Learning grounding exercises was a game-changer for me when it came to harnessing my anxiety.
I had a super-fun (read: totally shitty) symptom that came with my anxiety called “depersonalization-derealization” disorder.
Basically, this disorder makes you feel like you are not connected to reality. Your perspective on everything suddenly shifts and it feels like you’ve suddenly jumped into a dream.
It’s really scary because it can happen at any moment.
For me, it was usually a sign that I was about to have a panic attack. Sometimes, it would even cause a panic attack because I would start to get so scared about not feeling like I was real.
But, when I learned about grounding exercises and how to do them, I slowly started to feel like I was coming back into focus.
What is grounding?
When you have anxiety, it can feel like you have no control over your life. It’s like each moment that you are in has a life of its own and it’s all happening to you.
There’s nothing that you are leading or in charge of.
You’re just at the mercy of that moment.
The thoughts you’re having, the feelings you’re feeling, the experience you’re experiencing they’re all somehow being orchestrated by something other than you.
Of course, none of that is true.
I’ve learned over the last several years of harnessing my anxiety that I am 100% in control of my thoughts and feelings.
And, from that perspective, I am in charge of each moment because I get to decide how I think and feel about them.
But, when you’re struggling under the weight of anxiety, it’s hard to wrap your arms around that concept.
Add to that terrifying peaks of anxiety that come in the form of panic attacks and it can literally feel like your connection to reality is slipping away.
That is where grounding exercises come in.
These are activities or steps that you can take to help connect your mind and body to one another.
People use grounding exercise for many different things like PTSD, anxiety, and childhood trauma.
One thing that I repeat a lot is “your thoughts influence your feelings and your feeling influence your behaviors”
But, the cycle moves in both directions.
Your behaviors can influence your feelings.
So, practicing grounding exercises that are meant to connect your mind and body with reality, can help you to get that footing necessary to begin the process of harnessing your anxiety.
How do grounding exercises work for anxiety?
My daily anxiety would ebb and flow depending on a variety of factors.
Things that I am very mindful of now but, had no idea about at the time.
Some days, I would wake up and feel totally fine. I would go through most of my day without anything really significant or stressful happening.
And then, out of nowhere, I would have a panic attack while driving my kids home from their swim lessons.
Other days, I would wake up at 2 am out of a dead sleep and have to pace the halls of the house because I had so much anxiety just vibrating through me.
But, no matter what level my anxiety was at, there was always this feeling of not firmly being a part of any of it.
I was just a leaf kind of being banged around and blown by the wind.
Being able to really harness my anxiety and leverage it into greater compassion, understanding and strength meant that I needed to shift my mindset and let go of the belief that all of this was happening to me.
I needed to honor my fear and step into my power to embrace my role as leader of my life.
And, that started with feeling present and real.
Grounding exercises gave me that solid footing so that I could start to venture out on my own and trust myself.
To know that, if things got scary, I had some tools that I could lean into and get back on solid ground.
25 grounding exercises you can try when your world is spinning out of control
Count with your senses
This is a good one to use if you’re alone and need a little reassurance. Essentially you follow your five senses and count backward from 5 down to 1. For instance, name 5 things that you can see. Then, 4 things that you can hear. And, 3 things that you can touch, Then, 2 things that you can smell, and finally one thing that you can taste.
Run a light over your body
Part of my anxiety came with numbness or tingling in the limbs on my right side. Typically, it would start with my right hand and then move into my right hip and finally my right foot. I learned this ground activity from a meditation. Imagine a round ball of light that is mildly warm and very comforting. Visualize it hovering over your body and warming up each area that is reaches. Think of it starting from the top of your foot and slowly making its way all the way to the top of your head. Feeling warmed and comforted by the light as it moves up.
Listen to where you are
When you’re living with anxiety you are ALWAYS inside of your head. Thoughts are constantly racing and none of them are good. One really powerful grounding exercise is to shift that mental focus to your surroundings. Take a minute to really tune into the things that are going on around you. Bonus points if you can get outside into nature for at least 10 minutes a day and do this. But, if not, then just listen mindfully to the things that are happening in your immediate vicinity. Listen to the cars drive by and how much the sound resembles ocean waves. Listen to the people around you talking and laughing.
Move your body
My favorite way of moving my body is to dance. When I’m feeling irritable, overwhelmed, or antsy I just turn on some music and start to dance. Obviously, this is only helpful in specific situations. You can’t really get up and start dancing if you’re in a meeting. But, it is so freaking therapeutic no matter when you do it. Seriously. Set an appointment on your calendar to dance like nobody’s watching (or like lots of people are watching, whatever works for you) at least once a day.
Choose a comforting scent
I learned about aromatherapy when I was in massage therapy school. I worked as a massage therapist in day spas. But also at hospitals for laboring moms and cancer patients. Aromatherapy was very well received by all of my clients. Each person had their own favorite scent but, they all appreciated and felt comforted by the smell they had chosen. I personally love spicy scents like lavender and bergamot. Take some time to find the scents that feel comforting to you and then surround yourself with them.
Hold a piece of ice
Sometimes, to get anxiety to pass, you need a distraction. Not one like watching TV so that you ignore the root cause of your anxiety. But, one that takes your mind off of the fact that you’re freaking out long enough for you to get centered and regroup. Holding a piece of ice in your hand and focusing all of your senses on what is happening with that piece of ice is a tremendous way to get out of your head and calm yourself.
Mindfully eat a piece of food
Pay close attention to the texture of the food in your hand. How it smells. Is it hot or cold? Does it feel crunchy or soft? How do you feel about the fact that you’re getting ready to eat this piece of food? Once it is in your mouth, think about the flavors. Name them. Sweet, spicy, savory, bitter, etc. With each bit think about the flavor and how it makes you feel to be eating that piece of food.
Go take a walk
My panic attacks normally came with a sense of claustrophobia. I felt the need to escape and getaway. What I was really trying to escape was my own thoughts because those were what was causing the panic. But, at the moment, when I’m ready to climb out of my own skin, getting up and going to take a walk helped to take the edge off. While you’re on your walk, use some of these other grounding exercises to make twice the impact.
Use box breathing
This is one of my top three grounding exercises of all time. Box breathing is something that Navy SEALS use to manage their stress. Essentially, you breathe in for 4, hold for 4 breath out for 4 and hold for 4. Then, you repeat that sequence for as long as you need. This is one of my most favorite grounding exercises and I use it several times a day even now as a way to stay present and mindful. It’s great because you can do it totally incognito without anyone knowing what you’re doing.
Put your hands or feet in water
Make the temperature of the water cold or hot (be safe!!). Be mindful of how the temperature of the water really feels on your skin. Does it feel the same on all parts of your skin or different on your fingertips versus the palms of your hands? Switch the temperature of the water to the opposite of what you’re using and think about all of the different details of that temperature and how it feels on your skin.
Focus on the items in your environment
Just like the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise, this one is designed to keep you connected to the environment that you are currently in. So, pick up and touch the various items in your immediate surroundings. Think about 5 ways to describe each item. How it looks, feels, smells, tastes (if appropriate), sounds etc. Repeat with several items nearby
This is probably the top three most impactful grounding exercises ever. As part of my morning routine, I sit quietly and repeat “I am grateful for my health and the health of my family. I am open and ready to receive what the universe brings to me. I am enough. What I do is enough.” During a panic attack my affirmations would change depending on what symptom was causing me the most panic in the moment. Sometimes, I would be consumed by the fact that I couldn’t catch a deep breath. So, I would repeat “I am breathing. I am safe”. Eventually, my mind would realize that I was in fact breathing and there wasn’t anything to be scared of. Other times, I would just feel an overall sense of danger and I would repeat “I am safe because I am strong”. And eventually my mind would remember who the f&%* I am and that I am very strong. In my opinion, affirmations should be part of every midlife woman’s day.
One of my other top three most impactful grounding exercises is to do yoga. The practice of yoga was a mental health treatment for me LONG before it was a weight loss or body composition treatment. The practice itself is so freeing and empowering. Just standing in tree pose and feeling how grounded, centered, and strong your body truly is can be life-changing. You don’t have to do a 60-min power vinyasa in a 90 degree room either. You can do a simple cycle of 5 sun salutations or a 20-minute YouTube video of Hatha yoga. It is all extremely therapeutic for mind and body.
Some other ground exercises that I have had success with include:
Counting numbers out of sequence
your brain can’t purposely count out of order and freak out at the same time
Watching “best of” round-ups of America’s Got Talent, The Voice, or American Idol
(they’re full of inspiration and hope, don’t judge)
Visualize the anxiety or panic inside of you is red and the breath you take in is blue. The breath puts out the flame of the anxiety fire. Repeat.
Think of five things that you are grateful for and write them down in detail in your journal until you literally are flooded with the feelings of love and gratitude for those things. If you’re not sure where to start, using journaling prompts is a good option.
Write down 10 things that you love about yourself and then repeat them out loud to your reflection in the mirror or in a video on your phone. There are plenty of other ways you can practice self-love on a daily basis in this post.
Go to your happy place
Either visualize it or literally go to it. Either way just get your mind into that safe and comforting space that comes with your happy place. While you’re there, practice a couple of daily activities for mental toughness.
Take a bath
There have been times when my anxiety is so far out of control that laying down in the bath and feeling the warm water envelop me was too scary and claustrophobic. But, my anxiety hasn’t been that bad in over five years so, nowadays a warm bath is just a nice bit of self-care
Celebrate your choices
Not feeling in control can mean not feeling like you have a lot of choice and that exacerbates anxiety. So, each time that a choice is presented to you, be thoughtful about it. And, celebrate the fact that you get to make that choice. Even if it’s as small as what to eat for breakfast. YOU get to drive that. And, YOU get to decide how your morning nutrition starts.
Get a wubby
I’ve got three kids, so I’ve seen Elmo in Grouchland on a loop for about eight years. In the movie, the bad guy steals Elmo’s blankie and calls it his wubby. Basically, the wubby is an item that feels comforting, cozy and safe. For me, the wubby is a housecoat that I put on when I’m feeling cold or worried. It’s soft, warm, and sherpa-lined so, it feels like I’m wrapping myself in a cloud and all my stress melts away
Lay in Savasana
This is a yoga pose and essentially it just means laying on the ground on your back. Both of your hands lay on the ground next to your legs. Your feet are hip-distance apart and not touching each other. Your head is not tilted to one side or the other and you just lay quietly in this pose and relax.
There was a time in my life when scrapbooking consumed my every spare minute. I was in college and I STRUGGLED to get through each class. I would excuse myself to the bathroom to cry several times per day. My public speaking class made me feel like I was having an out of body experience. My lunch break was excruciating and felt like it lasted years. But, once I got home, I could sit down at my dining table and make sense of it all by cutting photos into just the right shapes. I combined colors and patterns that complimented each other. And, I ended up with a beautifully organized page that made me feel so accomplished.
Count by 2s as high as you can
Doing any kind of math is a great way to calm your mind because it focuses your energy on a distraction from what your anxious thoughts are
Grounding exercises are incredibly powerful ways that you can connect your mind and body to the moment you are in. Doing that gives you the strong level footing that you need to embrace your anxiety as your superpower!