Tools To Use When You Feel Overwhelmed Or Anxious (Part 2 - Grounding)

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In our previous blog post, we explored how anxiety can often catch us off guard, causing us to feel a variety of sensations and no longer in control of our thoughts. Anxiety can be the result of our brains attempting to keep us safe based on learned triggers in our environment. Although these reactions to triggers may have been helpful in the past, we sometimes outgrow the need for these reactions as we change and develop. But even as we evolve, our brains tend to hold on to old habits if they have kept us safe in previous situations. Therefore, we sometimes have to intentionally change thought or behaviour patterns so that our brains can learn new ways of responding to triggers. In Part 1 of this blog series, we explored in-the-moment breath strategies that you can use to bring yourself back from the experience of anxiety. In Part 2, we will explore different grounding techniques that can help you bring yourself back to the present moment. 

Since anxiety can take us either into the past or the future, like ruminating about past events or worrying about future situations, we can understand that anxiety is an attempt to regain a loss of control. Once our brain begins the fight or flight response in reaction to a particular situation or external stimuli (i.e., such as another person, a smell, sight, etc.), we often attach explanations to our reactions as a way to understand why we are feeling a certain way. If we have learned to overthink past situations or predict what may happen in the future as a response to anxiety, it is likely that we will return to this type of thought pattern as similar situations arise. We can get caught in this uncomfortable anxious cycle: our thoughts take control and we lose ourselves, disconnecting us from the present moment and what is really happening around us. This is where grounding techniques can come in handy! 

Take A Moment To Reflect…

Have you experienced anxiety lately? Take a moment to reflect on a recent experience when you’ve felt anxiety. Do you remember what could have triggered it? What was going on around you? Take a moment to consider this.

After you started to feel anxiety, what were the thoughts that came up? Were the thoughts attempting to explain your experience by using past situations or by making guesses about what may happen next?

Grounding Techniques

Evidence-based therapies, such as mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy, can support us in becoming aware of the present moment with a sense of: openness, curiosity, non reactivity, and non judgement towards our experience. When we can cultivate a sense of mindfulness and ground ourselves in the present moment, we can then better attend to the uncomfortable thoughts, sensations, and emotions that we may experience as anxiety. This process is supporting the development of interoception, which is a way to build our ability to regulate our nervous system. When we strengthen this ability, we can come back to the present moment and tap into our growing inner wisdom of how to respond and nurture ourselves back to a regulated state. One useful way of practising mindfulness is by grounding our awareness and unhooking ourselves from unhelpful thoughts. The techniques that we will explore are based in various mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapies: 5 senses, 3 facts, and a body scan.


The 5 Senses:  a technique where we attempt to slow down and notice what is around us. We use our senses to check in, pause, and attend to our environment and bring our awareness back to the present moment. When you notice yourself feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or caught by a wave of thoughts or notice your heart beating rapidly, take a deep breath, and try to focus on your senses using the following process. You can either say your responses out loud or inwardly:

  • 5 things you can see - note what you see around you, noting the colours, shapes, sizes, etc.
  • 4 things you can feel - tune into textures or objects around you, including your clothes or the ground beneath your feet.
  • 3 things you can hear - are there things close to you that you can hear? Or perhaps sounds further away.
  • 2 things you can smell - notice if there are lingering smells around you, or even notice the absence of smell.
  • 1 thing you can taste - be aware of your mouth and whether you can taste anything. You may even take a sip of water or take a bite of a recent snack or meal so you can experience the taste again in a different way.

After noticing your surroundings, check in with how you are doing. If you still feel hooked by your anxiety, know that this is normal! You may move through the 5 senses again, practice taking a breath (maybe one from our previous blog post!), or practise another grounding technique.

3 Facts:   With this technique, when you feel caught by your anxiety, you find three facts that you can state to yourself. These facts will be true statements that are based on details of your life. For example, you may state your full name, your address, and your phone number. This not only helps you ground in the present moment, but it will distract your mind from running off in the direction that it likes to go when you start to feel anxious. You can repeat these three facts to yourself again and again, while taking big breaths. This technique helps you break from previous thought patterns, allowing space between the felt sense of anxiety and the reaction of your thoughts.

A Body Scan:  The last technique that we will discuss is a body scan. This may be used if you have a sense of safety within your body and feel comfortable with bringing awareness to parts of your body. You may modify this scan to exclude certain areas that you are not comfortable exploring. 

Starting with the bottom of your feet, you may wiggle your toes and then your ankles, all the while stating the body part that you are moving to yourself either out loud or inwardly. You gradually begin to move up the body, noticing your calves, your knees, and your thighs, and then your hips and your spine. Bring awareness to your belly, your chest, your shoulders and then out the length of your arms. You then move down to your wrists, to your palms, and then your fingers. You can then gradually bring your awareness to your neck, up through to your head, you may even note the features of your face, and then end with the top of your head.

It is common to get distracted during a body scan, as this type of sustained attention can be challenging! If you notice that you’ve gotten distracted, be gentle with yourself, using compassion to bring yourself back to the body scan. It can be useful to start from the beginning, or you can start where you left off. 

Once you’ve completed the body scan, you may take several breaths and notice how your body and mind feel. What do you notice? 

After Completing A Grounding Activity

After doing a grounding technique, you may feel like you want to resume your previous activities, which can start the feeling of overwhelm all over again! Instead, you can take advantage of your new found sense of awareness and presence by using this choice point. A choice point, a term from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), is when you have space to decide what to do next. You may make the conscious choice to think about something different (i.e., the task at hand), or something pleasant that supports your ability to stay regulated. It can be helpful to reflect on these types of thoughts so that you can turn to them in moments of anxiousness or overwhelm!

Need some extra help practicing these techniques to reduce your anxiety? Reach out to us at Holistic Healing Counselling and one of our Edmonton-based trained therapists will get you started!

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Welcome to Holistic Healing

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