Grounding for Anxiety and Panic

By Brian Robinson.

Feet on the ground: but where is your head?

‘Grounding’ is a strategy which aims to shift our focus from our internal world to the external physical world. It is a technique which helps us reconnect with a safe place which offers no threat. This is particularly useful when used in connection with anxiety, panic attacks and disassociation symptoms such as derealisation and depersonalisation. It offers a way of coping.

All the conditions mentioned above are very good at creating an unhealthy and narrow focus. This tends to centre on what is happening inside our bodies and minds. That is the aim of these disorders and they are very good at it. There are a number of positive and effective things we can do to recover from these conditions. However, recovery is usually a gradual and progressive endeavour. Grounding is something that can have immediate effect, and therefore can offer an immediate benefit.

There are lots of suggestions for grounding techniques which are widely available on the internet so there’s no point in listing them all here. The following is one or two examples just so you get the idea. Then, I want go on to suggest how we might develop this further.

When having a panic attack your focus will be directed inwardly. This is a particular feature of panic attacks. When this happens, try shifting your focus upon five things you can see around you. Touch four things close to you. Listen for three different sounds. Search for two separate smells. Try and taste one thing. This exercise is sometimes referred to as the five, four, three, two, one exercise and it can be very useful in shifting attention.

It is now much easier to distract.

Distraction techniques are probably the best known and most widely used way to help distract a stressed mind. Ideally, you should have the necessary distractions readily available. When troubled by problematic thoughts, do something physical: a crossword; a jigsaw puzzle; Lego; a game on your phone; adult colouring. Something that requires your attention, but not something too difficult.

You can also distract mentally. Do a visualisation where you take yourself off to an imagined place. Plan a holiday in your head. Think of a story and invent characters.

When we talk about grounding we are usually referring to physical grounding. We want to connect with the physical world and focus away from what’s going on inside our bodies. However, we are more than physical beings: we are emotional beings; and we are psychological beings. Can there be such a thing as emotional grounding? Is there such a thing as psychological grounding?

The dominant emotion involved with anxiety and panic is fear. But we know this emotion does not reflect the truth of our situation. Emotional grounding therefore, is where we look for emotions that better reflect the truth. For example, we know that fight or flight is a system that is designed to protect us from danger and keep us safe. So, how should we feel about it? Should we fear it; hate it; love it; or should we even feel indifferent towards it. No, none of these emotions are appropriate. However, we can feel more understanding towards our anxiety; more accepting of our panic; and we can learn to be more patient with it. These emotions are entirely appropriate and if we try to focus on them instead, then this will help reduce emotional tension.

When we are trying to get to the heart of a problem it can be quite helpful to section things off. However, when it comes to separating our emotions from our thoughts, this can be difficult and confusing. This is so because emotions tend to be bound up with what’s going on in our heads. One suggestion, is that an emotion can always be described in a single word, whereas it might take several words to describe a thought or thinking issue. If what’s going on inside takes a bit of describing, then it is more likely to be a thought issue.

Psychological grounding then, must involve a search for the truth about our thoughts. For example, we may think we are going mad, but the evidence suggests that anxiety and panic are not necessarily pathways to madness. They only feel as if they are. We may think we can never recover from panic, but the evidence suggests that people can and do recover from panic attacks with the right help and or with the right knowledge. We may think that derealisation means that something has gone wrong in our brain, whereas these disassociation symptoms are merely our brain’s way of distancing us from the trauma of panic and anxiety.

This more holistic approach to grounding techniques is something worth developing and may hold the promise of a more profound and longer lasting benefit. But it should be emphasised here, that before we are able to focus on the emotional or psychological truth about these conditions, we first have to be aware of that truth. But watch out: there is a lot of negative misinformation that you may have to trawl through first!

The sense of smell helps with grounding.

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