Grounding – Updated September 23rd, 2019

Having runaway anxiety and panic sucks. Most of the things I worry about have either already happened or haven’t happened yet (and there’s no proof they will). I shouldn’t be worried about them or catastrophize – and yet, due to the anxiety, I can’t help it.

The good news is that there are techniques that can help short-circuit the anxiety before it becomes full-blown panic. It can also help shorten or even stop a panic attack in progress. The tool is called grounding, and it helps to bring you back to the here and now instead of events from the past or possibilities from the future.

There are many grounding techniques. Some work for some people but not others. Some also work with different levels or types of anxiety or panic. Sometimes they’ll work and sometimes they won’t, which is why it’s good to know a couple of them. They all take practice but for me, it is really worth it.

Here are a few of my favourite grounding techniques:

1) The 5-4-3-2-1 method

Dr C taught me this one in one of our early sessions. It has helped me immensely and is usually my first go-to grounding technique when I’m in trouble. Here’s how it works:

  • Look around you and find five things that you can see. The more detail, the better. “I see a wall” isn’t as effective as “I see the little indents on the inner circle of a paperclip that’s sitting on the desk”, or “I see that the store down the street has used an ‘F’ in place of an ‘E’ in their sign”.
  • Sit (or lie) still, and find four things that you can feel. Again, more detail is better. “Butt on chair” isn’t as good as “right sock has fallen a bit and is lower than the left sock” or “I can feel the gentle breeze of the ventilation system moving the hairs on my right forearm”.
  • Now focus on your hearing and identify three sounds you can hear. “Cars” isn’t as good as “the Doppler effect of the cars going by” or “the whirr of the computer fan.”
  • The next thing is finding two things you can smell. If you can’t smell two different things, then think of two smells you really like. Again, describe them as well as you can.
  • The last step is to think of one good thing about yourself. Be honest. If you’re feeling down, this can be difficult, but remember that everyone has at least one good thing about them.

If you think about it, each of the steps is harder and requires more concentration, which helps push what you were worried about over to the side. With luck, doing this once or twice will help break the cycle of anxiety/panic at least for a little while.

2) Water Over Hands

This one I discovered myself when washing my hands one day. Turn on the tap and put your hands into the stream. Now just feel and watch. Feel the water running over your hands. Feel the tiny variations in temperature. Watch the bubbles as they form and run over your hands and down the train. Look at the paths the water takes as it flows over your hands and how easily you can move it around with subtle movements of your hands.

I like this one because I can use it in public restrooms without looking too weird.

3) Ice in hot water

Get a cup of hot water from the tap and drop an ice cube into it. Listen to the ice crack and watch as parts of it thin out and become translucent, then transparent. Does the ice move to a particular side? Does it move around at all while it’s melting?

4) Listening to music

This one worked quite well for me yesterday when I was in a slump. Get some uptempo music that you really like or find interesting, put it on speakers, and crank it up (but not so high you hurt your ears). Let the music wash over you. Try to pick out and listen to each instrument or voice one at a time. No ballads, no slow music. Something fast that you can tap your toes to.

5) Sit in front of a fan
Sit in front of a fan that’s turned to a low setting. Feel the air buffet you, feel the hair on your head and arms move. Notice the cooling effect the moving air has on your skin.

6) Watch and/or count leaves in a tree
Sit comfortably where you have a good view of a tree. Look at the whole tree, then the trunk. Follow one of the thick main branches upwards and outwards, and at some point follow a thinner branch, then a thinner branch, again and again, until you end up at a single leaf. Watch the leaf sway or dance or twist in the breeze. Notice how it reflects light differently as it moves. In the event that there is no breeze, pick what looks like the highest leaf on the tree and going from side to side, methodically start counting them.

7) Pour water between cups
Take two medium to large (preferably plastic) cups and fill one 3/4 full of water. Get a towel and place it on your lap, then sit comfortably at a table. Pour the water slowly from one cup into the other. Note the sounds and the feeling of weight lessening on one hand and increasing on the other. Vary the speed – try to do everything from slowly trickling the water to dumping it back and forth. If you’re comfortable with it, try closing your eyes a few times and concentrating on the sound and feeling. If you spill a bit, it’s not a big deal – you’ve got a towel ready on your lap.

8) Dice

If you have a few dice kicking around – regardless of how many sides they have – pick one up and place it in your hand, then roll it around using the fingers of the same hand or with the other hand. Feel the surfaces, edges, and corners, and watch the light reflect and bend around the edges and in the indentations where the numbers or dots are. Add a second or third and do the same thing. Observe the feeling and the sound as the dice come together and their surfaces rub, making clicking and squeaking sounds.

9) Run the dishwasher
This one’s great because it can help get two things done at once. Load up the dishwasher, put in the detergent, and start it up. Sit close enough to it that you can comfortably put your hand against the dishwasher door or lean a knee against it (don’t sit right against it because it’s not good for the seals). Listen to the dishwasher fill, the valves open and close, and the rhythmic swish-swish as the dishwasher arms and jets spin inside. Feel the vibrations as the water jets pass and the water splashes around. Try to visualize what’s going on inside, from the water spraying, down to what’s happening to that single little piece of mashed potato that was on one of the plates.

This is just a tiny sample of the many grounding techniques out there. I highly recommend having at least a couple of them in your toolbox to help you cope.

I hope that some of these work for you. If they do, or if you know of any other techniques that work well, please share via comment or the Contact form as well as a name or nickname so I can give you credit!

Stay safe.

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