How to use grounding exercises to deal with stress, anxiety, and PTSD

Lindsay Kalter,David Merrill
·6 min read
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Grounding exercises help us focus on the present to distract from stressful thoughts. wxin/Getty Images
  • Grounding exercises are mental and physical activities designed to help manage stress and anxiety.

  • Simple exercises include deep, counted breaths and focusing on the feel of your feet on the ground.

  • Grounding exercises are particularly helpful for people who have experienced traumatic events.

  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.

When people become anxious, they often feel out of touch with the present, focusing more on stressful memories or worries about the future. Grounding exercises are meant to bring you back to the here and now to help manage stress and anxiety.

Learn about who may benefit most and some expert-recommended grounding exercises that can help calm an anxious mind.

What are grounding exercises and who may benefit?

Grounding exercises are mental and physical activities that are designed to help manage stress and anxiety. Many mental and behavioral health professionals encourage the use of grounding exercises in patients with high levels of stress and anxiety - particularly patients who have experienced traumatic events.

"We tend to recommend people use them when their anxiety is getting to a place of panic," says Sara Hanson, BSW, care manager at University of Rochester Medical Center's Behavioral Health Partners. "You can have so many stressful thoughts in your head, and grounding can bring you back into the present and make you feel more physically in control."

The way it works is that grounding exercises are small tasks that are designed to distract you from negative, stressful thoughts by heightening your awareness of your current surroundings. That includes taking deep, counted breaths, and focusing on the feel of your feet on the ground.

These exercises can help with a host of mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and addiction. It can also help people with dissociative disorder, which causes people to disconnect from their thoughts, feelings, and sense of identity.

Medical term: Grounding exercises are simple mental activities and physical tasks that are designed to distract you from negative, stressful thoughts by heightening your awareness of your current surroundings.

Grounding exercises can also provide a needed distraction for physical issues such as chronic pain and chemotherapy-induced nausea. These techniques can be used by anyone - including children.

Physical grounding exercises

There are both physical and mental ways of grounding yourself. Some physical techniques include:

  • Count your breaths. Focusing on breathing is a popular technique for relaxation. One of the most well-known exercises is the 4-7-8 technique: Inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, then exhale through your mouth for a count of eight.

  • Splash water on your face or hands. "There are a few different methods we use for people with cold because it shocks your body into noticing something," Hanson says. "The quick change in temperature sensation brings you back into your body in the moment." The feeling can redirect your emotions and force you to focus on the sensation of the cold water.

  • Focus on your feet. Bring your attention to both feet and notice how they feel on the ground. This can be done while sitting in a chair or walking -- the goal is to focus on a neutral physical sensation. The feeling may help you to be more connected to the present moment, says Hanson.

  • Clap or rub your hands together. Using both hands, make a teepee with your fingers, pushing them into each other, Hanson says. You can also squeeze your fists tightly. "You're focusing on, 'I'm taking this feeling internally and executing it physically in my body,'" Hanson says.

  • Light a scented candle. Smelling things that are appealing to you can help you relax, Hanson says. Lavender, for example, has been shown to have therapeutic effects, especially for stress and anxiety.

  • Touch something soft. Whether it is your pet's fur, a fuzzy blanket, or a soft clothing item, touching a soft object and focusing on the sensation may help reduce anxiety. In fact, a 2018 study found people associate softer textures with happiness.

Mental grounding exercises

Some types of grounding exercises can be carried out entirely in your mind. Here is a list of popular mental grounding techniques:

  • Remind yourself of the basics. In your mind, say your name, where you are, where you are from, and what you did that day. This technique may seem simple, but it can be a good way to slow racing thoughts.

  • Play a memory game. Make lists in your head, like types of flowers or sports teams, and see how many you can remember. According to a small 2018 study, brain games are associated with decreased anxiety. "It's a distraction technique," Hanson says. "You're focusing on something other than the stress-inducing thought."

  • Think of someone you love. Imagine the face of someone or a pet you love. Feeling love itself can trigger our brain's happy chemicals like dopamine.

  • Use anchoring phrases. Phrases like "I'm ok" and "I'm here" are helpful to recite either out loud or in your head. They are reassuring, Hanson says, and shift your focus toward positive self-talk.

  • Envision a calm place Thinking of a place that brings you peace can reduce anxiety in the moment, Hanson says. "Visualize your favorite place, or a place you've been on vacation that was beautiful and peaceful," she says. Research suggests nature can be a mood-lifter and decrease stress, anxiety, and depression. If you don't have access to an outdoor setting at the moment, envisioning peaceful places in nature can be a helpful substitute.

  • Do mental math. Like memory games, mental math can provide a much-needed distraction. For example, count backward from 100 by sevens. When you have that number sequence memorized, change the starting point.

Insider's takeaway

Grounding exercises can provide in-the-moment comfort during an anxious or stressful episode. People can use physical methods, like touch and smell, or mental exercises to create inner peace.

What research says: According to a small 2018 study, brain games are associated with decreased anxiety, and scents, such as lavender, may help ease stress.

Once that moment has passed, though, it is important to put a plan in place to help prevent future episodes, Hanson says.

"These exercises may sound simple, but when you're in that mental place, simple isn't simple anymore," Hanson says. "These techniques can be helpful to get you to a place where you can make an action plan. When you're feeling better, try to get to a place of self-care to reduce the likelihood those feelings will take over again."

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