Ever feel detached from the present moment? Like you’re so overwhelmed by your thoughts that you don’t notice what’s happening around you? Anxious or distressing thoughts can pull us out of our bodies and away from the present moment, making us feel detached or even like we’re watching ourselves as if in a movie.
Grounding techniques are a group of coping strategies that can help bring us back into the present moment (i.e., ground us!). These techniques can be used in many situations but are especially helpful if you’re living with an anxiety disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and panic disorder (PD).
Here’s the science on how grounding techniques work and 17 grounding exercises to try next time you find yourself caught up in your thoughts.
Why does grounding help with anxiety?
First things first. Before we get into the different grounding techniques, let’s chat about the science behind how and why these techniques actually work:
- A mental distraction: You’ve probably noticed that the more attention you give your thoughts, the bigger and more overwhelming they become. Think of it like growing a plant. The more you nurture and tend to the plant, the bigger it will grow. Grounding techniques work by redirecting your mind to focus on benign, non-threatening thoughts vs. thoughts that are adding to your anxiety.
- “Resetting” your nervous system: When you’re anxious, your sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive and your body gets ready to either fight the perceived threat or flee from it (i.e., we go into fight or flight mode). Grounding techniques, like deep breathing, can help your body snap out of fight or flight mode and activate our parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for helping us feel calm and relaxed.
What are the main types of grounding techniques?
Grounding exercises are often grouped into two categories: physical grounding techniques and mental ones. Physical techniques require you to tap into your physical body and engage your senses whereas mental techniques require you to redirect your thoughts.
There isn’t one exercise or one type of exercise that is more beneficial than the other, though you might you prefer one type of exercise over the other.
Physical grounding techniques
Get ready to tune into your surroundings and physical body using taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight. Physical grounding requires you to engage your senses to help guide your attention away from your anxious thoughts.
- 5-4-3-2-1: This technique involves observing your surroundings using all 5 senses. Start by listing five things you hear, four things you see, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. You don’t have to write your observations down (although you can!), just making a mental list will be enough to help you disengage from anxious thoughts.
- Breathe deep: Ever notice your heart rate picks up when you’re anxious? Deep breathing exercises are a great way to slow your heart rate and calm your body. Try breathing in for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, and let it out for four seconds. You can repeat this breathing technique a few times until you feel calm.
- Get moving: Can you sweat out your feelings? Not exactly. But if you’re in a bad mood or just in a funk, a bout of exercise can give you a little boost. That’s thanks to the endorphins AKA “happy hormones” your body releases when you get active. Don’t have 45 minutes to devout to getting sweaty? No worries. Researchers think a 10-minute burst of activity can be just as effective as a longer session.
- Smell something familiar: Smell can have a powerful effect on your mind. Ever get a whiff of something that makes you feel nostalgic? Why not use the power of scent to calm your thoughts? Find a familiar, enjoyable, scent to focus on such as a candle, essential oil or a hot beverage.
- Spot the colors: You don’t have to be in a scenic spot to find calmness in your surroundings. You can do this exercise wherever you are. Take a look around you and name all of the colors you see. Brown, green, chartreuse...you’ll be surprised how quickly this can calm your thoughts.
- Try progressive muscle relaxation or a body scan: Progressive muscle relaxation may sound like a fancy term, but it just means you’re relaxing your muscles one body part at a time. Start at your feet and work your way up to your head. Think about releasing and softening any muscle tension with each exhale until your body feels more relaxed.
Tip: For some people, it can be challenging to get in touch with muscle tension. If this is
you, try tensing each muscle intentionally and then releasing the tension.
- Dip your face in cold water: Dunking your face in ice-cold water might not seem like the most tempting activity. But it’s an effective way to reset your sympathetic nervous system and snap your body out of fight-or-flight mode due to the physical sensations. If you don’t have an ice bath nearby—no problem. Holding an ice cube against the back of your neck also does the trick.
- Eat sour candy: Similar to the cold plunge technique, sucking on a sour candy can shut off your fight-or-flight response that is turned on when you’re anxious. Make sure it’s a candy or food that makes your mouth pucker. This is a great technique to use if you find yourself anxious while driving. Next time, just bring some sour candy along for the ride.
- Hold an object: Engage your sense of touch as you hold an object and observe how it feels in your hands. Does it feel lumpy, smooth, rough? Let the tactile sensation take over to help calm your mind.
Mental grounding techniques
The more attention we give our thoughts, the more powerful they become. Redirect your anxious thoughts with these mental grounding techniques. They can be used anywhere, anytime.
- Visualize yourself completing a task: Is your favorite part of your day making your morning cup of coffee or cooking your favorite meal? Maybe it’s taking little Fido for a walk. Take a few moments to close your eyes and practice visualization by walking through a task that you enjoy doing. Focus on each step with specific details from start to finish.
- Solve math problems: It’s hard to worry when you’ve got times tables on your mind. Working through math problems in your head is a great way to redirect your thoughts. And you don’t need to be a math whiz for this technique to work. Try a simple task like counting backward from 100 or counting multiples of 2. Your high-school math teacher and your psychiatrist would be proud!
- Play memory games: if math problems aren’t your thing, memory games are another great way to distract your mind. Write down a list of 5 objects. See if you can repeat those objects back to yourself without looking at the list. Mastered that? Keep adding to the list to keep your mind challenged.
- Create lists: Don’t worry, we don’t mean a to-do list. Which may only add to your anxiety. Lists can be fun and calming too! Try listing your favorite places, foods, or even your favorite names. Pick a category and list away. You can keep it simple or get creative with it. Either way, it will help you break the cycle of negative thoughts.
- Practice positive affirmations: Hey— affirmations aren’t just for down-to-earth CEOs or wellness gurus. They can also be a powerful tool to help bring you back into your body. Try an affirmation that helps you feel safe and secure. For example, “My name is ____, I am safe, I trust my body.” Choose a phrase that is meaningful to you and repeat it until your mind is at ease.
- Imagine your favorite place: We all have a place we like to go to feel calm and relaxed. This might be a spot in nature or a cozy corner of your home. Try creating a mental image of this place using all your senses. What do you smell? What do you hear? What do you feel? The more descriptive you can be, using all your senses, the more effective this technique is.
- Listen to music: Listening to soothing music, like instrumentals, when you’re having strong emotions can help shift your body back into a parasympathetic state—that is, activate the nerves that keep you calm and relaxed. Putting on your favorite song can also help distract you from anxious thoughts. Relaxing music not cutting it? Try listening to heavy metal—really. One study found that when angry people listened to heavy metal, it resulted in an increase in positive emotions, not negative ones.
- Turn to humor: Laughter therapy may sound like a joke, but science tells us that laughter can help ease stress and anxiety. Have a favorite stand-up comedian, like watching cat videos, or have a favorite comic book? Whatever your brand of humor may be, use it to your advantage. Next time you’re feeling anxious, seek out something (or someone!) that gives you a chuckle.
How do I know if I need to see a mental health professional?
Practicing grounding techniques in daily life is an excellent way to cope with anxiety, but it is only a short-term fix for negative emotions that impact your well-being. If you have extreme anxiety or worry that negatively impacts your life and keeps you from doing the things you typically enjoy, this may be a sign of an anxiety disorder or other mental health condition.
The good news is, mental health conditions are treatable and seeing a mental health professional like a psychiatrist is the first step to feeling better.
Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, and more. Get started with a short online assessment.
The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human | PMC
Exercise for Stress and Anxiety | ADAA
How scent, emotion, and memory are intertwined — and exploited | Harvard Gazette
A Quick, Calming Body Scan to Check in With Yourself | Mindful
The Effect of Music on the Human Stress Response | PMC
Extreme Metal Music and Anger Processing | PMC
Laughter therapy: A humor-induced hormonal intervention to reduce stress and anxiety | PMC
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Dr. Brenda Y. Camacho holds the position of Staff Psychiatrist at Talkiatry. She is board-certified in Adult Psychiatry. She has been practicing for over 25 years.
While having treated a wide range of adult patients, Dr. Camacho’s primary focus is treating adult outpatients with mood or psychotic disorders. Her practice focuses on medication management. Typically, she offers this in conjunction with supportive or insight-oriented therapy in 30-minute follow-up visits. On occasion, Dr. Camacho will believe additional therapy is also needed and asks that you bring a therapist into your care team to provide the best outcome.
Dr. Camacho completed her undergraduate studies at Tufts University. She received her medical degree from Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, PA and then continued with Temple for her residency in adult psychiatry. After completing training, Dr. Camacho worked at Cooper Hospital in Camden NJ as Associate Director of Consultation/Liaison Service and Psychiatry Residency Training and Co-Director of the Neuropsychiatry Clinic. She then began working exclusively in outpatient settings, joined NewPoint Behavioral Health Care, and served as Medical Director before and after their merge with Acenda Integrated Health.