Grounding Techniques: Exercises for Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Priscilla Warner, 70, suffered her first panic attack at the age of 15. Back then, nobody had a word for what she was experiencing, and therapy wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

Her doctor prescribed Librium — an antianxiety medication — to calm her nerves, but the medication made her groggy and didn’t resolve her panic attacks. The only way she was able to ease her anxiety was to carry around a flask of vodka from which she would sip whenever she felt overwhelmed. In her 20s, she switched to valium.

“For decades, every time I had a panic attack, I dissociated from my body. I felt shame, anger and guilt — like a freak with a terrifying secret,” says Warner, who is the author of “Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life.”

She was determined to find a self-designed healing experience to quiet her mind and calm her spirit and body. She tried meditation, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, somatic experiencing, Trager therapy and other techniques.

Of all the healing modalities she tried, the most important skills she acquired were therapeutic grounding techniques, a mindfulness-based strategy for managing stress and anxiety, that helped her reconnect with her body and manage her reactions to circumstances.

“Grounding has been found to be helpful for a variety of mental health concerns, and it’s something that can be quite powerful to alleviate distress,” says Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, a clinical assistant professor of applied psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

In a world full of anxiety, trauma and depression triggered by work pressure, life changes, distressing news and social media bombardment, grounding is a technique that can help you find balance wherever you are.

[See: 10 Unexpected Signs That You’re Stressed]

What Is Grounding?

Grounding is a powerful healing tool that enables you to strengthen the mind-body connection. It helps you focus on being in the present moment so that distressing emotions, thoughts and feelings don’t become overwhelming.

Learning and using grounding techniques can help you become more self-aware, allowing you to take control of your experiences in a positive way. When that happens, your body and mind feel calmer, and you begin to experience an increase in self-esteem and emotional resilience.

Therapists use grounding techniques with patients to help them in a variety of situations, including:

— Improve emotional regulation

Combat symptoms of depression

— Find a sense of purpose

— Reaffirm values and beliefs

“Being able to have a choice in the tools we use is critical,” says Shauna Ruda, a mental health therapist at Family Care Center in Denver. “In therapy, we practice grounding during moments of calm to build up an automatic skill set or toolbox to prepare for situations that are difficult.”

While grounding doesn’t solve underlying core issues like severe trauma, which are better treated with deeper therapy modalities, like cognitive behavioral therapy, it does serve as a quick, accessible therapeutic tool to reduce stress, enhance mindfulness and promote overall well-being.

[READ: What Are The Types of Meditation?]

Types of Grounding Techniques

There are various types of grounding techniques to help you counteract anxiety.

“Not every technique works for every person,” says Melissa C. Young, an internal medicine physician and a functional integrative medical specialist at the Center for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. “Because there are different techniques, you’ll have to try them and determine which works for you.”

The three main types of grounding techniques include:

— Sensory grounding techniques

— Physical grounding techniques

— Mental grounding techniques

[READ Best Breathing Techniques for Anxiety]

Sensory Grounding Techniques

Sensory exercises focus on tangible things that surround you and details you normally tune out to help ground you in the moment.

5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique

One of the most common grounding techniques, 5-4-3-2-1 is an exercise that uses your senses to regain control of your body when you’re feeling anxious.

Here’s how it works:

5. Look around you and name five things you can see, like reflections of light and patterns on ceilings and objects.

4. Touch or feel four things, and focus on how they feel on your skin.

3. Listen to three sounds you hear around you. You’ll find that these are sounds you normally tune out, like the sound of the wind blowing through trees, the rain or a clicking clock.

2. Smell two things — like flowers, grass or the smell of soap in your bathroom — and focus on it.

1. Taste one thing, and concentrate on the flavors.

3-3-3 grounding technique

While the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique is one of the most popular exercises used for anxiety, there are many variations to choose from, including the 3-3-3 grounding technique.

In a moment when something triggers you, you can use the 3-3-3 grounding technique, which entails focusing on three things that you can see, hear and touch. This exercise is helpful in situations of acute stress and anxiety by engaging your senses and bringing you back to the present moment. It helps focus your mind away from the feeling that you’re going to have a panic attack or that you won’t get over something.

Physical Grounding Techniques

Physical grounding is a way to connect with the present moment and physical space around you to calm your body. When you use a physical technique like breathing or walking, you distract your mind from stress and shift away from feeling anxious.

Some of the exercises you can do include:

Deep intentional breathing. This technique helps reset and calm your nervous system, effectively lowering your heart rate and blood pressure to manage stress and anxiety. For example, The 5-5-5 grounding technique is a simple deep breathing exercise. Breathe in for 5 seconds, hold your breath for 5 seconds, and then breathe out for 5 seconds. Continue to do this until your thoughts slow down.

Listening to soothing music. When you actively listen to music, you will reduce your stress, improve your mood and feel more centered. In professional therapy sessions, listening to music and discussing it helps you tune into your senses and practice self-awareness.

Taking a hot bath. Taking a hot bath and taking deliberate notice of the soothing effect of the warm water helps wash away tension and restores a sense of tranquility.

Walking barefoot outside. This allows you to pay close attention to how the dirt, grass or sand feels beneath your feet. While spending time outdoors, stop and listen to the sounds around you. Notice and name the sounds you hear nearby. Start with the closest or loudest sounds, gradually moving your awareness of sounds outward and focus on the sounds you hear in the distance.

Every grounding technique pulls you away from internal chaos.

“When you do these things, you’re focusing on each sensation in your body,” Lira de la Rosa says.

Mental Grounding Techniques

Mental grounding exercises involve imagery and can include going to a safe and happy place in your mind and thinking about what you feel. When you do this, you’re using your sensory nervous system to distract from distress, which will calm your stress response.

Visualization. Visualize sights and sounds in your mind for several minutes. For example, you could imagine a peaceful image like walking down the beach, watching a sunrise or a sunset or simply walking through a beautiful path in nature, Lira de la Rosa says.

Self-soothing exercises. Self-soothing grounding techniques are a type of mental grounding technique that allows you to comfort yourself when you’re dealing with overwhelming feelings, stress or anxiety. It focuses on self-care to help reframe what may be a self-critical inner monologue. For example, you can practice self-talk with calming words like “I am safe” to help you cope with distress and stay in the present moment.

Mental Health Benefits of Grounding

Grounding can offer several mental health benefits, including:

Reduced anxiety and stress

— Improved mood

— Enhanced mindfulness and presence

Better sleep quality

— Increased emotional regulation

— More focus and concentration

“It’s normal for us to be swept away by a thought or a memory, especially if there are strong emotions attached to these experiences,” Lira de la Rosa says. “When we get swept away, we may find ourselves overthinking, feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, which is why grounding can be helpful by bringing us back to the present.”

If you spend too much time in the past, Lira de la Rosa adds, that can lead to feelings of sadness, guilt and shame. If you spend too much time in the future, that can be a recipe for anxiety.

“But when you stay in the present moment, you have better control over your emotions and paying attention to your thoughts,” Lira de la Rosa says. “With practice, you’ll feel less anxious and stressed when using grounding exercises.”

Physical Health Benefits of Grounding

When you experience emotional distress, anxiety, panic, depression or stress, it triggers a physiological response: The emotions activate your sympathetic nervous system, a network of nerves that regulates your body’s “fight or flight” response. When it becomes activated, it signals the release of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone.

This, in turn, sets off a chain reaction: Your heart rate increases, your body begins to sweat more and your blood pressure rises — all preparing you to respond to danger.

In the long term, intense amounts of chronic stress can lead to a variety of long-term physical health issues, including:

— Muscle tension

Weight gain

— Digestive issues

Sleeping difficulties

Heart disease

— High blood pressure


Grounding techniques counteract the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” natural response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “rest and digest” response. The parasympathetic nervous system serves a complementary role to the sympathetic nervous system by controlling your heart rate, blood pressure, digestion and inflammation levels to help you feel calm and safe.

In fact, a few studies — including a 2023 and 2015 study — have shown a correlation between grounding and reduced inflammation.

Practical Guide for Common Grounding Exercises

If you’re new to grounding, it can take time and practice to reap the full benefits.

“The more you use your grounding techniques and the more you practice, the easier it will be for you to ground yourself in the present and to feel emotionally stable,” says Bethany Cook, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago. “But you need to begin by building a foundation.”

It’s important to remind yourself that you’re working toward consistency rather than perfection.

Begin by finding one or two grounding exercises. Lira de la Rosa recommends one physical and one mental grounding technique to practice at least twice a week, then increase to three times the next week, four times the week after that and so forth. The grounding exercises you choose to use will be a matter of preference. Some will resonate with you and others won’t.

“If you find yourself struggling, know that it’s ok because you will have ups and downs on this journey,” he says.

There are many books, podcasts and apps — such as Calm and Headspace — available if you need guidance with grounding techniques.

You can find many others online to help you get started on your journey to find the exercises that work best for you to practice grounding yourself in the moment.

Bottom Line

When you’re emotionally overwhelmed, you don’t have full access to your frontal lobes, the part of your brain that allows you to make rational and objective decisions. Eventually, you can become so overwhelmed that you’re no longer present.

However, with practice, being mindful using grounding exercises can give you immediate relief from stress, prevent escalation of negative feelings, increase awareness and keep you attuned to your physical sensations, thoughts and feelings.

More from U.S. News

10 Unexpected Signs That You’re Stressed

Stress vs. Anxiety: Understanding the Key Differences

Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: How to Tell the Difference

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