Imagine your nervous system like a fire alarm. We need our fire alarm system. It can keep us alive! When there’s a fire in the house, we want the alarm to go off loudly enough to get our attention so we can get out of there. But imagine the fire alarm goes off every time you try to make some Eggos in the toaster. Not so helpful. However, even when we know the fire alarm is only going off because of the toaster, even when we know there’s no fire, our nervous system still reacts to the blaring alarm. That’s the whole point! It’s meant to get our attention! This is super helpful and important when we need to run away from a lion, tiger, or bear, but can be frustrating when we are safe but triggered (or just trying to eat some dang waffles).
Oftentimes, when our body goes into that anxious place, grounding ourselves back into the here-and-now is hard. It’s so hard because when the nervous system gets flooded, our frontal lobe goes offline, and our amygdala starts firing. Additionally, trauma and anxiety can get in the way of our body’s ability to discern safety. Sometimes our mind knows what our body doesn’t: That we’re safe. This is where grounding exercises come in.
5 Grounding Exercises:
How to do it: Breathe in for 4 seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Exhale for 4 seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Repeat for 5 minutes.
Why it works: Box breathing allows CO2 levels to build up in our body, which stimulates the response of our vagus nerve, thereby engaging our parasympathetic nervous system and enhancing a sense of calm in our bodies.
How to do it: Look around the room and find 5 things you see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste. As you do this, really pay attention to the details.
Why it works: Often when we’re feeling ungrounded it’s because our nervous systems are triggered out of the here-and-now and into a fight-or-flight response. Engaging our five senses helps our nervous systems remember that we are not currently in danger, even though we may be feeling scared.
Move your body:
How to do it: Go for a walk, put on a song and dance, wiggle your toes around in your shoes, stomp your feet, pat your hands up and down your legs. Moving your body doesn’t have to be long or complicated.
Why it works: Joyful movement not only helps us reconnect with our bodies, but it can also help us release some pent-up adrenaline, thereby decreasing anxious and flighty feelings.
How to do it: If you’re with a safe person who you trust, ask for a 1-minute hug or a cuddle. If you’re alone or feel safer regulating on your own, try wrapping yourself up in a big hug and holding it for a minute or two.
Why it works: Touch helps our bodies increase production of the neurotransmitters serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine, all of which help decrease anxiety. Serotonin helps regulate mood, oxytocin promotes connection and bonding, and dopamine is associated with pleasurable feelings.
How to do it: Have a mantra or affirmation you practice saying or writing to yourself when you’re feeling ungrounded. My favorites are “Be here now,” “I am scared AND I am safe,” and “I am allowed to feel this feeling.”
Why it works: Language requires the use of our frontal lobe, which is the exact part of our brain that goes offline when we’re flooded and triggered. Engaging our capacity for language, whether through reading, speaking, or signing, can help calm our amygdala, helping us ground.
Grounding is an important tool to manage anxiety and hyperarousal. We need to ground ourselves so we can effectively cope with big and hard emotions or situations that come up. It’s also important to note that this might be a new skill or tool which means it will take some time to get the hang of it. Remember to be kind and gentle with yourself as you practice and figure out what works best for you!