Exercises to Help Ground Yourself in Stressful Times

Thumbnail credit: Getty Images via the New York Times.

As we get into the home stretch of the semester, I know everybody’s stress levels are going to be through the roof. And for the most part, that’s okay: a little bit of stress is normal. What’s not normal is letting that stress get the better of you, and take over your life, to the point that your health begins to suffer for it. But sometimes, all the typical tips—like doing exercise, doing yoga, cutting caffeine from your diet—will take too long to calm you down, and if you’re on the verge of a panic attack (like I’ve been a few times), then you don’t have time to get eight hours of sleep each night. Luckily, many resources, on the internet and in real life, have started sharing grounding techniques: things that are designed to stop your panic attack and bring you back to reality. There are many grounding techniques available out there, but here are a few of the most popular and common ones.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1

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One of the first techniques you’ll see if you search online for grounding techniques is a 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 activity. The numbers all have a meaning as to what you’re supposed to do when you’re on the verge of a panic/anxiety attack:

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.

Noticing all the things around you brings you back down into reality, as you’re forced to pay attention to your location instead of getting stuck in your head.

Location, date, age

This exercise is similar to 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 in that it’s supposed to bring you back down to reality by focusing on your location. Unlike 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 though, where you need to rely on your senses, this exercise needs your general knowledge. You need to know where you’re at, what the date and day of the week it is, and how old you are. Again, this exercise requires you to pay attention to your location instead of your head.

Extreme discomfort

This technique requires you to be slightly uncomfortable, but only slightly. Basically, you need to do something that will trigger your senses to an extreme point, but not so extreme that you injure yourself: you just need something that shocks your senses enough that you are brought back to reality. A few ideas for this: grabbing an ice cube, snapping a hair tie/rubber band on your wrist, pinching yourself, or smelling something strong.

Breathe!

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The last technique is one that might actually be the hardest, because once you’re in a state that gets you into a panic attack, then your body begins to rebel about this natural function. But the last activity that can help you ground yourself is to breathe in and out deeply, so from your stomach or diaphragm. Like I said, this activity is the hardest because when you’re anxious, your body wants to breathe as shallowly as possible (the fight or flight response), but you have to override that fear, and breathe as deeply as possible. If you’re struggling, have a friend breathe with you (one technique is to have you place your hands on each other’s chests and breathe that way) or find a visual aid online. Plenty of GIFs are available to help you see how long you should be inhaling, and how long you should be exhaling.