7 Easy Grounding Techniques to Help You Manage Anxiety
Anxiety is a common problem for people with substance use disorders. Research shows that nearly 18 percent of people with substance use disorders also have an anxiety disorder. And that doesn’t include PTSD, which other research suggests may affect up to half of people with substance use issues. Often, substance use begins as a way to cope with anxiety, and learning to cope with anxiety will be a top priority for anyone recovering from addiction.
Even if you don’t have a particular problem with anxiety, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by ruminating over past mistakes or getting too caught up in worries about the future. There’s a good reason “One day at a time” is so often repeated in AA meetings. Whether you are prone to anxiety or just feeling overwhelmed by the idea of staying sober forever, the following grounding techniques can bring you back into the present moment and help you calm down. They aren’t a replacement for therapy but they can help you out in a pinch.
The crux of any grounding technique is that it takes your attention away from the thoughts and sensations that are causing anxiety and focuses it on something immediate and positive, or at least neutral. The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is a systematic way of bringing your attention to sensory input. You start by naming five things you can see around you, then four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
Take a moment and fully experience each item. This isn’t just a checklist; it’s also a mindfulness exercise, so try to make the most of it. If you don’t have time for the whole exercise, you can pick one of the senses and briefly bring your attention to that.
Deep breathing is an excellent way to calm down. First, it’s something that’s always happening in the present moment and you can bring your attention to the sensations of breathing. Second, you can actually slow your heart rate by slowing your breathing.
When you’re anxious, your sympathetic nervous system is overactive, which often creates a positive feedback loop, making you even more anxious. You can interrupt that by activating your parasympathetic nervous system.
When you breathe deeply, and particularly when you exhale slowly, you stimulate your vagus nerve, which activates your parasympathetic system. Any regular deep breathing with a focus on a long exhale will calm you down but research suggests that about six breaths a minute is the ideal pace to promote a sense of wellbeing.
A body scan is like an expanded version of “things you can feel” from the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Close your eyes and put your attention at the top of your head, noticing any sensations there--an itch, tension, a slight breeze, warmth from the sun, and so on. Next, move down to your face and do the same thing.
Systematically move downward, feeling both internal and external sensations in every part of your body until you reach the bottoms of your feet. Again, this brings you into the present moment and it also serves as a mindfulness exercise.
You will probably feel physical sensations related to anxiety, such as tension in your face or neck, constriction in your chest, or a lump in your stomach. See if you can observe these sensations without judgment. Just be with them for a moment before moving on.
Think About Your Feet
If you don’t have time to do a whole-body scan, a short cut you can use is to just bring your attention to your feet. There are two main reasons this works. First, your feet have a density of neurons similar to your hands and face but we typically don’t think about them unless they hurt.
Therefore, they can be a source of new sensations--weight, heat, shoes, and so on. Second, they are at the far end of your body, so you will peripherally notice more body sensations by noticing your feet.
Count Down or Up
Another way to divert your attention from anxiety-inducing thoughts and sensations is to give yourself a mental task that demands a bit of focus. It can really be anything--remembering the US presidents in order, retracing your route home from school in your mind, reciting a favorite poem from memory, and so on.
One handy task that anyone can do is to count down or up by some awkward number. Seven typically works pretty well. So, for example, you might count down from 100 by sevens. That’s usually challenging enough that you have to focus on it but not so challenging that you’ll give up quickly.
Imagine a Safe Place
Another way to occupy your attention is to use visualization. Visualizing something clearly is both cognitively demanding and it can have a powerful effect on your state of mind. If you’re prone to anxiety, visualizing a safe, calming place can be a powerful way to ground yourself.
What you imagine depends on you. You might think of your childhood room, a warm beach, a cozy cabin with a fire, anywhere that makes you feel safe. If it’s a real place that you know well, you can mentally look around the place and involve your other senses to make the experience more real.
Go for a Walk
Finally, getting a bit of exercise is a great way to ground yourself and boost your mood. You don’t have to do a serious workout; usually, just walking for a while is enough. The great thing about exercise is that you don’t really have to try to change your thoughts or your focus. You can continue worrying as you walk, but eventually, you will just start to feel better and worry less. Whereas other grounding techniques work by changing your focus, exercise works mostly by changing your physiology and a bit by changing your focus too.
Grounding techniques are a great way to deal with anxiety in the moment. As noted, it’s not a replacement for therapy. Anxiety disorders are serious mental health issues and shouldn’t be dismissed as just worrying too much. If you try to recover from addiction without treating anxiety, you’re in for an uphill battle. However, finding one or two grounding techniques that work for you and practicing them regularly can go a long way.
At The Foundry, we know that addiction is often just one part of a larger issue. We use a variety of proven methods to help clients overcome common co-occurring mental health issues, including anxiety disorders, trauma, depression, and others. To learn more, call us today at (844) 955-1066.