4 Grounding Techniques that Can Help Relieve Anxiety, from a California Psychologist

Anxiety can come up for anyone, and I think it’s fair to say that all of us deal with anxiety from time to time. While it can feel frustrating, anxiety is actually a completely normal response to uncertainty. When we’re faced with a problem, anxiety helps kick our bodies into high gear to solve that problem, and the anxiety often fades away when the problem is resolved. If you were able to read the blog earlier this week, you may remember the distinction between Content and Process Anxiety. When we kick into high gear and solve problems in order to make the uncertain certain, that is Content Anxiety.


But you may also remember Process Anxiety. This kind of anxiety happens when we can’t predict when or how a worrisome situation is going to resolve. And so our bodies don’t know how to turn down that anxiety response without a little extra help. That’s where grounding comes in.


Grounding is essentially a process that can help you reconnect to your body and the present moment. So often when we’re feeling anxious, our brains are off worrying about the future. We’re stuck in our heads, and not in the moment. Grounding helps bring us back. It’s an important first step to coping with and tackling anxiety. These are a few of my favorites!


Abdominal Breathing


Abdominal, or Diaphragmatic, Breathing (breathing that focuses on your diaphragm) is a simple and helpful breathing technique to try when you’re anxious. To do this, we’re going to think about breathing in 3 sections: your abdomen (diaphragm), your lungs, and finally your throat.


Take a deep breath with me, and try to fill up your abdomen first, then your lungs, then your throat. As you exhale, let the air out of your throat first, then your lungs, then your abdomen last.


How did that feel? This kind of breathing can ease anxiety by forcing you to slow down and pay attention to your breathing. This process sends signals to the brain that the body is safe, and it’s okay to relax!


5-4-3-2-1 Mindfulness Exercise


5-4-3-2-1 is an easy grounding practice for your 5 senses. First, look around and name 5 things you can see. Give yourself a couple seconds to notice each item you choose, observing their colors, shapes, and sizes. This is called mindful noticing!


Then, name 4 things you can touch, and get up to touch them if needed. Notice their textures, temperatures, hardness or softness, and other details. Maybe your dog or cat is nearby to pet (that’s always my favorite!).

Next, name 3 things you can hear. What else you can notice about the sounds. Where are they coming from? Are they loud or quiet? Pleasant or annoying? If you think you’re in a pretty quiet room, this may take a minute. But I bet if you really tune in, you can hear sounds like air conditioning or fans, cars outside, or maybe a dog barking down the street. Do your best to tune into even those faint sounds.


Now, name 2 things you can smell. If they’re not immediately obvious, feel free to look around a bit and find things. Perhaps there’s a candle in the room with you, or you can kneel down and smell grass outside. Maybe it’s a faint smell of paper, or the laundry detergent in your clothes. Notice if these smells bring up any emotions or sensations for you.


Finally, name 1 thing you can taste, and taste it! Again, you may need to go find something, and that’s completely ok. Even water counts! And if you recently finished a meal, perhaps you can still taste that.


If you’re still feeling anxious after the first round, go through it again and try to pick all new items. You can also slow down the exercise and really pay close attention to each item. This process is all part of mindful noticing, and can help your brain resolve some of the anxiety you were feeling.


Peripheral Eye Movements


Have you ever noticed an almost tunnel-vision-like sensation when you’ve been really anxious? If so, you’re not making it up. That’s actually part of your body’s fight or flight response, which often occurs when we’re anxious or highly stressed. When your body goes into fight or flight mode, it’s literally preparing you to fight a threat or run away (like a cave person running from a bear). If you have to focus on a threat right in front of you, why would you need to look anywhere else? That’s where the tunnel vision phenomenon comes from.


In this situation, we can hack our brains a bit. By intentionally moving your eyes all around (instead of tunnel vision), your brain gets the signal that you must actually be safe, which then helps calm down that fight or flight response. One easy way to do that is what I call Moving Around the Clock.


Picture a big, round clock in front of you. We’re going to move our eyes to different points on the clock, without moving our heads. Start by moving your eyes from the center to where 1:00 would be, then move back to center. Then go to 3:00, and back to the center. Continue doing this with 5:00, 7:00, 9:00, and 11:00. You can do this multiple times if you need to.


More Resources for Managing Anxiety


Bilateral Stimulation


Bilateral stimulation (BLS) is a fancy word for a pretty simple concept. It simply means that you intentionally activate one side of the brain, then the other, back and forth. And that means activating each side of your body back and forth. BLS can be as simple as walking! You’re moving (activating) each leg back and forth. That’s it! Going on a walk can be surprisingly helpful for anxiety. But what if you’re in a situation where you can’t just get up and take a walk, or your mobility doesn’t allow for walking?


One way you can practice BLS is by tapping your hands on your legs back and forth. Try this at a gentle, relaxed pace for at least 30 seconds. You may also find that you can think a little more clearly during or after trying BLS. That’s because BLS actually helps your brain effectively process information!


Another way to practice it is with the Butterfly Hug. Cross your arms in front of your body so that your hands can tap on opposite shoulders. Then simply tap back and forth. The Butterfly Hug can feel especially soothing.


If the term BLS sounds familiar, it could be because it’s a major part of EMDR therapy for trauma!


Try them for yourself!


Try each of these for yourself to see what best relieves your anxiety. Every person is different, so you may enjoy some more than others, and that’s completely okay. These grounding techniques each serve as a good first-step to coping with chronic anxiety.


If you’re looking for more support for your anxiety than these tips can offer, all of the psychologists at North Berkeley Counseling specialize in anxiety and can give you much more support. We see clients in our office in Berkeley, as well as online for adults anywhere in California, Florida, Hawaii, and Virginia. You can even book an appointment here!