Dealing with an anxiety spiral can make you feel overwhelmed, powerless, and even a little embarrassed. So, before we get into a few grounding techniques to use when you’re anxious, let’s start with one (hopefully comforting) fact: At its core, anxiety is actually a normal reaction to stress and danger.
When you’re feeling anxious, your brain—specifically, the amygdala and hypothalamus—trigger your sympathetic nervous system into a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. As your body releases adrenaline and cortisol to help you respond to the threat you’re perceiving, your muscles tense, your heart starts racing, your breathing intensifies, and you start sweating (among other effects), according to the Mayo Clinic.
In many cases, including during the new coronavirus pandemic, a little anxiety can help you make sound decisions (like choosing to social distance responsibly or wash your hands more attentively). But sometimes anxiety “just gets out of hand,” Neda Gould, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, tells SELF. Though Gould is careful to say that spiraling isn’t a clinical term and can mean different things to different people, the common experience is that “you might have some sort of trigger that escalates into catastrophic thinking and physical sensations.” It isn’t necessarily as severe as a panic attack, but the symptoms can be similar, Gould says. “Sometimes it can be so extreme that it interferes with our functioning.”
When faced with anxiety, your knee-jerk reaction might be to talk yourself out of it, but this isn’t always helpful, Mona Potter, M.D., medical director at the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program, tells SELF. “Our body is in such high-alert … mode that talking ourselves down is not going to be powerful enough,” she explains. “Physical coping mechanisms can help lower the intensity.”
Below, you’ll find eight grounding techniques to physically help you through an anxious spiral. Some of these are most useful when you practice them before anxiety strikes, and some of them might best work their magic when you’re in the middle of a spiral. Either way, we hope they help you out in this incredibly stressful time.
1. Try deep diaphragmatic breathing.
Typically, when anxiety strikes, your breathing hastens and becomes shallow, which can keep you feeling more anxious, Dr. Potter explains. When you take deep breaths, however, you are “turning on what people sometimes call the rest-and-digest system, or the parasympathetic system,” Gould says. This counters your sympathetic nervous system’s anxiety response so that you can feel calmer.
You can intentionally trigger your parasympathetic nervous system to kick in through diaphragmatic breathing, Dr. Potter explains. By targeting your diaphragm, the main muscle involved in breathing (it sits right under your lungs), you make it a point to breathe more deeply in a way that can help you escape an anxiety spiral. To try it out, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach as you slowly breathe in and out through your nose. “Your hand on your chest should barely move,” Dr. Potter says. “Your hand on your belly is what should move.”
Dr. Potter also suggests paced breathing, which you can combine with diaphragmatic breathing. To do this, breathe in for three seconds, hold your breath for one, and exhale for about six seconds so that your exhale is longer than your inhale. Looking at a timer while practicing paced breathing can help you ground yourself as well, she says.
2. Dip your face in cold water.
If you’re feeling anxious, you can take a bowl of cold water and submerge your face for about 15 seconds, Dr. Potter says. Why? The temperature “helps to counter that sympathetic response to stress, and it helps bring your body down to a calmer place,” Dr. Potter says. It can also just be a good distraction, and if you feel like you’re overheating from anxiety, the cool sensation can be really helpful.