Stress is a part of life for everyone. An argument, a near accident, losing a job, the death of a loved one, or a chronic illness can create stress. Good things, such as having a baby, getting married, or getting a promotion may also cause stress. Some people have developed excellent mechanisms for dealing with it, while others could benefit from learning and implementing stress management techniques.
Why learn to manage stress?
Your body creates a physical response to stress which is intended to save your life. Unfortunately, our modern lives create many stressful situations that are not life-threatening, but our bodies still create the same response. This is sometimes helpful, but when it continues to happen over a prolonged period of time it becomes chronic stress and can negatively impact your health.
Anxiety is a common response to stress. Unfortunately, long-term anxiety increases the risk of other mental health conditions and physical illnesses. Anxiety can also produce a stress response in your body, increasing the potential for negative health consequences.
Severe acute stress is often caused by life-threatening situations or being the victim of a crime. These situations can cause mental health disorders such as acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to negatively impacting mental and emotional responses, these disorders can also create problems in your physical health.
No matter what causes your stress response, your physical and mental health may be harmed by ongoing stress. Therefore, it is important to know how to respond well to it and how to calm yourself down. Your response may be so uncontrollable or severe that it seems like you are a victim of your own thoughts, emotions, and physical response. However, with practice and consistency, you can learn to manage the way you respond to stress.
Whether your emotions are spiraling out of control, your thoughts are overwhelming, you are experiencing flashbacks, or anxiety is taking control, grounding techniques can help you calm down and learn to manage your mind, emotions, and body. Over time, you can retrain yourself to respond better to stressful situations.
What is Grounding?
Grounding techniques help you pull back from negative emotions, memories, thoughts, or flashbacks and focus on the present so you can calm down. Many techniques involve focusing on one or more of your five senses. Everyone is different, so it is unlikely that every one of these techniques will work for you. Try them out when you are only a little stressed and choose what works best for you. Sometimes we surprise ourselves though, so it is beneficial to try a variety of techniques since something may be helpful that you wouldn’t have guessed just by reading the description.
Once you decide what techniques you prefer, practice them! It is helpful to practice when you are only slightly stressed or anxious. That will help them become a reflex, and when you are feeling overwhelmed by your response, the techniques you have chosen will take less effort and be more natural, calming, and familiar.
Many therapists recommend the 5-4-3-2-1 technique because it engages all five senses. List things around you, working backward from 5. You could start by listing five things you see, then four things you hear, three you can smell, two you can touch or feel, then one you can taste. The order of senses does not matter but try to focus on the details of the items as you list them. It also helps to speak out loud if possible. For example, if you are listing four things you can feel say, “I feel my soft, warm socks. I feel the rough chair against my hand. I feel the smooth desk with my fingertips. I feel the cool air moving against my skin.”
It may work better for you to focus deeply on one item. Pick an object and describe in detail how it looks and feels. If you have an object small enough to fit in your pocket, you can take it with you, so it is available any time you need it.
It may also help to pick one sense. Immerse yourself in everything you can hear, see, or smell. Or you can pick one item with one sense. Here are some possibilities.
Count something. How many trees, or pieces of furniture, or floor tiles can you see?
Describe the details of the way something looks. What are the different shades of color in a tree? Are the branches straight or gnarled? What do the individual leaves look like? How do the shadows or the breeze affect the tree’s appearance?
Play a distracting game or read something. Just be sure that it is engaging enough to fully occupy your mind.
Put your hands in water and notice how it feels on the parts of your hands. Switch from cool to warm or warm to cool and notice the difference.
Hold an ice cube in your mouth and notice how it feels.
Rub your hand over a piece of furniture or clothing. Notice the texture and how it feels against the different parts of your hand.
Notice the smells around you. Are they strong scents or weak? How many scents are there?
Light a scented candle or smell an essential oil with a scent that soothes you or reminds you of something good.
Chew or suck on something with a strong or enjoyable taste and focus on the taste and the sensation of the item in your mouth. A mint, cinnamon gum, something sour or spicy, or a piece of chocolate may all be good choices.
Listen to everything around you. Try to identify each sound and list details about it. If you can hear people talking, are they male or female, young or old? If dogs are barking, what do they look like and how big are they?
Read out loud to yourself and focus on the sound of your voice in addition to the words that are being said.
Listen to a favorite song or nature sounds.
Movement may also help.
Take a short walk and notice the rhythm of your steps or count them if it helps.
Stretch your body. If you are somewhere it is inappropriate to get up and move or stretch, you can curl your fingers and wiggle your toes. Pay attention to how the movement feels.
You can tense and relax various muscle groups. It may be most effective for you to focus on one muscle group. Or, it could be most beneficial to start with your head and face, tighten your muscles then relax them and imagine the stress moving down your body. Then, tighten and relax your neck and shoulders, and imagine the stress moving further down. Continue this down your body until you imagine that all the stress or negative thoughts or emotions have been moved out of your body through your fingertips and feet.
Take deep breaths. Focus on completely filling your lungs and letting all the air back out.
Mental Techniques – If physical sensations do not work best for you, there are a variety of mental techniques that may help.
Challenge your memory. Look at a photo or picture then look away and try to recreate the details in your mind.
Use numbers. Recite the multiplication table. Count backward from 100 by sevens. Pick a number and think of five math sentences to make the number.
Recite a song, passage, poem, or verse that you have memorized. Say it out loud and focus on how it sounds, or how your lips and mouth shape the words. Or, write it down and focus on how you form each letter. Say it in your mind and visualize how the words look on paper.
Use an anchoring phrase, such as stating your name, age, birthday, where you live, and today’s date. Continue by describing your surroundings until you are fully present in the moment and calm.
There are many grounding techniques and we have provided descriptions of a few. If none of these are effective for you don’t let it discourage you into giving up. Keep trying out new techniques until you find one that is beneficial. It may help to pay attention to coping mechanisms you have already developed and build on them.
A few extra tips.
Managing stress is much easier when you start it right away. As soon as you begin to feel distressed, start your grounding technique. It will be much more difficult to gain control of your thoughts and emotions once they have grown.
It is helpful to keep your eyes open. It is much easier to stay connected to the present moment when you are looking at your current environment. Focus on the input from your senses rather than how you feel about your surroundings.
In addition to grounding techniques, there are many aspects of your lifestyle that can be modified to help manage stress, including getting plenty of sleep, eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, and exercising regularly. It is helpful to avoid tobacco, illegal substances, and consuming excess caffeine or alcohol. Research also shows that stress is diminished when people spend time with friends and family, keep a sense of humor, dedicate time for hobbies, and practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, prayer and meditation, journaling, yoga, tai chi, massage, and enjoying time in nature.
No matter how overwhelming stress can be, you can learn to manage it and control the accompanying thoughts and emotions. Our mission is to provide our patients with a deep healing experience on all levels, mind, body, and spirit. We are here to help you make changes that will positively impact your life and hope this information will help you on your path to wellness.
Melynda has been practicing Family and Pediatric Medicine since 1995 as a Certified Family and Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. She is a compassionate healthcare provider who believes in caring for each patient in a unique, holistic and individualized manner. She specializes in Preventative and Integrative healthcare for the entire family and believes that educating her patients to prevent disease and promote health is of the utmost importance. She previously practiced in San Diego, California, and has enjoyed serving patients in her local community of Temecula since 2000.