How to manage anxiety levels
Many of us experience anxiety, which is a natural response that occurs when we’re feeling unsafe in a number of ways. While anxiety can present in many forms, many individuals experience physical symptoms of anxiety, including a racing heart, shakiness, sweaty palms, and difficulty focusing. Luckily, there are a number of different grounding exercises you can use to help manage anxiety symptoms when they arise.
First off: what is anxiety?
While experiences of anxiety can vary widely, a simple definition of anxiety is a physiological response occurring when our bodies think we are in danger. At one time, this was evolutionarily very important. Humans needed to be able to run from predators. However, in modern society, this is less applicable (although it still can be at times).
Physiologically, when we become anxious, the fear response in our brains is activated. When the fear response is activated, it shuts down parts of the brain that are involved in logic and reasoning.
When we are unable to access logic and reasoning, we are at the mercy of the parts of our brains that are focused solely on survival. We are unable to recognize the difference between a genuinely life-threatening situation and something less serious. For example, if you are someone who becomes anxious in crowds, your brain may be having difficulty recognizing that crowds are not a life-threatening situation (trauma can also greatly affect what our brains identify as a threat). In many cases, we are not in an actual life-threatening situation. We can try to tell our brains all we want, but it often will not get through if we are having a fear response. In that case, what can be done?
Three grounding exercises to help manage anxiety
Grounding skills are highly effective and often simple techniques that can be used to calm our bodies and nervous systems when we have an activated fear response. While there are many that exist, here are a few simple and effective ones.
Deep breathing is one of the easiest and most effective ways to calm our nervous systems. There are many techniques to use. Usually, the simpler the techniques are the best so that we can access them in our most anxious states. Below are a few options:
- Breathe in and say to yourself, “one.” Breathe out and say to yourself, “two.” Make sure you are taking deep breaths into your belly. Repeat the exercise, saying “one” on the inhale and “two” on the exhale as many times as needed.
- Hold out your palm. Take the index finger of your opposite hand to the center of your outstretched palm. Breathe in as you trace your index finger up your thumb, and out as you trace your index finger down your thumb, back to the center of your palm. Breathe in as you trace your index finger up your other index finger and out as you trace your finger back down to the center of your palm. Repeat for each finger on your outstretched palm.
- Breathe in for a count of 5, hold for a count of 7, and breathe out for a count of 8. This ensures that your breaths are slow and deep. Repeat for at least four cycles or as many as necessary.
For some, breathing can be more anxiety-provoking or generally more activating. If that is the case, there are other calming exercises you can do.
2. 5-4-3-2-1 exercise
This exercise is all about identifying things in your immediate surroundings to help ground you. To begin, identify five things you can see. Next, identify four things you can touch and touch them. Then, identify three things you can hear and listen to them. After, identify two things you can smell and smell them. Finally, identify one thing you can taste and taste it. This exercise brings you into the present and your senses and away from your anxiety.
3. Noticing your feet
For this exercise, you’ll want to draw your attention to your feet. Notice how your feet feel on the ground, in your shoes, in your socks, etc. Once you have drawn your attention to your feet, lift your right foot off the ground and gently place it back down while saying to yourself, “Right foot.” Lift your left foot off the ground and gently place it back down while saying to yourself, “Left foot.” Repeat this as many times as needed.
Anxiety can be difficult to navigate on your own. If you find that, despite using grounding exercises, your anxiety symptoms are challenging to manage, consider reaching out to a mental health professional, like a therapist and/or prescriber. Therapy and medications can help you gain skills and work towards improving or resolving your anxiety. Don’t be afraid to seek out help!
Skye White, LICSW, is a mental health therapist at Catalyst Counseling, a group practice in downtown Woodinville, Washington. She loves to read, draw, and cuddle her cat in her spare time. She also loves to see live music and travel.