Grounding Techniques for Anxiety

By Erika Krull, LMHP on August 9, 2021.

Grounding techniques can help you quickly manage anxiety symptoms. They’re simple activities that help you cope with painful emotions, distracting thoughts and physical symptoms of stress. Most only take a few minutes and can be done in your daily environment.

How to manage anxiety with grounding techniques

Your amygdala is the emotional center of your brain. When your brain perceives a threat, your amygdala sends signals to your mind and body. This is your body’s “fight or flight” reaction, which can make you feel unsettled and overstimulated.

Grounding techniques are a type of cognitive behavioral treatment used to manage symptoms of stress and anxiety. They help your mind and body reconnect with the present moment. As you feel more emotionally and physically settled, your sense of self-control improves and your symptoms diminish. Here are a few that you can try.

Deep breathing

When you feel anxious, your breathing becomes shallow. This feeds into feelings of panic and anxiety. Deep breathing counters stress by triggering your body’s natural relaxation response. One study showed that deep breathing exercises were linked with lower levels of cortisol, a hormone linked with stress. Deep breathing also slows your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure

Try this simple deep breathing exercise.

  1. Sit in a comfortable chair or lie on your back. Use pillows or cushions for extra support, if needed.
  2. Make your back as straight as possible to allow for deep inhales.
  3. Close your eyes or focus on one spot ahead of you.
  4. Put your hand on your belly. This will help you focus on deeper breaths. You can put your other hand on your chest if that’s comfortable or helps you focus more deeply on your breath.
  5. Inhale slowly through your nose. Count slowly to five as your belly fills with air.
  6. Exhale slowly as you count to five.
  7. Repeat this a few more times until you start feeling more relaxed. 

Use ice or cold water 

Ice and cold water can shock your senses, snapping you back to reality. Cold water is a quick fix; it’s fairly easy to find and can help in many ways.

Try these cold water grounding techniques. You can also add ice cubes or use ice packs for a stronger effect. Stay focused on each sensation as you experience the cold.

  • Place a cold, wet washcloth on your face, neck, or other body parts. 
  • Splash your face with cold water. 
  • Hold an ice cube in your hand for as long as possible or until it melts.
  • Dunk your face in cold water for 10-20 seconds
  • Dunk and hold your hands in a bowl of cold water. 
  • Run your hands under a stream of cold water.
  • Take a cool or cold shower.

Physical activity 

Physical activity helps by bringing your body sensations into focus. Take your overall health and mobility into consideration when trying these activities.

  • Talk a brisk walk. Walking pumps oxygen to your brain, gets your muscles moving and provides a natural rhythm to follow. Outdoor walks can be especially good for your physical and mental health.
  • Gently stretch your muscles. Gentle stretches are a great way to engage your muscles and wake up your senses. Hold each stretch for 10-15 seconds each.
    • Stand or sit tall and reach straight up. 
    • Tip your head sideways toward your shoulder (do both sides). 
    • Sit in a chair, place one foot out in front of you (do both feet), and lean forward gently.
  • Do some chores. You don’t need formal exercises to get your body moving. Do some yard work or find some physical tasks inside your house or office to focus on. 
  • Dance or sway. Pick some favorite tunes and dance or sway to the beat. Or, if dance isn’t your thing, tap out a rhythm with your hands on a table or your lap. 

Practice the 5-4-3-2-1 technique 

The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is a method that uses all five senses as you create a countdown from the environment around you. It also helps you detach from racing or anxious thoughts. It’s best to start with a few deep breaths, then you:

  • Identify 5 items you can see
  • Identify 4 things you can hear
  • Identify 3 things you can touch
  • Identify 2 things you can smell
  • Identify 1 thing you can taste

The time it takes to complete the list allows your breathing and heart rate to start slowing down. If you still feel anxious or unsettled after one round, try some deep breathing and go through the exercise again. 

The chair technique 

The chair technique brings your awareness to several parts of your body. It pulls your attention away from distracting thoughts or feelings and brings your body and mind back to the present.

  • Find a chair, couch or any seat with a backrest. 
  • Close your eyes and slow your breathing.
  • Think about how the chair feels against your hands, legs and back. Notice everything you’re experiencing.
    • Touch the fabric and focus on that sensation. 
    • Is the cushion firm or soft?
    • Is your back straight or reclined?
  • Push hard against the floor with just your heels, then with just the balls of your feet and then the entire bottom surface of your foot. 
  • Picture your breath moving up and down your body. Feel it move all the way from your head down through the bottom of your feet.  

When to see a doctor for anxiety 

Some people still struggle with anxiety after trying grounding techniques. These coping methods can help, but they may not be enough on their own. If your anxiety still bothers you after trying these methods, it may be time to see a doctor or mental health professional. Here are some ways to get started.

  • Your primary care doctor/local healthcare provider – Cognitive behavioral therapy and medication are two treatments that help many people find symptom relief. 
  • Finding a counselor – Connecting with a therapist can be an important step for managing persistent anxiety. Here are some tips for finding a good fit with someone. 
  • NOBU appThis app can help manage anxiety in several ways. You can meet privately with an online counselor, take clinical assessments, track your mood and learn ways to manage your symptoms. 
melissa carmona

Edited by – Melissa Carmona

As the content manager at Advanced Recovery Systems, Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Melissa is a Florida State University graduate… Read more.

erika krull

Written by – Erika Krull, LMHP

Erika Krull has a master’s degree in mental health counseling and has been a freelance writer since 2006. She is a healthcare writer specializing in mental health content for professional training modules, blogs, and websites. Her writing has been featured… Read more.

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Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.