Coping With Anxiety: Breathing And Grounding

Our anxiety levels will come and go in waves (whether we’re diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or not). At times when our anxiety levels are high, grounding and breathing techniques can help to bring them back down to a manageable level. This can be particularly useful if we start to feel panicked, detached, or breathless. These techniques are also helpful for those of us who experience flashbacks, shutdowns, and/or dissociation.

Coping With Anxiety: Breathing And Grounding

What Is Grounding?

Grounding is all about bringing our focus back to the ‘here and now’.

It’s a term that can mean different things. Some people use the term ‘grounding’ to describe ‘earthing‘; the practice of being connected to the earth. There is some crossover between grounding techniques for anxiety and earthing, but they’re not quite the same thing.

We can use grounding techniques to refocus our mind, centre ourselves, and reduce our levels of distress. The techniques we try won’t always work straight away. For them to begin coming naturally to us, we’ll often have to practice using them (just like any other skill).

Don’t We All Breathe?

The idea of ‘breathing techniques’ might sound odd; the vast majority of us have been breathing without assistance since the day we were born.

When we’re anxious, our breathing often quickens and shallows. This can affect our parasympathetic nervous system. We’ll often start to feel physical symptoms of anxiety such as a tight chest and tense muscles.

Anxiety can make us feel dizzy, and we might start to panic. Often we’ll worry that we’re not taking in enough oxygen, so we panic more, breathe faster, and end up in a vicious cycle. In fact, we’re often dizzy because we’ve taken in too much oxygen. Our rapid breathing can mean that we don’t breathe out enough. Taking in too much oxygen, and not expelling enough carbon dioxide causes dizziness. Breathing techniques help us to slow our breathing and get everything back in balance.

How Can Grounding And Breathing Techniques Help?

Grounding and breathing techniques don’t remove the source or ‘trigger’ of our anxiety, and using them isn’t about burying our feelings and pretending that they don’t exist. They’re a way of helping us to ‘ride the wave’ safely. Grounding, breathing, and self-soothing are often linked.

Used early enough, both grounding and breathing techniques can help prevent a panic attack from occurring. Even if we do have a panic attack, these techniques aren’t redundant. They can still help us to cope with the attack, both in the moment and afterwards.

Some of us might have constant aches and pains. This can be related to the tension we carry when we’re anxious. If we stop and think about it, a lot of us are probably holding some tension in our body right now. Perhaps our shoulders are a little raised. Maybe we’re clenching our thighs or teeth as we read this. Breathing techniques can help us to release some of that tension.

Dissociation, derealisation and depersonalisation are all things that some of us live with. Each of them can cause us to feel detached from ourselves and/or our surroundings in some way. Grounding techniques can bring us back to the ‘here and now’, helping us to feel connected to both our environment and ourselves again.

Grounding When Out And About

Some of us don’t want others to know that we’re struggling. We wouldn’t feel comfortable stood at a checkout fiddling with a fidget toy. The good news is that there are grounding techniques that we can use discretely when out and about.

When grounding, thinking about our senses is often a good place to start. As well as taste, texture, smell, sound and sight, there are three senses that many of us will never have heard of. Our vestibular system is about our body movements, proprioception is the sense of where our body parts are at any given time, and interoception describes our awareness of basic functions such as hunger, thirst, or needing the toilet.

If we’re walking down the street and feel our anxiety starting to rise, then focusing on the rhythm of our steps and counting them as we go can help. It taps into both our vestibular system and proprioception. Sometimes mentally chanting affirmations while we walk can help us to connect with the rhythm of our footsteps, too.

Some of us find sound helpful, others need silence. Headphones can help in either of these situations. Noise-cancelling headphones can shut out background noise, reducing our sensory input, which can reduce our anxiety. Alternatively, we might find that music, affirmations, podcasts, the radio, or something else, can help to concentrate on where we are and stop us from feeling spaced out.

Stress balls, fiddly things, textures, worry stones, and mohdoh (or similar), can all help us to connect with our sense of touch. If we want to keep it discrete, we could play with them in our pocket, have something to fiddle with attached to our keys or pencil case or wear clothes with textures that we find comforting. Next time there’s a group of people around, have a look at what they’re doing. Many will likely be fidgeting in some way; playing with their hair, snapping a hair bobble, tapping their foot, rolling blue tak, clicking their pen, or fiddling with a keyring. Fiddling isn’t uncommon, so even if we’re openly playing with a keyring or pencil case zipper, it’s unlikely that anyone would think much of it.

Rollerballs, ‘scent bags’ (such as lavender bags), and fabric conditioner or perfume are ways that we can bring smells out of the house. Smells can be incredibly evocative and very good at helping to ground us. Some might find it helpful to spray a giant scarf with our favourite scent or wash it in our favourite fabric conditioner. Then we have a portable ‘smell me to calm down’ item that doesn’t look out of place outside of the house (unless it’s really hot).

For those of us who find that taste works well to ground us, chewing gum, sucky sweets, or hot drinks can help. Some of us are affected by caffeine and might need to avoid caffeinated hot drinks if we’re particularly anxious. Hot or chilled drinks are especially good because they also feed into our sense of touch.

Focusing on our environment helps us to feel connected. We could use play a category game with ourselves. For example, we could mentally list everything we can see that’s blue, or begins with the letter ‘g’.

If we want to use lots of our senses at once, the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 system can work well. This is where we look for five things that fit with one sense, four that fit with another and continue to work down the list. For example, five things we can see, four we can hear, three we can touch, two we can smell and one we can taste. As this is done in our head, nobody around us needs to know what we’re doing.

Grounding At Home

When we’re at home, we often have more options for grounding ourselves.

Bare feet is a great way to feel connected to our environment. Walking on grass often feels nice, some of us might be texture-seekers and like the feel of gravel under our feet. We might have a few different textures blankets on our sofa or even a rug that we love the feel of. There might be some occasions when we can have bare feet out and about, for example when on the beach, we just need to be careful to make sure it’s safe (whether inside or outside!).

Water is great for grounding. Running our hands through it or splashing it on our face can help us to stop feeling so disconnected (especially if the water is cold). Ice can be used to help us focus on one specific place. Showers stimulate lots of senses in one go – the feel and sound of the water and the smell of any products we use.

Diffusers, wax melts, oil burners, essential oils, bathroom products, and cleaning products can all influence the smell of our homes. Cooking is another smell-creator. If we’re a foodie then the smell of the things we’re cooking might help us to feel grounded. Some cooking, like hand-baking bread, can involve other senses such as touch. When cooking and baking, we just need to be careful that we are connected-enough to stay safe.

For texture-lovers there are lots of things we can do like stroking a pet, clapping, rubbing our hands together, wrapping ourselves in a blanket or weighted blanket, or wearing an old, comfy jumper. We could create a sensory bowl full of things like dried rice, beads, or glass stones.

Stretching can help us to feel connected to our body. As well as gently stretching, thinking about our points of contact can help us to feel connected to our environment. For example, if we were stood on one leg, we’d have one point of contact.

Gardening can be an amazing way to feel grounded because we are quite literally connecting with the earth, especially if we’re not wearing gloves (where safe). We are surrounded by sights, smells, and sounds, too. If we’re not particularly green-fingered, even sitting and noticing the world around us can help. Some people find photography very grounding because we’re actively focusing on specific things.

Breathing Techniques When Out And About

Sometimes anxiety hits us when we’re out and about. Perhaps we’re in a meeting and start to feel our anxiety rising, maybe we smell something that triggers a flashback. We might be walking through town, find it’s busier than expected and start to zone out.

In each of these situations, we probably can’t whip out a yoga mat and go into a downward dog, but there are breathing techniques that we can use, often without others noticing.

Paced breathing is a good technique to try first because we don’t have to remember too much. All it involves is counting our breaths in and out. There are apps that can help us to pace our breathing.

To begin with, we might stick to low numbers, for example, breathing in for three and out for four. As we get used to it, we can start counting higher numbers, taking slower breaths. When we’re anxious, we often breathe in too much and don’t breathe out enough, so it’s often helpful to count to a higher number on our ‘out’ breath than on our ‘in’ breath.

For those who find counting helpful, the 4, 7, 8 technique can work well. This is where we breathe in for a count of four, hold our breath for a count of seven, and breathe out for a count of eight. This technique can take practice and isn’t always easy. We might choose to start with slightly smaller numbers and work our way up.

If we don’t find counting helpful, there are other things we can try. Breathing in through our nose and out through our mouth helps us to slow our breathing, and stop the ‘breathing in too fast and not breathing out enough’ problem.

Some of us are very visual. Imagining ourselves breathing from the tips of our toes, all the way up to the top of our head, and then out again, can help us breathe deeply. Alternatively, we could imagine our lungs as balloons. They need to be full to bursting when we breathe in, and totally empty once we’ve breathed out.

A visual and tactile technique we can use is square breathing. To do this, we breathe in for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four, and repeat. The visual/tactile bit comes in when we start to visualise a square. As well as imagining a square, we can trace it out on our arm or leg, which is soothing. The thought of doing this with others around might be a little off-putting, but we can trace the square discretely. For example, we could stick our hand in our pocket and trace it onto our leg.

Longer-Term Breathing Activities

As well as ‘in the moment’ breathing techniques, there are activities we can do to moderate our breathing longer-term. They can help us to build up our breathing skills, as well as our ability to breathe deeply and hold our breath.

One technique is paired muscle relaxation. This is where we start at the tips of our toes and work all the way up to our body clenching and unclenching each set of muscles as we go. As we clench our muscles, we breathe in, and as we unclench them, we breathe out.

Yoga, meditation and mindfulness, are things that lots of people find helpful. It’s not always easy to motivate ourselves, so having the commitment of a class can get us out of the door, (or in front of a screen if our class is remote). If classes aren’t our thing, there are lots of videos we could follow online or apps we could use. We might choose to team up with a friend so that we can motivate and be accountable to one another.

Exercise (where appropriate) can help us to focus on our breathing. Cardiovascular exercise such as running, hiking, swimming, or rowing, can be particularly good because we can focus on the rhythm of our breathing.

How Do We Introduce Grounding And Breathing To Our Children?

Children are little people who often deal with big emotions. As parents and carers, we often have to help to guide our youngsters through these emotions and help them to learn ways to cope with them.

Grounding, in particular, can be great for young people because they naturally use their senses to explore the world.

Some children’s games naturally feed into grounding. For example, playing i-spy, or trying to spot every red van on the motorway, are both ways of using sight to ground ourselves. We can play these games almost anywhere; on a walk, in the car, or even just sat in the lounge.

Another game that often works well is sort-of-pictionary. Think of an item, then draw it (using a finger) somewhere on our body or our child’s body. Then our child then guesses the item being drawn. Here, we’re connecting hand and body – using the senses of touch, sight, body awareness and body movements.

Playing catch forces us to be present. If our child is struggling over their homework and feeling increasingly anxious over it, then having a kickabout in the garden or local park can help to give them a proper break, and bring their anxiety levels down. When playing, if they worry start worrying about their homework then they’ll most likely miss the ball. So they have to be present.

Some children really enjoy things like yoga. There are often videos online that they can follow. We can follow along with them, too!

A Grounding Box

Some people find it helpful to have a ‘grounding box’. These boxes contain different activities or tools we can use to ground ourselves. It might live in a specific place in our home, or could be more of a ‘grounding kit’ that’s portable and can be popped in our bag.

When we’re super-stressed, it can be hard to think about the things we can do to ground ourselves. This is where the box or kit comes in. It could contain things like fiddle toys, our favourite chewing gum, ‘categories to look for’ ideas, breathing technique reminders, rollerballs, and headphones.

If we’re not keen on having a physical kit, then we could have a list of ideas on our phone or stuck to our fridge.

Remembering To Use The Stuff That Works

When we’re stressed, it’s often hard to pause and use our stress-busting skills.

Some of us have close friends or family members who can prompt us. We might use reminders or alarms on our phone – they could pop up each hour reminding us to pause and check-in with ourselves. Some of us like physical reminders like a note in our wallet, or token in our pocket that reminds us to stop and check-in.

It’s Not Always Easy

Learning grounding and breathing techniques isn’t always easy. It can take time, practice, and support. We might get frustrated because we’ve tried loads of stuff and it feels like nothing’s working. But we will find things that work for us.

Try not to give up on a technique after trying it once. Few of us can do anything ‘really well’ the first time we give it a go. On the other hand, if we’ve tried a technique a few times and it just isn’t working for us, then maybe it’s time to try a different one. We’re all different so we will all prefer different techniques.

We need to remember to be kind to ourselves. This stuff isn’t easy and beating ourselves up isn’t going to make it any easier. We’re doing our best, and nobody can ask more than that.

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