrophize. A little positive self-talk paired with a grounding technique may be all you need to right the ship. This is also another reason to practice beforehand. You will be more likely to believe what you are saying to yourself if you have already seen the positive outcomes associated with grounding techniques.
3. Start early before it is too late. One of the strengths of grounding techniques is that you can use them in the middle of an anxiety attack or when you are already highly stressed. However, they will be more effective if you use them before you get overly agitated. If you can recognize your anxiety triggers and perform a grounding exercise when you have a lower level of worry you will prevent yourself from reaching a higher level of arousal. Therefore, grounding techniques will still likely work when you are highly anxious but they are unlikely to be able to totally eliminate those feelings of worry. Think of anxiety as a stone starting to roll downhill: once it gets going it can be hard to stop.
4. As you can see from above, there are a lot of grounding techniques from which to choose. Pick the ones you like best and go from there. It may require some trial and error. But it is important to perform the ones that you are most comfortable with, or you are unlikely to want to try them when your anxiety is rising.
Anxiety can be very difficult to treat, Luckily, grounding techniques are an effective way to prevent overwhelming worries and reduce anxiety at the moment it strikes. Numerous internet sites have information on how to employ grounding exercises. Theraplatform, for example, has several free worksheets that can help mental health providers treat anxiety in their clients. Anxiety is so prevalent in our society that it is likely that you—or someone you love—will face the challenge of overcoming its effects at some point in your life. If you aren’t careful, it can take control of your very existence. So, don’t wait. If you know someone struggling with anxiety issues, find a mental health professional to help you. In the meantime, practice some grounding techniques and find out what works best for you.