Feeling Panicked? Here’s How to Get Grounded

Anxiety is hovering in the air, like a cloud that might let loose with a storm of bad news at any moment. How can you protect yourself if a torrent of anxiety threatens to fall? I experienced one last week, and I used some very simple steps described below to calm and ground myself.

When my anxiety heightens, I may look the same to others (you can hide a lot on Zoom), but I know that I’m fuzzy-brained, can’t concentrate, and my innards are all stirred up. I feel weighed down and have trouble doing anything useful.

Apparently, I’m not the only one with such feelings these days.

If this hasn’t happened to you, feel blessed, but someday you may need to help someone climb down from a tree of panic. We all need to stay grounded during an emergency.

Greg Crosby, a health behaviorist currently consulting to governments around the world on behavioral responses to COVID-19, shared the simple research-based protocol (below) for grounding if high anxiety or trauma has been triggered.

Help when I needed it

After college, I spent 18 months in Ecuador and loved the country. I still do, even noisy, tropical, hot, congested Guayaquil, where I lived. Recently, when my husband asked, “Have you heard what’s happening in Ecuador?” I was worried.

Rightly so. A Washington Post article described Guayaquil as the epicenter of COVID-19 in Latin America, where life is like a dystopian horror show. Their struggling public health care system has reached its limit. The city can’t deal with the corpses. Can you imagine having to stay inside a 90-degree apartment with a corpse in the room? People are dragging bodies into the streets, where they may lay, rotting, for days.

OMG, I thought, as prepared for bed. Is this what’s ahead for other developing countries? Good-bye, quiet snooze. I slept fitfully that night, waking multiple times. The next morning, my anxiety heightened, I road-tested the following grounding exercises.

Grounding: A way to begin

When I want to calm in meditation I focus on three elements: 1) Ground, (feeling my weight in a chair or on the floor); 2) Sound (becoming aware of the sounds in my environment): and 3) Breath. (Deep breathing). Listening for sounds is especially helpful when my mind is on over-drive.

However, meditation isn’t recommended, at least at first, if someone is severely anxious, panicked, or re-traumatized. Neither is trying to reason with them. Once the brain’s amygdala is on fire, it’s too late for a reasonable conversation. The first step needed is to help the mind “constructively-detach” from the panic-provoking situation.

I’ll give you a taste of the method below–you can read more on the blog.

A Grounding Protocol

First, do deep belly breathing. Then follow this sequence to offer your worried mind something to focus on other than what has it concerned. You’ll start with the mind, then the body, and then feelings. The order is essential.

In a pinch, you can do all of this in less than five minutes, which makes the technique helpful in an emergency.

Mental Grounding exercises.

  • Notice a color in the environment: for example, how many instances of blue can you find?
  • Count books, windows, chairs, curtains, or books in a room.
  • Make a list of all the songs, cities, animals, or TV shows you can think of.
  • Do some simple math like 50 minus 2. Take your answer and subtract 2 again. Keep going. It is okay to get it wrong.
  • Say each letter in a sentence. Read the sentence backward letter by letter.
  • Describe in detail an everyday activity such as a meal you cooked. Explain the sequence: take out ingredients, boil water, chop food, start to fry, etc.

Physical Grounding

  • Wiggle your toes
  • Run cool or warm water on your hands.
  • Touch objects and notice if they are rough, smooth, warm, or cold. Compare two objects, such as a glass and a fork.
  • Dig your heels into the floor.
  • Breathe from your belly.
  • Touch a pet or stuffed animal.
  • Stretch
  • Exercise
  • Dance.

Soothing grounding. Calm and soothe your feelings by evoking pleasant memories, sensations, and imagery.

For example, think of a:

  • Soothing time of day
  • Soothing season of the year
  • Soothing smell
  • Soothing color
  • Soothing animal
  • Soothing song

After grounding, notice how you feel so that you can return to that sense if a bolt of anxiety hits again.

The grounding system was designed for acute situations. I hope you never panic or need it. But it’s good to be prepared and you might be able to help someone else.

Think of it as a “Behavioral Emergency Kit,” to have just in case.

Sally Fox is a writer, podcaster and coach. She writes for 3rd Act Magazine and you can find her weekly writings at www.engagingpresence.com/blog.

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