Grounding techniques are tools you can use to redirect your thoughts or bring yourself back to the present moment when you’re experiencing unwanted thoughts. Grounding techniques can be useful in several situations. You may find them especially helpful if you experience anxiety, panic attacks, dissociation, intrusive thoughts, or urges to self-harm.
It is important to note that these strategies are meant to complement treatment, not replace it. These tools also are not intended to help you avoid a thought or feeling forever. Grounding simply allows you to delay processing an emotion until the time and place is more practical, such as when you are meeting with your therapist or a trusted peer.
It is helpful to think of these mental exercises in a way that is similar to how you think of physical exercises. DBSA Young Adult Council member Olivia shares three best practices that have kept her from becoming discouraged:
Try out a few different exercises to see which ones work best for you.
The mental health benefits of physical exercise have been well documented, but the benefits can vary based on the method you use. For example, I love jumping on a mini trampoline for cardio and using a resistance band or light weights for strength exercises. I do not enjoy burpees or trying to set a new weightlifting record. In the same way, some grounding exercises work better for me than others. Just like physical exercises, what works for me is probably different than what works for you. Picking your favorite grounding strategies is a personal experience that takes time and practice.
Take time to practice.
I would never try to run a marathon without training beforehand. In the same way, I cannot wait until I feel a panic attack coming on to try to use a grounding strategy. I’ve had the most success with the five senses exercise (detailed below). I practiced it dozens of times while I was at my anxiety baseline. Much like proper running form, I wanted the steps in the exercise to become “muscle memory”, or second nature. If I’m experiencing the beginning of a panic attack, I can’t stop to think, “Oh, what comes next? Is it four things I can touch or four things I can hear?” The process had to become second nature to me.
Accept that you will not be successful every time.
If I completed a triathlon one day, it would be much more challenging for me to complete another the very next day. Likewise, if I’m experiencing a lot of anxiety for an extended amount of time, I can become worn out. Sometimes there are things out of your control. If it’s 110 degrees outside, I don’t think I’d be successful in athletic competition. Likewise, if I haven’t had enough sleep or enough to eat, it would be much more challenging for me to successfully combat a panic attack. That doesn’t mean that learning these strategies is unimportant or worthless; it just means I can keep practicing and try again in the future.
1. Progressive Relaxation
Start by focusing on one part of your body. I find it helpful to start at the top of my head and work down, or start at my feet and work up. Inhale and squeeze each muscle group for about five seconds, then exhale and relax that muscle group. Move from your forehead, to your mouth, to your jaw, to your neck, to your shoulders, etc.
⭐YAC Bonus Tip: I like to do a miniature version of this exercise when I’m at work. I carry a lot of stress in my jaw and shoulders, so focusing on tensing then relaxing those muscle groups helps me decompress.
2. Breathing Techniques
Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Breathe in with your belly; the hand on your belly should rise, while the hand on your chest stays still. Breathe in for five seconds, hold it for five seconds, then exhale for five seconds. Every body and lung size is different, so you may have to adjust the timing to find what feels comfortable to you. The point is to slow down your breathing and concentrate on a pattern.
3. Five Senses Exercise
This exercise helps bring you back to the here and now. Identify five things you can see, four things you can physically feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
⭐YAC Bonus Tip: This is my go-to grounding strategy when I feel a panic attack coming on. It can be difficult to find the specified number of items for each sense, but you can get creative. For example, I’ll sometimes tap my foot or clap my hands together to find another sound. Sometimes I’ll pull my hair in front of my nose to identify another smell.
4. Color Shades
Pick a color. Identify the things you can see around you in that color. Take note of all the different shades you can see. If you’re still feeling stressed, pick another color and repeat the exercise.
5. Stress Ball
Stress balls can tether you to your present situation; flexing the muscles in your hands and forearms can help keep you in the here and now, avoiding unwanted flashbacks and intrusive thoughts. Squeezing a stress ball can also help you relieve anxiety in the same way grinding your teeth, biting your nails, or pulling your hair may; a stress ball is a safer option that doesn’t leave a lasting, physical impact.
⭐YAC Bonus Tip: I find this strategy especially effective when I’m in situations that trigger flashbacks. Because of the hospitalization I underwent following my suicide attempt, it’s challenging for me to visit loved ones in nursing homes and hospitals. I always carry a stress ball when I visit. It also helps me to carry a tissue that I’ve sprayed with perfume or cologne; hospital smells are strong, so it’s helpful to have something else I can flood my senses with.
6. Mental Math
Choose an ongoing equation (counting backwards from intervals of three, going through a multiplication table, etc.) or a target number to think of equations for (ex. you can reach 24 with 2×12, 6×4, 12+12, 48/2, and so on).
⭐YAC Bonus Tip: I sometimes use this method when I’m trying to fall asleep. In my experience, it’s important to pick an equation that isn’t too easy or too difficult. If it is too easy (like counting by twos), my mind will wander. On the other hand, if it is too difficult (for me, a multiplication table for 17), I’ll become too frustrated to complete the exercise.
Find a phrase that means a lot to you. It could be inspirational, calming, reassuring, etc. Repeat it in your head. Say it out loud if you need to. Find a phrase (or a few) that really resonate with you.
8. Describing a Common Task
Think of an activity you do often, such as fixing your favorite recipe, commuting to work, or taking a shower. Go through the process step-by-step, in as much detail as possible, as if you’re giving instructions to someone who has never done it before. For example, describing making coffee may go something like this: open the cabinet. Get out a coffee filter. Close the cabinet. Open the top of the coffee maker. Place the filter inside the filter basket. Open the lid of the coffee grinder. Open the bag of coffee. Pour the beans in the coffee grinder. Put the lid back on the coffee grinder. Press the start button on the coffee grinder… and so on.
Pick a category and list as many items/things that fit into it as you can. For example, your category may be ice cream flavors, dog breeds, or comedy movies.
⭐YAC Bonus Tip: In my experience, it’s important to pick a category that doesn’t relate to the stress you’re currently feeling. For example, if you’re upset about a romantic experience, you probably shouldn’t pick romantic comedy movies. If you’re upset about body image and disordered eating behaviors, you probably shouldn’t pick fast food restaurants.
10. Cognitive Awareness
Avoid flashbacks by focusing on the present. Reorient yourself in place and time by asking yourself some or all of these questions: Where am I? What day of the week is it? What is the date? What is the month? What is the year? How old am I? What season is it? What clothes am I wearing? How is my hair styled? What did I have to eat in the past 24 hours?