When we’re struck by feelings of stress and anxiety, it can be overwhelming. Our hearts might race, we might freeze or break into a sweat. Our muscles might tense or we might feel overwhelmed or restless. It’s totally normal and valid to be stressed and have feelings of anxiety—it happens to everyone! And when it happens to you, grounding techniques can help.
When we’re grounded, we’re aware of the present moment and can manage the symptoms of stress and anxiety to regain a sense of calm and balance.
So what are grounding techniques, why do they work, and how can a therapist help you figure out the best ones for you? In this blog, MyWellbeing therapist Gianna Volkes breaks down what grounding techniques are and how you can use them when you’re feeling anxious.
“Grounding techniques are a type of mindfulness,” says Gianna. They’re basically an exercise or activity that helps you manage an intense emotion by helping you get out of your head — steering your attention away from distressing thoughts, feelings, or memories and zoning in on the present moment.
“Because every person and situation is different, I offer various grounding and mindfulness techniques tailored to each of my client's lives. Through getting to know my clients, I’m able to pull things from their lives that I know will ground them, whether it’s spending time with a pet, listening to music, reading, or something else that brings them joy.”
“One of my favorite grounding techniques to recommend to clients is box breathing,” says Gianna. “I have a Tiktok video that I send them because it’s just the easiest format; they can pull it up and it tells them when to breathe in and out and you just follow along.”
“I also recommend the 3-3-3 rule: name three things you see, three sounds you hear, and then move three different body parts, like stretching your arms or rolling your ankles.”
Grounding is a self-soothing skill to use any time you need to, whether you’re having a bad day all the way up to when you’re feeling intense anxiety. It’s a way of being mindful that helps keep you in the present and reorient you to the here and now.
“There is a type of therapy called mindfulness-based therapy,” says Gianna. This integrates components of mindfulness into the therapeutic work and is often integrated into other forms of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and psychodynamic therapy.
“Mindfulness is also a tool or practice on its own, which I often combine with talk-therapy, where we use sessions to discuss whatever is going on with the client,” says Gianna. “I have some clients who end up talking for their entire session, which is great, because it’s their time and they should use it in whatever way works best for them, and I have other clients who sometimes struggle to open up and who benefit from more prompting from me.”
When we feel anxious or stressed, our sympathetic nervous system response, commonly referred to as “fight, flight, or freeze,” kicks into gear. Our body is flooded with stress hormones because we perceive whatever situation we’re in as unsafe. Our anxious thoughts race toward the past and future, we can catastrophize, and we are all-around not focused on the present.
In order to signal to our brains that we are not actually in danger and we are safe in the present moment, we need to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, also known as “rest and digest,” and trigger our relaxation response—and we can do this with grounding techniques.
“With something like box breathing, you make sure that you’re focusing on nothing but your breath,” says Gianna. “So if you’re having anxiety because you’re overthinking, this grounding technique forces you to stop those thoughts and focus on your breathing instead. It’s grounding in the sense that you become centered and it brings you back to reality by separating you from your anxious thoughts.”
Something like a breathing technique will have immediate results; you might feel yourself grow calmer and more grounded with each breath. But depending on the severity of your anxiety or stress, it might take longer for you to see long-term effects. That’s why practice and building grounding techniques into your preventative self-care practice are essential.
“Practicing self-regulation is so important,” says Gianna. “I help clients figure out how to make a routine out of their grounding techniques so that they eventually are able to stop their anxious feelings from even starting in the first place. If you’re able to work grounding techniques into your daily routines, your body will learn to self-regulate and you’ll feel the symptoms of your anxiety decrease.”
Often, one of the hardest parts of using grounding techniques is…actually using them! We know we should, but by the time we think of them, we’re already overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. A therapist can help you build grounding techniques into your routine in a way that feels natural to you.
“How quickly you see the benefits of grounding techniques depends on you and your situation, but how committed you are to putting them into practice plays an important role,” says Gianna. “I had one client who saw improvement in just one month by consistently practicing grounding techniques every day. Even though this client had a more severe case of depression and anxiety, their commitment made all the difference.”
Whenever you need them! If you’re just getting started with grounding techniques, pick one that resonates with you and try it out. “I recommend the box breathing technique most often because it’s the easiest to use whenever you need it,” says Gianna. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in a meeting or taking an exam, you can do it anywhere because at its core, you’re just breathing.”
In addition to stress and anxiety, grounding techniques can help with mental and physical health struggles such as post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea, and dissociative disorder, which causes people to disconnect from their thoughts, feelings, and sense of identity.
But anyone can use them, no matter how small or insignificant your problems might seem to you—if you’re stressed, no matter the reason, you deserve to feel more grounded, and these techniques can help.
“Often, in phone consultations, people will say things like, ‘I don’t actually need to go to therapy because I don’t have any real problems’ but then they list their problems and of course they’re real problems,” says Gianna. “People think therapy is only for people who are experiencing extreme suffering, but that’s just not the case.”
The feeling that you’re not suffering enough to deserve mental health treatment or seek the support of a therapist—what we call mental health impostor syndrome—happens when people feel that they don’t deserve care, despite evidence that they might benefit from therapy.
If you’ve ever thought, “I’m sad, but I’m not sad enough to see a therapist,” or “I’m in pain, but other people have it worse than I do,” or “Everybody gets anxious; why do I think that I deserve help?” you might have mental health impostor syndrome! The truth is, we don’t have to be in a serious crisis to find therapy beneficial.
“I go to therapy myself because I like to have somebody to talk to who is unbiased and not going to judge me,” says Gianna.
If your stress or anxiety don’t respond to techniques you might try on your own, or if you feel that either stress or anxiety are affecting your day-to-day functioning or mood, a therapist can help you understand what you are experiencing and provide you additional coping tools.
“If clients are open to homework, I create a personalized anxiety plan for them,” says Gianna. “For example, I can have clients keep a log of their symptoms, triggers, and the intensity of their anxiety each day. They’ll do that for a week and then we’ll go over that together.”
“Then might come journaling with prompts like ‘If you can pinpoint your anxiety, what do you feel most anxious about in this moment—then what’s the best case scenario, worst case scenario, and most realistic outcome of your situation.’ They’ll already have their individualized list of grounding techniques, so they can explore which they used and how much it helped. I also have worksheets I include in their anxiety plan with exercises like how to challenge negative thoughts.”
“Then the last step is action steps tailored to each client’s situation. For example, if I had a client experiencing intense depression and anxiety, after they identified their triggers, explored their anxiety responses, and identified their goals, the action plan could include something like ranking all of the tasks they had to do that week that they were struggling to complete and organizing them in a way that would make it as easy as possible to complete them. Then, after each task, we would identify a small reward they could grant themselves as positive reinforcement.”
A therapist can also help determine whether you may have an anxiety disorder, which is when anxiety persists for an extended period of time and negatively affects mood and functioning, but you don’t need to have a diagnosis in order to benefit from therapy or grounding techniques.
“I want my clients to get the most out of their sessions,” says Gianna. “If they want homework, we can incorporate it and if they'd rather just have our weekly therapeutic conversations, I am more than happy to do that as well. It is always about what works best for them and how they will get the most care.”
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.