When out-of-control circumstances and uncomfortable feelings overwhelm you and your head is swirling with anxious and depressing thoughts, wouldn’t it be nice if there was something that would allow you to press the pause button?
Well, there is. And it’s not a pill.
It’s a coping skill you can easily learn and practice anywhere at any time called grounding. I use it just about every day. Grounding is a simple exercise that instantly jerks your mind out of the chaos of your head and back into the present moment.
When you calm your mind, you calm your brain and body.
How Your Brain Gets Hijacked
When you feel physical discomfort, it’s a signal to your body to take action. For instance, if you touch a hot stove, your body quickly pulls your hand back. Your body reacts similarly for mental discomfort. Something as small as a rude remark by a co-worker or something as big as a heart-shattering memory from your recent breakup causes changes in your brain and body.
The thoughts that run through your head can be interpreted as danger by your brain which subsequently sounds the alarm by activating the amygdala. When this happens, your amygdala hijacks your brain, and most of your physical and mental resources get allocated to ensuring your survival. Your thinking, rational brain shuts down. Your breathing and heart rate increase.
A million years ago, this was a good thing to keep our ancestors alive; however, in today’s world, it happens too often and doesn’t help you. Whenever you feel pressured, worried, irritated, or disappointed this same mechanism kicks in. This stress response not only leaves you feeling antsy and crummy, at the moment, but can also lead to anxiety and depression and physical health consequences. Chronic stress contributes to a weakened immune system and increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Grounding can help you calm your brain and your body instantly, on the spot.
The Ruminating Thought Loop
When your mind grabs hold of something and goes over and over it without any productive outcome that’s called ruminating. The name comes from ruminating mammals — like cows chewing their cud. Ruminating is exhausting, stressful, a waste of your time, and no fun at all. Worrying is ruminating. Replaying the pain of the past is ruminating.
The ruminating thoughts which run through your mind have real consequences for your brain and body. Studies confirm that people who spend a lot of time ruminating are much more likely to develop mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
You can’t control the arbitrary thoughts that pop into your head. It’s impossible and leads to its own kind of suffering because you may judge yourself as a failure for not being able to do it. However, you can control how you respond to those thoughts. Instead of unconsciously hopping on the negative thought loop merry-go-round, you can consciously pause and take control of and guide your mind in a different direction.
Grounding can be the pause button that interrupts the thought loop.
The First Step: Calm Your Breath
With any practice intended to calm you down, it’s important to remember to first control and slow your breathing. Taking long, deep breaths counters the amygdala alarm, slows your heart rate, and activates your calming parasympathetic nervous system.
The basic steps of controlled breathing can vary slightly with different philosophies and get very involved or stay really simple. Most teachings include three basic steps:
- With a closed mouth, inhale deeply through your nose for a count (usually three to six), making sure your abdomen expands.
- At the top of the inhalation, hold your breath for a certain number of counts (usually two to four).
- Exhale completely through your mouth or nose for a count longer than the inhalation.
Grounding Is a Form of Mindfulness
Grounding is a mindfulness practice. While I couldn’t find any specific studies conducted on grounding, the scientific evidence for mindfulness helping calm your brain and body is overwhelming.
There is an ensemble of neural networks, called the default mode network (DFM), that is your brain’s go-to state when it’s at rest, not doing anything in particular. Science discovered the DFM using fMRI studies where people were asked to lay in the scanner with no specific thinking assignment. The scans showed that their mindless mental activity was mostly repetitive ruminative thoughts.
In mindfulness, by intentionally directing attention inward and cultivating awareness of your breath or something else, you are becoming aware of what your DFM is up to and exerting control over it. Guiding your DFM is a skill that you practice and develop just like learning to play the piano or swing a golf club. You are training your brain to break free of negative thought loops and to orient itself in the present moment.
How to Ground Yourself
Slow your breathing first and continue by moving through the grounding exercises below. In this grounding exercise, you direct your attention to each your senses which brings your focus into your physical environment at the moment. The idea is to avert your attention away from your thoughts.
5: Acknowledge five things you see around you in your immediate surroundings. Maybe it’s a book, a pen, or a spot on the wall.
4: Acknowledge four things you can feel. This could be your bottom sitting on the chair, your feet resting on the floor, or glasses sitting on your nose.
3: Acknowledge three things you hear. Remember, you want to turn your focus away from your thoughts. So, the sounds need to be external. For example, maybe you hear traffic in the background or the hum of the heat or air blowing or a bird chirping.
2: Acknowledge two things you can smell. Does the air have a particular scent? Can you smell your shampoo or deodorant? If you can’t pick out a smell, you may want to go find one, like some scented soap or a piece of fruit.
1. Acknowledge one thing you can taste. What does the inside of your mouth taste like? It might be coffee, lunch, or even the taste of your saliva.