Updated: May 5, 2022
Learn about how to use grounding techniques to relieve stress, anxiety, or unwanted thoughts.
Sometimes, life throws you a curveball and you find yourself overwhelmed. Maybe you experienced a loss. Perhaps you find yourself pondering the meaning of life. Or maybe the current state of affairs makes you feel lost. Whenever you find yourself anxious or stressed, you can use grounding techniques to reconnect with yourself and the present moment. This science-based strategy may be helpful for anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, or even dissociation.
Grounding techniques work by “grounding” you in the present moment and pulling you away from intrusive thoughts or feelings. This refers not only to having your “feet on the ground” but also “the mind on the ground.” When you turn your attention away from thoughts, memories, or worries, you can refocus on the present moment (Fisher, 1999).
Grounding techniques are useful because they help you distance yourself from an emotional experience. When you experience negative emotions—for example, perhaps you accidentally remember a painful memory—the natural instinct of the brain is to start the involuntary physiological change known as the “fight or flight” response. Although this response keeps you safe by preparing you to face, escape from, or fight danger, memories are not a tangible danger. If you find yourself in moments like these, grounding techniques can help the body calm itself and return to the present moment.
The 54321 Grounding Technique
The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is probably one of the most common grounding techniques. This technique helps by grounding you to the moment and reconnecting you to all five senses by naming:
Five things you can see. Look around you and name five things you can see, it can be anything that’s in front of you such as the phone or the wall. It can also be things that are further away, such as the buildings or sky.
Four things you can feel. This is important because it makes you pay attention to your body. You can think about how your hair feels on your back, how your feet feel in your shoes, or even how the fabric of your clothes feels on your skin.
Three things you can hear. Pay attention to your environment: do you hear birds, construction noise, the AC working? Say any three things that you can hear.
Two things you can smell. Smelling is a powerful sensation, yet sometimes we move through life without paying that much attention to it. If you can, walk around a bit and notice the smells. If you can’t smell anything or can’t move, you can name two smells that you particularly like.
One thing you can taste. Can you still taste lunch, coffee after, or gum? If you want to, you can grab a candy or a mint and acknowledge how the flavors taste.
The next time you feel anxious or are overthinking a problem, try the 54321 grounding technique to become more present in the moment.
Play a Categories Game
This grounding technique helps your mind to focus on something else, ideally something more pleasant or neutral. For this technique, you can list a couple of categories and challenge yourself to list as many things as possible in those categories. You can ask yourself:
What are five authors that you like?
Can you name five football players? How about basketball players?
Can you name five movie stars that recently appeared in a movie?
What are ten European countries?
List all the types of flowers that you like.
What are some car brands?
What are some ice cream flavors?
List as many animals you can that start with the letter “B.”
Do a Meditation Exercise
Mediation is a very powerful grounding technique to reduce stress, depression, anxiety, and it can help you get out of your head and reconnect to your body. There are many types of meditation, such as the body scan, moving meditations, or loving-kindness meditation, so it’s important to try and figure out which one works best for you. Meditation has been shown to reduce stress, make you calmer, promote happiness (Mineo, 2018), and even reduce symptoms of PTSD in the US military (Seppälä et al., 2014)
Focus on Your Breath
Many clinical workers use breathing exercises to help patients be present in the moment. Focusing on breathing is a great tool for reducing stress and anxiety (Stefanaki et al., 2015). Breathing exercises work because they help you disengage with your mind and not pay attention to the distracting thoughts. You can do the simple exercise below before bed, when you wake up in the morning, or before an important meeting.
First, find a comfortable and quiet place to sit or lie down. Breathe in slowly through your nose, and notice how your chest and belly rise as you fill your lungs. Then, breathe out slowly through your mouth. Do this a few times until you start to calm down.
Grounding techniques are strategies that may reconnect you with the present and may help you overcome anxious feelings, unwanted thoughts or memories, flashbacks, distressing emotions, or dissociation. You can try as many grounding techniques as you want: the more you try, the higher the chance you’ll find something that works for you.
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Fisher, J. (1999). The work of stabilization in trauma treatment. Trauma Center Lecture Series, Boston, Massachusetts.
Seppälä, E. M., Nitschke, J. B., Tudorascu, D. L., Hayes, A., Goldstein, M. R., Nguyen, D. T., ... & Davidson, R. J. (2014). Breathing‐based meditation decreases posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in US Military veterans: A randomized controlled longitudinal study. Journal of traumatic stress, 27(4), 397-405.