Help, I’m Panicking! Grounding Exercises for Strong Emotions

Help, I’m Panicking! Grounding Exercises for Strong Emotions

by Paige, a loveisrespect Advocate

We’ve all been there—sweating, heart racing, hyperventilating, thoughts spiraling out to envision worst-case scenarios. Panic happens when your sympathetic nervous system activates to prepare you to fight or flee a potentially life-threatening situation. While the acute stress response can be useful in an actual life-or-death situation, what do you do when it strikes during times you’re actually safe, such as the middle of your calculus test, waiting for your partner to text you back, or after a traumatic memory is triggered? Grounding, or mindfulness, techniques aim to mitigate the panic response by activating your parasympathetic nervous system to bring you back to the present moment. You can practice these methods during a calmer time or write them down for easy access next time you need some help feeling grounded.

Take some time to catch your breath.

Exercise 1:  Start with an inhale of 3 counts, hold the breath for 3 counts, then exhale for 3 counts. Repeat, slowly working your way up to 8 counts.

Exercise 2:  Look around you. Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. It might also help to focus on details, such as color, texture, or shape.

Exercise 3:  Put your emotions into words, verbally or in writing. Labeling feelings decreases emotional reactivity in the brain.

Still can’t breathe?

  1. Put your hands together like you’re praying, cup them over your mouth/nose, and create a small opening on the other side with your hands. The smaller airflow is much like breathing into a paper bag.
  2. Create a small opening to breathe through by pressing the sides of your lips together.
  3. Try to breathe with your stomach/diaphragm. Laying down flat on your back can help.  Move to a firm surface if you’re still having trouble.

You’re doing great! 

Everyone has moments of high emotional distress at one point or another, and it certainly is not an uncommon experience for persons in unhealthy and abusive relationships. After repeated trauma and prolonged distress, these high emotional states can become more frequent and sometimes reach a point of being intrusive and impairing.

Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior:  How are they connected?

Your feelings are always valid. Feelings are like reflexes; they are the body’s natural response to a stimulus. A stimulus can be something external, like an event or action by another person, or internal, like a thought or memory. Emotions serve a purpose, which is why we evolved to have them. Emotions inform us of the personal significance of a situation, and their purpose is to organize and motivate action. In other words, emotions exist: (1) to inform us that something significant happened, (2) to help us plan around actions to take, and (3) to help us take those actions.

That said, emotions don’t cause behavior, actions, or choices, because people have free will.  Emotions can cause physiological reactions, like difficulty breathing, shaking, and crying, but physiological reactions are NOT the same as behavior. Behavior refers to conduct, or actions that are chosen by the person. For example, fear can cause a panic attack, but anger cannot cause abuse. Trying to avoid, reject, or repress strong emotions paradoxically makes them stronger. That’s one reason why it’s unhelpful when a person tells someone else to “just not think about it.” Emotions cannot be controlled, but they can be regulated. Use your best judgment and consider your situation to decide if it’s best for you to calm the emotion or lean into the discomfort to delve deeper into the real issue.

What is Grounding?

Grounding is a type of coping strategy that immediately connects a person with the present moment. Grounding techniques often use the five senses (sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste) and are effective for coping with flashbacks, dissociation (feeling disconnected from what’s going on around you), triggers, intrusive thoughts, and feelings of being out of control or lost.

Grounding Exercises:

  • Turn on some music; make it loud so it will be harder to ignore
  • Touch something cold, like an ice cube, metal, or stone
  • Smell something strong, like a candle, perfume/cologne, or peppermint oil/tea
  • Eat or drink something sour/bitter, like lemonade mix, lime/lemon juice, or citrus fruits
  • Identify the colors or textures around you
  • Identify all the pieces of furniture in the room
  • Sit in a chair with your legs uncrossed and focus on the sensations in each body part, starting with the toes and going up
  • Walk around the room at any pace you desire while counting your steps
  • Repeat a comforting mantra or positive affirmation, like “this feeling will soon pass” or “I can handle this one step at a time”
  • Step outside and name all the things you hear
  • Attend to the sensations in your nose, lungs, chest, and stomach as you breathe
  • Sing or dance to a song that makes you feel good
  • Stamp your feet and focus on the power you have in your legs
  • Ring a bell, play an instrument, or challenge yourself to “make” your own instruments by jingling keys, shaking boxes of food, drumming on a flat surface with hands or sticks, twanging a rubber band, or using any other objects around you to make noise
  • Get some comfort items like a colorful or smooth stone, a photo of a person/thing/scenery that you love, a small vial of a fragrance, a special piece of jewelry, a trinket, a stuffed animal, a blanket, a gift from someone you care about

The Relaxation Response

The relaxation response is nature’s antidote for stress, fear, panic, anger, and all forms of emotional and physical tension. You can support yourself through these feelings when they come up by trying grounding exercises and relaxation activities.

If you’re having troublesome thoughts, emotions, and physical reactions after something traumatic, remember that you’re having a very normal reaction to what is/was a terrible, and likely abnormal experience. The problem is external and does not reside in you, you are simply reacting to it the way many people would if they went through something similar. Have compassion for yourself and realize that you are doing the best you can in a very difficult situation.

Relaxation Activities

  • Blow bubbles
  • Take a bath with music/candles
  • Take a long shower
  • Try breathing exercises (You can even use GIFs to help with this!)
  • Listen to a guided meditation video or audio file
  • Do a progressive muscle relaxation exercise
  • Use a stress ball
  • Play with Play-Doh or Silly Putty
  • Use a comfort item
  • Use positive imagery to reach a state of calm. Close your eyes and picture yourself in a safe, calm place with someone you love

Need more support?

If what’s causing your panic is a romantic relationship, reach out to our advocates via chat (click the Chat Now button), text (text “loveis” to 22522), or phone (1-866-331-8453) for information, support, safety planning, and local resources. We’re here 24/7/365! Please keep in mind that advocates are not counselors or therapists and cannot diagnose or treat any emotional, mental, or behavioral issues. Looking for a therapist? GoodTherapy might be able to help!

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