By Mark J. Stern, Ph.D.
Life during the pandemic has taken its toll on our psychological well-being. It has been a year full of uncertainty and instability. Many of us have been overwhelmed with unprecedented stress and may be feeling more anxious, depressed, alone, or even just “stir-crazy” from cabin fever. There may have even been times we have lost hope. You’re not alone and there is a light at the end of this tunnel. It is important, now more than ever, to take the temperature of your mental health and boost your emotional immune system.
This might seem easier said than done, but little changes can make a big difference. Let’s just start with a little re-centering.
At Integrated Neuropsychological Services, we believe in tailoring our recommendations, so first let’s see if grounding exercises may be right for you. Do you find yourself distracted or having difficulty completing tasks? Do you get stuck in the “what ifs,” consumed with worrying about what might happen in the future? Have you felt so overwhelmed by all the things you need to do that you don’t even know where to start? Do you ever struggle with being present in your daily activities or with your loved ones? If you answered yes to any of these, you may benefit from trying some grounding techniques. When you find your mind is racing, you’re feeling overwhelmed, or getting stuck in a worry-cycle, grounding can help bring you back to the here-and-now and quickly feel calmer. There are many grounding exercises you can do, and you can even make up your own. Here are a few tried-and-true to help you get started.
1. 5-4-3-2-1: You can do this one almost anywhere. This exercise offers a way to get out of those negative thoughts and into the present moment by engaging all 5 physical senses. Start by closing your eyes and taking 3 slow breaths (3-seconds in, 3 seconds out). Then open your eyes and observe the following:
a. 5 things that you can see (notice something new or details of something familiar)
b. 4 things that you can feel (e.g., the material of the chair, the softness of your skin)
c. 3 things that you can hear (try to listen for sounds that you don’t normally notice or even try to tune out, like a ticking clock or wind through the trees)
d. 2 things that you can smell (bad smells can be powerful, can you smell something good or neutral even if there is a bad smell around you?)
e. 1 thing that you can taste (this can be anything like a single potato chip, a piece fruit, a candy, or sip of your smoothie and really savor the flavor)
2. Body awareness: This technique will help ground you to the present moment by directing your attention to the sensations of your body. Try to pay attention to the detailed sensations during each step whether you start with one or all of them. Keep in mind that you can add to or modify any of these techniques if you want to get creative to increase your body awareness.
a. Take 5 very slow breaths (5 seconds in, 5 seconds out), inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth with pursed lips. Notice details, like the feel of the cool air as you breathe in and the warm air as you breathe out or the muscles involved in your breathing (e.g., your diaphragm should be your primary breathing muscle).
b. Place both feet flat on the ground. Notice the sensations as you wiggle your toes on each foot, then as you curl and uncurl your toes several times.
c. Clench your hands into fists, then release all the tension in your fingers, hands, and wrists. Then extend your fingers and stretch your hands/wrists and relax them. Repeat this cycle 10 times and each time notice the muscle being used as you extend or clench and especially feel each muscle fully relax during each rest.
d. Place your palms together and continue to press them harder for 15 seconds. Notice the tension in your hands and arms, then observe each muscle relax as you release the pose.
e. Give yourself a full body stretch for 5 seconds. If you need to remain seated, stretch your arms like you are reaching for the sky and hold for 5 seconds.
f. Take 5 more slow, intentional breaths. With each exhale notice the feeling of calm throughout your body. As you get more comfortable, try to maintain your slow breathing throughout your body awareness exercises. It’s ok If you notice that you forgot to keep it going. Simply come back to the 5 slow breaths at the end.
3. Change your focus: Giving your mind a break doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Whether you have been deeply focused on a single task for some time or ruminating on anxious thoughts, shifting your attention to benign tasks that use other parts of your brain will give a needed break to the areas that have been working on overdrive and may even add a little fun. Like with the body awareness, you can get creative. Here are few examples and try to pick ones that feel like they are different from what your focus has been.
a. Name all the objects you see. You can make it fun by seeing how many you can name in 30 seconds or you can pick a category (e.g., a color or electronic device) and name only what you see in that category.
b. Close your eyes and really focus on a task that you know well. It doesn’t have to be one that you enjoy, but it often helps, as long as it is one that doesn’t add to your stress. Make it a specific task. For example, if you like playing basketball focus on shooting or dribbling or if you like cooking focus on making your specific recipe or it could even be something routine, like doing the dishes or picturing your daily drive. Close your eyes and visualize the process in your mind. Describe each step, starting at the beginning. And, since research shows that you actually activate the parts of your brain involved in those activities, you may even get the added benefit of improving your basketball shot or your guitar strumming.
c. Count backwards by 7, starting at 100 (not recommended if you were working on a task that involves any math or if you were worrying about finances). Again, you can make this fun by seeing if you can get to a certain number faster or by changing up the numbers (e.g., subtract by 8 from 1000).
d. Air drawing: Pick and object and visualize the object in your mind. Focus on the details and use your finger to draw the image in the air. If you’re in public, you may want to imagine a pencil and keep it in your mind. It’s ok if you’re not a talented artist, start with the outlines or some details and work up from there. As tempted as you might be to actually draw on paper, there should be no physical outcome from which you might form self-judgments (good or bad), though you can always pick up art as a hobby and pick another technique for your grounding exercise.
These grounding exercises can help re-center you and bring you back to the present moment whether you are just starting to feel the stress in your day or you have been feeling increased anxiety for some time. There are many other techniques that can help you improve your mental health. If you have been feeling overwhelmed, please reach out to a friend or loved one or even a professional. We at Integrated Neuropsychological Services are here to help. We believe in a whole-person approach to your well-being and customize our treatment plans to best suit your needs, be it with individual therapy or neurofeedback or a combination. It is never too early or too late to reach out. Call us today at (479) 435-6360 to learn how we might be able to help. If you experience a medical or psychiatric emergency, please call 911 immediately.