As human beings we experience fluctuating physiological responses to our lives from moment to moment (for example, feeling your heart rate rise during a public speaking event or feeling calm after a long run). When our well-being appears to be threatened by a sense of danger it can be difficult to regulate the emotions, physical response, and thoughts that can be associated with an event. This is why it can be important to practice exercises that help regulate both our physical body as well as our internal experience.
What Type of Grounding Exercises Are There?
Breathing helps regulate our body. When we breath quickly or slowly we are sending a messages regarding our safety to our brain and to the rest of our body. Often times we are not aware that we have been holding our breath when we are scared, or taking shallow breathes when we are nervous. Being able to slow down and regulate our breathing can help us send those signals to the rest of our body informing our brain that in this moment we are ok and safe.
Square Breathing Exercise:
Using the focus on your breath and the count of four inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, exhale for four seconds and hold your breath for four seconds. You can repeat this exercise as many times as you need. If you are feeling dizzy or lightheaded please stop the exercise. You can also change the count (from four seconds to six seconds) to what feels best for you.
No, you don’t have to go to the gym or become an athlete to reap the benefits of this grounding skill. If you’re experiencing some distress, feeling anxious, or ruminating on an experience it can be helpful to do jumping jacks on the spot, try some push-ups or any other high intensity movements. Doing exercises that will raise your heart rate can aid in bringing awareness back into our body and reset our nervous system. As a reminder, try to pay attention to your body as you engage in this skill and stop at any point if you feel uncomfortable.
The 54321 exercise actives all of our senses. By going through each step we can become more aware of where we are, what’s going on in the present moment and become engaged in the present moment. It’s sort of like pressing the reboot button in our mind. This skill can be particularly helpful if you find yourself becoming overwhelmed or stuck by disturbing thoughts or memories form the past or future. You can run through this exercise as many times as needed to help you ground and become more aware of the present moment.
Name 5 things you see in the room
Name 4 things you can feel
Name 3 things you hear right now
Name 2 things you can smell right now *hint you can pick up smells from your clothes, the shampoo in your hair, your coffee and more
Name 1 compassionate phrase you can say to yourself
Cold Temperature Shift
It’s a scene that might be familiar from movies and TV, someone goes to the sink and splashes their face with cold water when they’re feeling upset or overwhelmed. Although this may seem like a cliché there is science behind this action! Activating something called the dive reflex is effective in resetting the nervous system. The dive reflex is the natural response of redistributing oxygen stores to other areas of your body (like the heart and brain) when the head is submerged in cool water. So, if you’re feeling distressed and need to reset, splashing cold water on your face, having a cold shower or, ideally, dunking your head in a sink full of cool water can help in activating this dive response.
When Should I Practice Grounding Exercises?
We can think about grounding exercises like learning how to use the breaks in a car for the first time. We want to practice in times and places where the stakes aren’t as high. Using grounding exercises when you’re feeling ok is a great way to practice and get the hang of the exercise. For instance you might want to practice your breathing exercises while you’re driving to work, or the 54321 skill while waiting in line at the grocery store. By practicing grounding in more manageable environments you strengthen the skills and you become more familiar with the strategies. This increases the likelihood of you using the grounding strategies when you are feeling triggered or in high distress.
How Can Grounding Exercises Help in my Therapy?
Having the ability to observe and effectively respond to your emotional experiences (rather than being taken over) not only promotes a sense of self mastery, it also creates an ability to feel safe to explore and process difficult emotions or experiences which can be very helpful in the therapy sessions.
These grounding strategies can be powerful and help you move through difficult situations. As a trained therapist I speak from first-hand experience as I often encourage clients to practice these skills in and out of the counselling sessions.