In therapy with individuals working through anxiety and learning how to cope with distressing situations, we usually teach a number of techniques or strategies to help them manage life better. These techniques are then practised in the midst of stressful and anxious moments to help them regain focus.
Activities of this type are part of the suggestions for thriving through Covid and the cleanup and recovery process from the eruption of La Soufriere. However, they are all valid methodologies that can be practised and kept as tools to address any anxiety-producing event. One such set of strategies is known as grounding.
What is Grounding?
Grounding is the act of bringing our focus to what is happening in our immediate surroundings or within our bodies instead of being stuck in our thoughts. Grounding helps us stay focused in the present moment and not worry about those things that have happened or may happen in the future.
When we have a negative thought about a situation, our brain reads this thought as a real occurrence (we are actually experiencing the situation). The more we ponder on the thought, the more anxious we become. Our brain sends signals to our body to address this emergency. We may start to experience physical symptoms and reactions like muscle tension, heart racing, sweating, and faster breathing. Our brain then sees these increasing physical symptoms as confirmation that we are under threat and releases more hormones, chemicals, and signals to aid us in addressing the threat, which in turn intensify these same physical reactions. It forms an endless loop; one thing influencing and causing the other and so on.
Many of us have had similar experiences in relation to Covid and thoughts about the future, vaccination, illness, death, and loss. When this happens, it may be described as an inability to control our thoughts or get out of our heads.
Grounding helps us to break that loop and regain control.
Grounding strategies may be placed in categories; two of the most readily employed are physical and mental.
Physical: these mainly use the five senses or concrete objects to help us to refocus.
– Carry a grounding object. This, for most persons, is something small they can easily travel within their pockets or bags. Originally, fidget spinners were meant to serve a similar purpose.
When touched, looked at, smelled, tasted, or heard, the object is something that has a calming effect. Some examples are stones, keychains, photos, stress balls, sweet or sour candy, perfume, cream, chewing gum, ringtones, small stuffed toys, squeaky toys, and sound loops or songs.
These are very personal and individualised items. If you own something similar, consider traveling with it in your bag daily and use it when you find yourself having negative thoughts.
– 5,4,3,2,1 method. Counting backward from 5 and using your senses; list what is around you, e.g., five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
– Go for a short walk and count your steps. Notice how it feels when you lift your foot from the ground and then replace it.
– Move your body in a way that makes you happy or calms you, e.g., do your favourite dance, a few yoga stretches, jump, skip, bounce. Focus on the way your body feels as you move.
– Hold a piece of ice in your mouth.
– Take a few sips of water.
– Touch the items around you.
Mental: In this category, mental distractions are employed to direct our thoughts away from distressing us and back to the present. Consider how the suggestions below could interrupt your “runaway” thought train:
– Describe your surroundings in detail as if painting a word picture for another person.
– Count backward in increments that are not most common, e.g. count back from 100 in 7s……100, 93, 86, 79, 72, etc.
– Recite a passage from memory e.g a poem, bible passage, pledge. Play a mind game, e.g. Animal, Person, Place, or Thing. Create these or other categories in your mind and form lists within each category.
– Develop and use your own “grounding phrase”. E.g. My name is (name). I am (age) years old. I am presently at (location). I am safe and in control of my situation.
The phrase is repeated until the feelings of anxiety have abated.
This list is in no way exhaustive. There are numerous other techniques and strategies which can be used to help ground us when caught in that endless thought loop. Sometimes individuals participate in activities they find soothing, such as taking a warm bath; listening to a favourite album; playing with pets; watching favourite shows/ movies; having a scoop of special ice cream or sorbet, or even just hugging a loved one.
Solutions and success are not specific to which activity is undertaken since what may prove invaluable to one person may be useless to another. Rather, emphasis is placed on a number of activities being learned and practised.
Looking through the suggestions, it is evident that all of them cannot be done in the same locations, i.e. some may only be suitable when at home, while others are fully appropriate at work or in public. Learning a number of activities ensures that we have options acceptable for any environment at our disposal; since distressing thoughts and feelings can arise in any space.
Practising is also essential. It is recommended that we practice the activity when we are not distressed or anxious so that we may become familiar and comfortable with it. This makes it easier to employ in challenging moments since the effort required to properly implement and identify/ experience the effects will be less.
Finally, it is advised that we check in with ourselves prior to commencing the grounding activity and after completing it. Being able to assess our level of anxiety or distress at both times helps us to determine whether we were successful in breaking the loop or if we need to continue or try another option.
Many times, we operate reactively as opposed to proactively. Learning how to ground self is a skill set that is transferable into many situations. It is valuable, not only for those who may have noted mental wellness challenges but also for us as a life skill.
Give it a try today!
By Shauntée L. Walters, MSc.
Registered Counselling Psychologist
Life Intervention and Support Services
This article appears in the April 26 edition of COVID Weekly. Read the full publication here.