How to Stay Grounded: Techniques to Cultivate Resilience
What Does It Mean To Be "Grounded'”?
Being grounded means that you are connected to your mind and body - despite facing uncertainty - and rooted in the present. Mind-body practices are a proven way to reduce unease, manage stress, and lower pain intensity. The purpose of grounding practice is not to focus on your body, where you may have pain, but to tune into your sensory experiences.
Grounding techniques are more focused and structured practices than mindfulness meditation and can feel emotionally safer when you are overwhelmed, panicky, or exhausted. Awareness of your sensory experience and present environment can dial down your emotional energy and agitation.
When we experience apprehension, we may try to think our way out of a problem, but only end up going in mental circles, over-analyzing and worrying, like we're on a hamster wheel. Our distress only increases when these mental efforts don't solve the problem. In this state, the most productive thing to do is to stop ruminating and start grounding yourself. When we return to a state of emotional equilibrium, we will be in a better frame of mind to problem-solve.
Window of Tolerance: Your Emotional Comfort Zone
Ideally, we experience the ups and downs of our emotions within a bandwidth that feels safe and manageable. After adversity, we may reach the edges of our stress tolerance but know that we will return to our emotional comfort zone. This bandwidth is called the "window of tolerance," and it describes how a healthy nervous system can stabilize at a calm level of activation after experiencing stress.
A hyper-active nervous system, in contrast, has a hair-trigger response to stress. You easily reach 10/10 on the stress scale and experience excessive emotional energy as nervousness, panic, emotional flooding, and hypervigilance. In this "fight or flight" state, your palms get sticky, muscles tense, thoughts race, and heart beats faster. If you live with illness, your pain and fatigue will likely flare.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, you may feel so overwhelmed that you shut down and feel disconnected, depressed, or even dissociated. A hypo-activated nervous system, which we can think of as 1/10 on the activation scale, is in a "freeze" state (deer in the headlights), meaning that you may feel emotionally numb, lethargic, have low blood pressure, and no appetite.
The window of tolerance is somewhere between 3-6 on the nervous system activation scale. This is our comfort zone, in which we're able to regulate our emotions and self-soothe after stressful events.
Unfortunately, chronic illness means we are usually in a hyper-activated state. Pain is a form of stress, so chronic pain constantly engages the "fight or flight" response. Over time, we may emotionally crash or shut down and get stuck in the "freeze" state. Trauma, including living with chronic illness, can create an emotional pendulum where we swing between extremes of the activation scale.
However, by developing grounding techniques, we can get better at returning to or staying within our window of tolerance. Not only does this feel like a safer and calmer state of mind, but we can train the nervous system to be less reactive to adversity. The fear of falling apart, being overwhelmed, or imploding can sustain the fight/flight or freeze state. Thus, building confidence in our ability to manage difficult situations makes it easier to come back to our emotional comfort zone, which is a vital part of cultivating stress resilience. Simply noticing that you are out of your window of tolerance is an important first step in learning to self-soothe. Resist the temptation to judge yourself for being anxious.
When beginning a grounding technique, try taking three deep breaths, placing a hand on your abdomen to notice the rise and fall of each inhalation and exhalation. If it feels right, you can offer yourself compassion by rubbing your upper arms with your hands or putting your hand over your heart (it may sound cheesy, but these gestures can release the feel-good hormone oxytocin).
Use your senses to list things in your environment. Don't get hung up on the exact number but go through each sense. Doing this activity while sitting outside in nature or by a window is very restorative.
- Name 5 things you can see
- Touch 4 things you can reach
- List 3 things you can hear
- Notice 2 things you can taste (or can feel with your tongue, like the roof of your mouth or teeth)
- Name 1 thing you can smell
I Spy a Rainbow
If you are in an environment where it’s not practical to go through each sense, such as a waiting room, then focus on what you can see. For each color of the rainbow, mentally name as many objects as you can see in that color. Mental categorization can provide a sense of order and calm. (You may have to expand the rainbow to include shades of beige and brown if you are in a waiting room though!) If a partner or friend is around, try playing the old-fashioned game of "I spy": one person selects an object they see and says, "I spy something that is [a color]." The other person guesses what the object is by naming things in that color that they can see, until they guess the correct one.
Focus On An Everyday Task (aka Make a Cup of Coffee)
You may feel weird or awkward doing an official "practice," but it's perfectly possible to ground yourself while doing something routine and ordinary. The only difference here is that you intentionally concentrate on each step of a regular activity, rather than doing it on automatic pilot.
Brewing a cup of coffee or tea is a classic example, but you could brush your teeth, water houseplants, or do any other daily activity that involves sequential steps. Pay attention to your senses as you perform each action. For example, smell the aroma of ground coffee beans as you measure each spoonful into the coffee filter. Listen as the machine brews the coffee. Watch as you swirl milk into your cup of coffee or dissolve sugar into it. Savor the taste of each sip.
Become aware of the tendency of your mind to wander. Instead of judging yourself when this happens, be kind and patient; this is a chance to begin again, by gently guiding your attention back to the sensations of making a cup of coffee.
One Last Step
When your grounding practice ends, ask yourself, "What is the next best thing I can do for myself?" Whether it is resting, reading, doing something productive, or asking for a hug, it's important to check in with yourself. Being able to identify what you need to stabilize your mind and body while under stress is vital for staying grounded, even in the face of all the uncertainty caused by chronic illness.