Grounding techniques for trauma, anxiety, and panic
How you can get centered when these titans throw you out of balance.
Those who struggle with interruptions from trauma, anxiety, or panic know that these experiences can come out of nowhere and hit you like a 20-ton train. Often, the greater our stress level, the more we experience moments of feeling out of control and are consumed by worry or shut down by anxiety.
It is important to know what your most common triggers are: particular situations, people, thoughts, or feelings. The more familiar you become with your particular triggers (the things that happen before you experience anxiety or panic), the better you will become at anticipating the anxiety.
Here are several techniques you can use when you experience panic or anxiety or trauma symptoms (please note some of these may not work for you and it is advised you get help from a trained professional if you are consistently having these experiences):
Orient yourself with your eyes. This technique comes from Peter Levine's somatic experiencing approach. The idea is that, when you begin to feel swept up in anxiety or panic, you actively look around the room and concretely assess the level of danger and safety. Instead of getting swallowed by the anxiety or panic, you can more concretely assess you actual level of safety.
Example: You are sitting in a coffee shop. All of a sudden, you feel it. You get hot, your heart begins to beat faster, and you can't breathe as easily. You feel fear in your body. You look around. The first thing that catches your eye is a man in a dark coat standing by the door. You're not sure how you feel about him. Then, you look and see a child happily playing with it's mother. You look over to see the baristas showing no sign of alarm. As you look around, you see that, despite your body reacting to signals of threat, your immediate environment is safe.
Use weight and pressure. Several studies have shown that weight and pressure can be helpful in causing the body to go into relaxation mode. There are several examples of how you can use this: have someone hug you, cuddle an animal or have them relax/nap on your chest or lap, holding your baby to your chest, use weight bags filled with rice on your chest or other parts of your body, or use a weighted blanket.
Intentional breathing. Breathing is a nervous-system regulator. That means that your body is willing to take instructions from your breathing about what is going on. Short, labored breathing and your body will begin preparing for fight, flight, or freeze. Slow, deep belly breaths, and exhales longer than inhales will cue your body to calm and relax. A simple breathing exercise is to breathe in for the count of three and out for the count of four, imagining that your belly is a well and your breath is a bucket. Lower the bucket into the well one-two-three and raise the bucket out of the well four-three-two-one.
Example: You have been texting back and forth with a friend who you think may be upset with you. You texted them two hours ago, but they never texted back. You look down at your phone and see that there is an unread message from them. You begin to feel the familiar beginning of anxiety. Since you recognize it, you are able to intervene. You practice your breathing before opening the text. Your body calms. You read the text and see that your friend has just been busy.
Interact with your pet or other animals. Animals have been shown to decrease symptoms of trauma, panic, and anxiety. They can help to: bring us into the present moment, laugh and giggle at their shenanigans, calm ourselves by petting or playing with them, and remember not to take everything so seriously. When we pet our animals, oxytocin (often referred to as the "feel good" hormone, also released during hugs, breastfeeding, and orgasms) is released into our brain, which helps to boost our mood and decrease stress and anxiety.
Use your five senses to calm your body. You can never know too many ways to calm yourself down, especially if you struggle with trauma, anxiety, stress, or panic. Using your five senses to calm yourself down is an experiment in what smells, textures, sights, sounds, and tastes cue your body into relaxation mode. It could be lavender, a fuzzy blanket, or the sound of rain - anything that helps your body to get the message that everything is okay.
Example: After a difficult day that was super stressful, you come home. You are hungry and tired. Your partner said they would be home, but are running late and you haven't heard an update. You know they are probably fine, but you can't help but worry that something has happened. You grab your favorite and softest blanket and put on beach wave sounds. They comes home 15 minutes later.
Use positive self-talk. If you find your thoughts are triggering your anxiety, try using positive self-talk to counter the anxious thoughts and messages.
Example: You go to a social gathering where you only know a couple of people. You begin to have thoughts "none of these people are going to like me," "they probably invited me out of pity," "why do I come to these things, I'm so awkward and I never know what to say," etc. You could take a break by going in the bathroom and use positive counter-language to decrease anxiety. You could say to yourself: "lots of people get nervous about meeting other people," "it's okay that I feel this way," "it's more likely that they invited me because they like me and want to be around me," or "I have lots of positive qualities that will outshine any of my flaws." You return to the party and repeat these to yourself anytime the original thoughts return.
Contact your friends for support. If you have friends whom you trust with your tender places, try reaching out for support when you are feeling anxious. Have your friends remind you that this will pass, that you are amazing, and that you are worthy of love even when you are struggling. Sometimes, the best medicine for these experiences is having someone remind us that we're not alone and we're going to be okay.