As someone who has experienced her fair share of panic attacks, I know the first signs all too well. First, there’s a shot of adrenaline that pulsates through my veins. Instead of resembling cars casually driving down the street, my thoughts begin to look a lot like race cars at the Indy 500, going past as imperceptible blurs. My palms sweat. I begin to shake. And reality feels like it’s a million miles away.
I know I’m not the only one with this experience. My anxiety can transform into panic in the blink of an eye, leaving me feeling as if I’m floating above my body, looking down at myself in disbelief as I have a panic attack.
This disconnection from reality is true of other disorders as well, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or any other conditions that can bring on distressing thoughts.
Luckily, there are some very effective, scientifically proven ways to come back to reality even in our most distressing moments: they’re called grounding techniques.
What are Grounding Techniques?
Grounding techniques are coping strategies to help reconnect you with the present and bring you out of a panic attack, PTSD flashback, unwanted memory, distressing emotion, or dissociation. They help separate you from the distress of your emotional state or situation.
Talkspace therapist Joanna Filidor, LMFT says, “Grounding techniques are tools used to self-regulate in moments of stress and anxiety. They serve as gentle reminders to stay focused and anchored in the present moment, which is what helps reduce the feelings of anxiety and overwhelm.” Further, she states that “Grounding techniques can be anything that brings your attention to the present. When the brain is experiencing a threat (whether it’s perceived or actual), it affects the nervous system similarly as it activates our threat response. Grounding techniques allow for the body to calm itself so that it sends the signal that there isn’t an actual threat present.”
In other words, grounding techniques can help switch off that “fight, flight, or freeze” portion of the brain. These natural instincts often kick in when it comes to anxiety, panic disorders, and PTSD. But feeling disconnected can apply to other disorders, too, such as depression, which can make one feel fuzzy and cut off from reality. Filidor adds that these methods can really help anyone, saying, “Grounding techniques can be used for day-to-day stressors. Anyone can benefit from these.”
Physical grounding techniques
When trying to ground yourself, the first thing to do is to attempt to get back into your body. Filidor says, “When selecting a technique, it is helpful to start in the body and work upward to the brain, meaning you want to use tools that call the body first.”
These are some of Filidor’s top physical grounding techniques:
Try what’s called “Boxed Breathing,” in which you’ll breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and so on until you feel grounded. You can also tighten your muscles and release them while breathing, focusing on the breath and practicing mindfulness all the way through.
You can perform light stretches while you focus on your breath as well, paying close attention to the physical sensations that arise from the activity.
Exercise, again with an emphasis on the physicality of your exertions, is an effective way to get back into your body. Whether simple jumping jacks or a long run on a favorite trail, feeling the sensations of exercise on your body can bring you back from a place of panic.
Whether you engage your senses through a “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise,” — where you identify 5 objects, 4 different sounds, 3 textures, 2 smells, and 1 taste — or by simply focusing your awareness on the present moment and bodily sensation, it’s important to draw your attention to the present.
Focus on a particular sensation like holding an ice cube and noticing what it feels like or smelling an essential oil.
Cognitive grounding techniques
If something simply becomes too much for your brain, you can mindfully distract yourself into returning to the present. As Filidor explains, “It’s important to be mindful about using distraction as a grounding technique. Distracting too much can be a way of avoiding the issue, so if you use distraction as a grounding technique, be sure to eventually return to the issue and address it. With distraction you are bookmarking it for later.”
She recommends what she calls “cognitive grounding techniques” that act as mindful distractions, including:
- Distraction through music, watching TV, or drawing
- Talking to a friend or loved one
- Playing with or simply interacting with a pet
When to Practice Grounding Techniques
Although grounding techniques are certainly effective when you feel flooded and overwhelmed, it can help to practice them when you’re calm and composed, too.
Filidor says, “Practicing grounding techniques that focus on the body helps regulate the body periodically and helps you feel more prepared to tackle any challenges that may arise. However, when one is stressed, it is helpful to use grounding techniques to self-regulate throughout that period of anxiety or panic.”
I know from experience that these grounding techniques work. For me, the “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise” has proved to be especially helpful to bring me back to the present — holding ice and breathing in essential oils, like lavender, have been beneficial, too. I also find myself focusing on my breathing throughout the day, even when I’m not having an anxious moment. Breathing helps me strengthen my mindful muscles so that the next time a panic attack arises, I’ll be ready for it.
If you’re dealing with anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD, depression, or any other condition that could benefit from grounding techniques and mindfulness, you can speak to a mental health professional and pick up additional tips and tricks by speaking with a licensed online therapist.