The memes, cartoons, and sayings for the year 2020 have abounded, and the cynical humor is part of what is getting us through this storm of a year as we face disaster after disaster. I have my own image of my Bitmoji character walking away from a dumpster fire labeled 2020 (below). In the midst of the chaos around us produced by event after event that we can’t control, it sometimes feels like our mental health is hanging by a thread. Suicidal thoughts are on the rise, domestic violence is trending upward, and isolation is taking its toll. 

Ann's 2020 Bitmoji
Ann’s 2020 Bitmoji

Humor has its benefits, but what do we do when we really are feeling unravelled? As Christians, our faith provides a landing place and an anchor for our souls (Hebrews 6:19). But sometimes it doesn’t feel practical or tangible when you’re at the end of your rope just to sit down and have a nice quiet time in your Bible. In come grounding techniques, which are used across the board in most styles of psychotherapy to help calm the nervous system and get your critical thinking brain back online. Did you realize that the reason your brain is not working clearly when you’re upset has to do with your nervous system being over aroused? You can learn more about that human survival instinct here. 

Try one of these techniques to get you back in the calm, cool, and collected zone, and improve your problem solving and thinking abilities at the same time. 

5-4-3-2-1

This is literally the easiest to teach and to learn, and can be done anywhere. In the checkout line, while driving, during sex, in class, wherever anxiety is creeping up. This is the first thing I teach to people who suffer with panic attacks. Here’s how to do it. 

Right now, wherever you are, mentally or out-loud, name 5 things that you can see. Ex. computer, water bottle, couch, pillow, plant.

Next name 4 things that you can touch or feel with your body. Ex. keyboard, table top, clothing, tile floor.

Then name 3 things you can hear. Ex. my son’s dinosaur story, the clack of my keyboard, the squeak of the chair.

Next name 2 things you can smell. Ex. my son’s dinosaur chicken nuggets, my deodorant.

Finally, name 1 thing you can taste. Ex. the last of my morning coffee.

Do you see how I started with the sense that is the easiest to pick up (sight–you could probably name 100 things in a few seconds that you can see) and I worked my way down to the sense that is the most difficult to pick up (taste–most people in my office can’t think of anything, so I tell them it’s ok if you can just taste your saliva). By the time you have worked your way through your five senses, you are back in the here-and-now, not in the swirly hamster wheel of your mind. You can reassure yourself that you are safe, not under threat, when you can get in touch with your body through your five senses. It’s ok if you have to repeat the exercise. 

Breathing

There are lots of videos online to teach you about deep breathing, so I’ll briefly give you my favorite exercise. Place one hand on your belly and one hand over your heart. You should be able to feel your heartbeat and your belly move up and down like a sleeping puppy (this helps you to breathe deep into your belly instead of breathing up in your shoulders). Breathe in to the count of four and out to the count of four. Bonus: choose a word or phrase that helps calm you, and repeat it as you breathe in and out. Lots of Christian clients like this one (Ps. 46:10) “Be still (breathe in) and know that I am God (breathe out).”

The 5-4-3-2-1 and deep breathing are my go-tos for anxious clients, because if you can’t calm your nervous system, you can’t accomplish anything else in therapy or in life. But beyond that, sometimes it’s not really a nervous system issue, but an emotional overload. I want to share my top grounding techniques for feeling more like yourself after you’ve felt unravelled. 

My Favorite Grounding Activities

  • Exercise, especially walking. There’s lots of research about how vigorous exercise is good for mental health, but even leisurely walking can give your body a dose of calm and your brain a boost of processing power. Francine Shapiro, the pioneer of EMDR therapy, made her discovery while walking after feeling upset. The bilateral stimulation (left, right, left, right) of walking helped her brain process the upsetting incident. Even a 15 minute walk can get you back to calm. 
  • Cooking and Baking. My sister says this is stressful, but it’s not for me. Just like sewing is relaxing for my friend, but it makes me want to curse. If you know how to cook, it can be a grounding experience to chop vegetables, stir pots, and make a wholesome meal for yourself or your household. 
  • Playing an instrument. Since I was a little girl, I have turned to the piano for solace when I feel emotionally upset or stressed. Typically this means playing songs that I already know by heart, not challenging myself with difficult sheet music. Sometimes a different challenge is helpful, though. After about 15 minutes of running through songs I’ve played for years, I feel a little more ready to tackle the rest of the day’s problems. 
  • Art. I’m not particularly artistic, but I have several clients who turn to art regularly to help them cope with difficult emotions. If you don’t already have artistic skill or a medium that you like to work with, it’s ok to go back to grade school art techniques. A simple watercolor set, the 96 pack of Crayola crayons, or even a can of Playdoh will do the trick. 
  • Be Still and Be Loved. I want to make sure to mention this resource from Revelation Wellness, a faith-based fitness community. In these brief podcast episodes, Alisa Keeton and her team encourage you to find a place of stillness while they speak Scripture and words of relaxation over you. If you fall asleep during the episode, it may be that is what your body really needs. You can find the episodes here: https://www.revelationwellness.org/workout/podcast-2/

What are your favorite grounding techniques? Maybe you haven’t thought of them in those terms, but there is an activity that you do that helps bring you back to center. Share your ideas in the comments, and we can work together to create resource list for ourselves and other therapy clients.