By Malika Noor Mehta
Artwork by Kanika Dhankher
Nina was at a wedding. She had danced the night away, surrounded by friends and family. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary had happened to her that night. She returned home from the wedding, reminiscing about a wonderfully fun night. Yet, somehow, Nina was jolted awake in the middle of the night. Her heart was racing. Thumbing. Uncontrollably. She was not sure what was wrong or why this was happening, nor did she know how to calm herself down. She spent the night holding her heart, listening to it race and hoping that the morning might bring some respite.
Her friend’s wedding continued the next day. Even though Nina wanted to enjoy the festivities, she was jarred by her experience the night before and could not focus on her surroundings. Nina’s friend, Rohit, noticed her pale countenance and asked her what was wrong. When Nina described her night and the anxiety she was feeling at the moment, Rohit asked her to sit down. He then proceeded to use a concept called Grounding to refocus Nina’s energy and mind. He asked her to name 5 things she could see, 4 things she could touch, 3 scents she could smell, 2 things she could taste, and 1 sound she could hear. Employing all of her senses, Rohit helped Nina reduce her heart rate and re-enter the present moment.
That is Grounding.
Feel the earth beneath your feet. Feel the roughness of gravel or the silkiness of sand. Feel the prick of a pebble below your toes. Listen to the blaring horns of a traffic jam or the little tweets of a sparrow. Listen to the swish of the fan as it swirls above your head. Observe pedestrians navigating through a bustling sidewalk. Observe the colours of their clothes. Observe the way they move their limbs. Count the people. Stay present so that your mind does not revert back to the state of anxiety you were trying to escape. Allow your senses to keep you calm. Ground yourself in the moment.
Grounding is a mindfulness technique that helps a person reorient their mind to the here-and-now. This skill helps you overcome or manage intense feelings of anxiety or stress by connecting you to reality. There are two ways of approaching Grounding: sensory awareness and cognitive awareness.
This Grounding approach relies on the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Purposefully increasing our sensory awareness immediately connects us to the present moment. Practices as simple as listening to soothing music, putting lotion on your body, eating a delicious piece of chocolate, noticing the colours in your room, or enjoying the aroma of a scented candle, might help distract your mind from feeling overwhelmed by anxiety. This gentle technique might help prevent a panic attack. It may even reduce the likelihood of experiencing a flashback to a traumatic event.
Alongside our senses, our mind is our most powerful tool. Re-focusing the mind to the present moment is critical. As we subtly distract the mind, the anxiety we feel may dissipate. We can reorient our mind by asking ourselves a series of simple, grounding questions:
Where am I?
What is the date today?
What month is it?
What year is it?
How old am I?
These questions are entirely subjective. We can create calming questions for ourselves, ones that help refocus us in a quick yet simple manner. For instance, I might ask myself the names of my parents, my sister and my dog. I might ask myself where I went to high school and college. I might ask myself to list the names of the people in my extended family. As the mind takes on a new task, one that is not too complicated or difficult to accomplish, it settles itself.
We all understand anxiety. We have all experienced some version of it at different levels of severity. We know what it is like to hear our hearts thumbing, to feel our stomachs churning, or to notice small beads of sweat forming on our foreheads. The reason for this anxiety can vary. Perhaps a job interview. Perhaps an exam. Perhaps a fight with a loved one. Perhaps an imminent deadline. Perhaps the on-going pandemic that has impacted the health and safety of so many. No matter the reason, we all know what it feels like to be anxious. Yet, occasionally, we do not know what to do about it.
While therapy is wonderful, and in many cases, a necessary method of dealing with anxiety, it remains a long-term solution. Sometimes we need a quicker, more immediate hack to deal with a sudden bout of stress or panic. Grounding techniques help us manage our own mind. They help us rely upon our own resilience, mindfulness and self-compassion when anxiety threatens to take over our beings. While there is absolutely no one-size-fits-all formula for handling anxiety, panic or stress, general Grounding techniques such as sensory awareness and cognitive reorientation will likely help most of us.
Here are some more techniques, broken down through the senses. We really hope they help:
Grab your pillow and squeeze it tight.
Pour yourself a cold beverage or a warm tea, and hold the glass for a few seconds before drinking it.
Hold an ice cube in the palm of your hand for a few seconds and let it melt through your fingers.
Grab some bubble wrap and start popping it gently. Notice the feel of the bubbles and sounds they make as you pop them.
Take a cold or warm water shower.
Chew on a piece of gum and notice how it tastes and feels in your mouth.
Eat a piece of candy or chocolate or anything delicious and savour the flavours slowly.
Bite into something sour – a lemon or an orange – and let the sourness give you Goosebumps!
Grab a packet of chips and enjoy the crunch.
Eat a tiny bit of mint, cinnamon or hot salsa and allow the flavours to engulf your taste buds.
Light a scented candle.
Take a walk in a garden and smell the flowers around you.
Sniff some mint leaves (then maybe eat a few).
Notice the aromas of cooked food wafting from the kitchen.
Rub essential oils or soothing, scented lotion on your hands. Lavender is a scent that is particularly calming.
Listen to soothing music.
Turn on your favourite Netflix comedy and listen to the voices of the characters, even if you do not pay attention to the plot.
Call a friend or family member. Tell them you are feeling anxious and ask them to tell you a story. Listen to their voice and allow it to distract you.
Pay attention to the mundane sounds around you – horns blaring, birds chirping, the clanking of pots and pans, the rustle of leaves. Even the sound of your breathing.
Chant. Om. Or Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō. Listen to the sound of your own voice.
Name all the colours you see in your room or wherever you are
Count objects or people near you
Watch your favourite TV show or read a magazine
Play a fun game on your computer or phone
Write down 5 of your favourite things or list the names of your loved ones
As we navigate through the trials and tribulations that life inevitably throws our way, we must take the time to identify techniques that ground us and help us remain stable. While there are several ways of calming our mind, only through self-reflection and awareness will we be able to identify what works best for our own mental wellbeing. Giving ourselves the time and space to identify our methods is as important as going for a routine doctor’s visit or a quick dental check-up. Grounding is simply another way in which to lead a healthy, stable, calm life.
About the author
Malika Noor Mehta is a mental health entrepreneur. Before the pandemic, she was engaged in creating a fellowship program that placed mental health counsellors in low-cost schools in Mumbai. Her interest in mental health stems from her teaching experience at Teach for India and her time in Jordan and Greece, creating trauma-sensitive education programs for Syrian refugees. She holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. In her free time, she loves to write and take photographs.