grounding techniques for anxiety: using your 5 senses

Grounding Techniques for Anxiety: Using 5 Senses

Grounding techniques for anxiety are coping strategies that help reduce anxious distress and discomfort. Negative thoughts, memories, flashbacks and other triggers can lead your brain to sense a threat. When the brain believes that there is something that can harm you, its automatic response is to go into survival mode.

During this process, the brain activates the nervous system and the fight, flight or freeze response. This means that the brain will send signals alerting the body to protect itself. It sets off a highly efficient and reliable chain of events to ensure protection. It uses all of your senses, thoughts, emotions, and physical abilities.

For example, emotions such as panic, fear, and lost sense of safety motivate you to escape an uncomfortable or dangerous situation. An increase in the hormone adrenaline plays a role in facilitating the rush you need to get moving. It is responsible for helping the airways bring more oxygen to your body. It signals the heart to pump blood faster and direct it toward your large muscle groups. As your heart rate increases and the lungs expand to handle this new job, you will definitely feel it.

Physical symptoms of increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness and others will occur. This is due to the quick speed of the stress response from the body. If you are in real danger, you are usually unaware of this process as you are busy fighting or flighting.

However, when you are physically safe and experience this reaction, it can be extremely uncomfortable and scary. It can be difficult to assess what is happening to you and how to control the symptoms.

Grounding Techniques for Anxiety Reduces Stress Response

Whether the threat is real or perceived, the brain likes to takes a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach. It will activate the nervous system even before it is 100% certain that you are in real harm. 

Sometimes the “threat” is actually due to a stressful situation such as taking an important exam. Or being in traffic and then arriving late to an appointment. Other times, it can seem like the rush of anxiety comes “out of the blue” in an intense wave. The experience will differ for each person.

Our stress response can be triggered by thoughts, emotions, memories, and other events. When stressed, the brain will not take the time to decipher between all of these events. Its only job at this point is to survive and employ its’ defenses. Thank you brain! Except, maybe no thank you…?

If you experience anxiety symptoms frequently or are bothered often by physical symptoms and out of the blue waves of anxiety, you may be wanting relief. 

It is normal to tune into the physical symptoms and to feel upset. However, when we intensely focus on the uncomfortable sensations, we get trapped in the anxiety and feel more anxious.

Grounding techniques help us to get unstuck from the anxiety and regain a sense of control, stability, and calm. 

This is because they redirect our attention away from the internal discomfort of fear and physical sensations. They deactivate the fight, flight or freeze response, signaling the mind that you are not in any current danger. This important realization then creates an active shift to start the relaxation process. 

Grounding Techniques for Anxiety Using The Five Senses

Grounding techniques for anxiety reintroduce a sense of safety and control. They help to regulate our emotions and restore feelings of balance and calm.

One way this can be accomplished is through the use of our five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. Using our senses to tune into different things within ourselves and our environment can be empowering. 

Even in the midst of an anxiety attack, it is possible to pay attention to something other than negative thoughts, emotions and body sensations. Intentionally concentrating on something else will reduce the feelings of helplessness during a wave of anxiety.

Grounding techniques for anxiety require that we make an intentional action to bring our mind into the present moment. Using our senses as a guide, we can ground ourselves in the present and remind ourselves that we are safe and ok. In doing this, we are signaling to our brain that it doesn’t need to stay in survival mode.

When we feel grounded, we feel steady. We are centered and aligned with our mind and body. We are in tune to ourselves and our surroundings. This offers an opportunity to find relief from anxiety and stress using a calmer state of mind. 

Practicing Grounding Techniques for Anxiety

The five senses are known as sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Below are some exercises that are specifically created to help you use your senses to revert to calmness.

Some people have the ability to experience all of the senses and some experience a few. Choose to work with the senses that are available to you. As you practice each one, keep in mind that these are coping strategies. They are not meant to be a quick fix and instead meant to start and maintain the process of relaxation. 

Grounding techniques for anxiety can be done anywhere and at anytime you feel anxious. You can use them to take mental breaks during the day or during your most intense anxious moments. 

If you experience a more severe episode of anxiety, it can take longer to feel grounded again. A common timeframe is about 15-30 minutes. It depends on the intensity of the stressor, negative memory or emotion.

It is not necessary to impose a time limit on any of these techniques. Take your time and commend yourself for practicing a strategy that can help restore calm in your life. 

Sight

Using your vision to look at something in your immediate surroundings will bring you out of the stressful thoughts. Here are a few ideas of things you can do with your sight:

  • Look at objects in the room you are in.  Observe their color, shape, size, and texture. What do you notice?
  • Choose one color and try to locate all of the objects in the room that may contain that color. For example, which items contain the color blue? Is it a sweater, notebook, blanket, pen, etc.?
  • Focus your gaze at something that you already find calming and positive. For example, you may have a picture of your child or significant other that you can focus on. 
  • Look at something with movement. For example, look outside of the window. Watch the leaves on the trees, cars passing, small animals or birds, or people as they walk. 

Sound

Focusing our ears to sounds that are soothing is optimal as it can induce a sense of calm. For many people, the sound of uplifting or relaxing music can slow down their heart rate and create peace within.

The interesting thing with sound is that we can tune into any sound. It doesn’t have to be one that is already soothing to us. Just one that you can focus on so that you are reducing attention to unpleasant thoughts and emotions. Some examples of things you can do with the sense of sound are:

  • Tune into the sounds in the current space that you are in. If you are at the office, what do you hear? Is the office busy with the sound of telephones, people talking, walking, eating, etc? Do you hear the sound of electronics? For example, the whirring of the computer fan, printer, air/heating vents? Pay attention to the sounds but do not hold onto them. Allow them to go in one ear and out of the other, being mindful of all the sounds around you.
  • Some environments have special sounds. If you are in the city, you can focus on the sounds of  traffic, the goings-on of the people in the street. If you are in a small town area, you may hear more nature sounds. The rustling of the wind, birds, rainfall, etc. 
  • Create your own sounds. You can sing or hum a song that you like. If you have an instrument, try playing it.
  • Turn on some music that you already find helpful. If the sounds of waves is calming to you, have a recording that you can turn on when you need it. Listen to the sounds and do some deep breathing with it to help regulate the intensity of the anxiety. 

Smell

Our sense of smell can quickly bring the mind away from stress and into a different state of mind. Try using your sense of smell in the following ways:

  • What do you smell right now in the place you are currently in? This question will bring you straight into the present m moment. Depending on your whereabouts, you may have a quick answer. For example, if you are in the car on your way to work in the morning, you may observe the smell of your car air freshener. If you have the car windows open, you may smell the exhaustion of the car in front, etc.
  • Find something that has a pleasant scent that you enjoy. For example, you may have a lotion in your purse that has a nice scent that you can focus on. Observe the intensity of the smell. What is the smell associated with? Is it fruity (citrus) calming (lavender) etc.?
  • Activate a scent. If you are home, you can light a fragrant candle or burn incense. Open a can of coffee and enjoy the aroma. Open a window and smell the outdoors.

Taste

Our sense of taste is a unique way to self-soothe. For this, you must have some food or beverage handy to place in your mouth. Here are a few ideas you can try with your sense of taste:

  • Look in your immediate surroundings. Do you have a snack, mint, piece of candy or gum? If so, pop one in your mouth. Bring your attention to the flavor and its characteristics. Would you describe it as sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or savory? If you have a mint, allow it to dissolve as you focus fully on the experience of taste in your mouth. 
  • Drink something that is soothing to you (caution—avoid alcohol here. It will not help your anxiety). Consider tea, coffee, or another flavored beverage. 

Touch

Touching the ground or objects in your surroundings can help reacquaint your mind and body to the present. It can give you clues as to where you are and get you out of some distressful thoughts and memories. Some ideas you can try with your sense of touch are:

  • Find an object nearby that you can touch? As you touch it, pay attention to the textile characteristics of this object. Is it soft, fuzzy, flexible, smooth, solid, hard? Can you apply pressure to it or squeeze it or bend it? How does it feel on the skin? 
  • Observe the sensation of temperature. For example, holding an ice cube or cupping a warm cup of tea will feel differently. 
  • Take a warm or hot bath or shower. What does the water feel like on your skin?
  • Massage creamy lotion into your hands or feet. 
  • Place your feet on the ground and take a combination of small and wide steps around the room. Pay attention to the feeling of your foot against the floor surface. Can you touch the floor lightly, apply more pressure, tap on it? Note the difference.

Coping with Anxiety

Learning to cope with anxiety and stress is essential as we all experience varying degrees of both throughout life. Grounding techniques for anxiety are valuable coping strategies that can be used at any time. 

As with most anything, practice is beneficial. Knowing how to ground yourself during anxiety attacks comes with experience. Practicing using your senses to center yourself even on days when your mood is calm can go a long way. This will make it more comfortable and familiar for you to use on days when you are overwhelmed and anxious. You will be more likely to relax as you already know how the technique works.

For support with managing anxiety, contact the Counseling Perch Mental Health Counseling, P.C.

The Counseling Perch Mental Health Counseling, P.C. offers counseling to residents in New City, NY and all over Rockland County, Westchester County, and New York State via online video platform. Call to schedule an appointment.

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