Doesn’t it drive you nuts when people tell you to “calm down” when you’re upset, anxious, panicked, or afraid? It drives me insane. I just think to myself, “Okay great…and how do I accomplish that without putting you through a wall?” Of course I don’t act on such thoughts! But I understand the frustration of feeling stuck in a dark, deep hole of anxiety while the bystanders at the top of the ditch are yelling down to me, “calm down!” or “it’ll be fine!” or “you’re overreacting!”. Which is why grounding techniques can be so beneficial when no one else can.
First, we should go over some basics of what anxiety and panic look like so we can better spot them before we feel completely unraveled in our experience with such symptoms.
First, quick side note/science lesson…our bodies yield both the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous systems. Housed in the Sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight” that prepares us to respond to danger. While fight or flight has always been essential to survival, the body can’t always tell what is a genuine danger versus when we are just emotionally uncomfortable or going through something. The Parasympathetic nervous system helps our bodies restore back to a state of calm when fight or flight is no longer needed. This information is important because it plays a GIGANTIC ROLE in anxiety, panic, as well as other mental health struggles.
So when we have anxiety, there is constant worry that we can’t seem to shake most of the time in addition to maybe feeling restless, on edge, having a hard time focusing, feeling more irritable, physically tense, having a tough time sleeping and feeling easily fatigued quite a bit. I go through this myself and I can tell you firsthand that ignoring these symptoms will lead to feelings of anger and irritability, scatteredness, constant exhaustion, and like every little thing is an insurmountable task which will negatively affect your life across the board. Trust me, I know.
Panic is a bit different and more intense than your typical anxiety monster impeding on your day to day life. With panic, we actually feel like we’re having a heart attack or like we’re going to die! That’s right…there are instances when people have had to go to the Emergency Room because they thought they were having a medical emergency. Completely understandable given the symptoms of panic. If we look at symptoms of panic that include accelerated heart rate/palpitations, sweating, trembling/shaking, shortness of breath, feelings of choking, chest pain/tightness/discomfort, chills or heat sensations, numbness or tingling, feeling detached from ourselves or reality, fearing we are losing control, and fears of dying….it’s no wonder people may want to seek out a medical professional real quick.
While I have never experienced a panic attack myself…I am willing to bet that if I ever do, I’m getting my butt straight to the Emergency Room because as humans, what are we supposed to think when all of that is going on without any clear medical explanation? I highly encourage anyone experiencing such symptoms, especially if this has never happened before, to seek medical attention immediately and rule out medical concerns before chalking this all up to panic!
However, once we rule out medical concerns and have an understanding of panic symptoms, we can better manage them without seeking unnecessary medical attention or escalating our anxiety/panic due to fear of the unknown. It is essential to understand that panic attacks are just that, panic. They cannot physically harm you and they tend to last about 10 minutes (while I’m sure it feels like forever!). So, we have to remember that it will pass and getting comfortable with discomfort is one of the first steps to getting through panic attacks. I’m sure that’s obnoxious to hear, but it’s true.
Much of the time, what I’ve caught myself doing to alleviate my own generalized anxiety is to avoid, avoid, avoid. Whether it be avoiding a deadline or an uncomfortable conversation, dodging obligations/tasks all together feels good in the moment, for sure. While my education tells me that avoiding my anxiety like the plague only makes things worse, I admittedly engage in this behavior. And trust me, the education is correct…avoidance only feeds the anxiety monster that lurks beneath.
Well, a form of coping called grounding skills seems to help many, including myself, to feel more centered in the present moment and ultimately activate my parasympathetic nervous system (that’s what we want). With grounding, we are essentially turning our attention to the present moment so that we can ultimately feel more calm and address potentially anxious triggers.
In grounding, we use our five senses to return to the present moment when feeling overwhelmed and like everything is on top of us. Grounding equips us with several skills to utilize healthy detachment from emotional pain with use of distraction until we feel ready to return to any given problem. The following 5 skills that I will list below can be used any time, in any place, and can be completely discreet. There are many more ways of grounding that will not be covered here but I encourage you to explore ways of grounding with your therapist to find the right fit for you.
This skill invites us to observe 5 things we can see, 4 things we can feel, 3 things we can hear, 2 things we can smell, and 1 thing we can taste. For example, if I am feeling overwhelmed I will stop and look around me, engaging in this technique to focus on something aside from my stressor for a few minutes until I can collect myself and face my problems with my head screwed on right.
Here, we are encouraged to focus our attention on sensations in the body and feeling of calm after the exercise is over. Below, you will find an example cited from Therapistaid.com.
When having anxiety or panic, a way to cultivate acceptance of discomfort and better managing symptoms, we can be kind to ourselves. Does it seem ridiculous? Maybe… but it can work! Focusing on positive words you say to yourself over and over in the midst of anxiety or panic can help you remember that you are strong, resilient, and can overcome difficult things in this life. Some examples of what you might say to yourself would be, “This is uncomfortable but I can accept it”, “I will let my body do its thing and it will pass”, “I survived this before and can do it again”, “this isn’t dangerous”, “no need to push myself, I can take a small step forward as I choose”, “these are just thoughts, not reality”, or “don’t worry, be happy”.
I’m sure mostly everyone has heard of some form of deep breathing and I often hear clients tell me, “this doesn’t work for me”. Upon closer inspection, I find that people may try this once or twice, and when it's not instantly working, they chuck it out the window. However, this form of deep breathing should be given a fair shot! Let me explain a bit more about how to engage in this skill, then I’ll explain why I feel so strongly that deep breathing really needs to be given a chance.
So, how do we do this one? We put one hand on our chest and the other on our belly. Then, we inhale slowly through our nose, hold briefly, and exhale through our mouth. Some follow a formula of 4-6-4; ie. inhale 4 seconds, hold 6 seconds, exhale 4 seconds). Adjust to your comfort level. Make sure that upon breathing in, your belly is expanding out. Notice how your belly expands and falls with each breath. It is recommended to engage in this skill for at least 2-5 minutes daily.
The reason deep breathing works is because it levels out the oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. When you have anxious breathing, your oxygen and carbon dioxide levels are uneven, leading to the physical manifestation of anxiety that we talked about earlier. So to help activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the one we want) and ease the physical parts of anxiety, diaphragmatic breathing is a great one to try. Let me know how it goes!
It has been found that in anxiety as well as trauma, the sense of smell is largely connected to the emotional part of our brains. If you think about it, maybe something that smells oddly familiar to you but you can’t put your finger on it brings a sense of comfort and calm. I know for me, whenever I smell anything that resembles Thanksgiving dinner, I have a sense of ease thinking back to fun childhood memories, enjoying my grandmother’s cooking for Thanksgiving dinner. Her food is always on point!
So when we are feeling anxious and/or triggered in any way, we can use sense of smell to quickly return to the present moment. Ideas that some of my clients have found helpful over time is to keep a perfume and/or cologne soaked handkerchief on them, an essential oil bottle on them, or maybe a favorite kitchen spice. Candles and/or wax warmers at home can also bring a sense of peace and calm using pleasant scents.
While anxiety can sometimes make us feel like we’re in a moving car with no driver, there are ways we can safely get back into the driver’s seat and navigate our symptoms safely, securely, and happily. Your therapist can help you navigate these tools and find out what may be the best suited for you and your needs. Anxiety will not get the best of us!