Grounding techniques, exercises and skills for anxiety and PTSD

grounding techniques for anxiety
Pic by mmarchin under C.C 2.0

Grounding Techniques for Anxiety, Social Anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The techniques listed here are quick ways to relieve anxiety by either distracting you from your negative thoughts (or stopping the flashback in case of PTSD) or bringing you back (grounding) you in the present. Some of these techniques are mental while some are quite physical. This reflects on the two types of grounding that they provide. Sensory grounding techniques will bring you back ‘in the moment’ through focusing your senses on the immediate environment, while the mental ones will do the same only through doing some light mental gymnastics. Different things work on different people so feel free to try them and decide which ones would work best for you.


  1. Notice your toes, wiggle them and feel the texture of the floor/shoe beneath them.
  2. Make yourself aware of your breathing. Anxiety and stress cause us to take shallow breaths. Take a few deep breaths with your stomach, breathing in for 4 seconds, holding your breath for one and then exhaling for another 4.
  3. Get up and flex. While you’re flexing try and feel every muscle that moves.
  4. Make a facial expression, preferably a smile or a happy one if you’re able to. Notice all the facial muscles that are involved.
  5. Make a list of all the furniture in a room and give it to your friend. When you are feeling anxiousness build up, give them a call and let them read the list to you. Describe each object to them.
  6. Notice your posture, sit down and feel the chair behind your back and the floor beneath your feet. Lift them up and put them back down on the floor. Notice the pressure change.
  7. Try and concentrate on the sounds you hear (tapping of the keyboard, background music, chair/floor squeaking, traffic outside, other people walking or talking)
  8. Backtrack your day to the beginning. Remember the exact sequence of events that led to this moment of the day.
  9. Pick any task that you know how to do (cook a meal, repair something, plant a tree or even passing a level in a game you play) and imagine and describe every single step needed for the task to be completed. Make sure you go in greatest detail possible.
  10. Look at your immediate environment and notice the colors that surround you. Try and think of at least one other object of the same color.
  11. If you are in public, look at the people around you. Try and guess what kind of a day they are having and what burdens them or makes them happy.
  12. With your finger touch any part of your body. Notice how it feels on both the finger and the place that you are touching yourself.
  13. Take an object in your hands (cold and hot objects work best). Notice the temperature, if you have taken it out of the fridge notice the moistness. Close your eyes and rely on touch only.
  14. Remember what time it is, what day of the week it is, what date it is. Try and calculate what week of the year it is.
  15. Create a game for yourself. eg. Count to 100 (or more) aloud and change every number that is a multiple of 5 with ‘white’ and every number that is a multiple of 6 with ‘black’ – so 1, 2, 3, 4, white, black, 7, 8 .. etc)
  16. Go to the fridge and notice all the products that you have. Try and guess the country of origin of every single product. If you need more mental tasks, guess the calories or ingredients of each of the products.
  17. Meditate, if you are able to. Start by focusing on your breathing. The train of thoughts will try to take over your consciousness but always drive it back your breathing. Breathe deep from the stomach. Soothing music and peaceful environment will also help.
  18. Look around you and try and find patterns on object surfaces.
  19. Think of a category of objects and try and name every object that will fall into that category. Refrain yourself from categorizing personal experience, stick just to objective generalized memories (eg. table will include – dinner table, night stand, living room table etc.)
  20. Read some non-disturbing news concerning current events
  21. If you are outside, look up to the sky. Find shapes in the clouds or if it’s night, find patterns in the stars. Is it windy? Determine the direction of the wind
  22. Try and figure out which side of the world are you facing to. What is the nearest city, state or place of interest in that direction?
  23. Go to the mirror. Move your legs or arms while looking at the reflections. If you have a small mirror, move different parts of your face (lips, eyebrows ..) and notice what muscles you use to execute the action
  24. Slowly run your hand through your hair and along your scalp. Notice how it feels on your palm and on your head.
  25. Go to the bathroom and wash slowly wash your hands and your face. Pay attention how water feels against your skin. Feel it’s wetness and temperature. Alternatively, take a shower.
  26. If you have been playing or training any sports try and mentally recreate the exact movements required to complete an action and then gently flex every muscle involved (e.g. knees bending, elbow tucking in, looking at the hoop and wrist flexing when shooting a basketball)
  27. Make a mental map as to where other places are in relation to where you are right now. Guess the distance between those places and you.
  28. Imagine yourself as another person would see you. Move to a different position and try to adjust the mental image you have of yourself to reflect your new position.
  29. Look around you and take notice of the objects in your visual field. Group them in similar categories according to shape (spherical, cubical etc .. )
  30. Get a half full bottle of water (a transparent lighter with some lighter fluid will work as well). Slowly turn it upside down and observe the liquid. Observe how your actions affect the fluid. Try to even it out without putting it on a flat surface
  31. Get yourself a safe grounding object, something small enough to carry around but still of personal value and carry it around with you. Whenever you are getting anxious grab the object with your hands and feel the familiar texture/smell.
  32. If you are in a dark room first notice all of the objects around you then turn on the lights. Try and figure out what objects weren’t visible before and notice to which degree has the level of detail has changed on the ones that were.
  33. Stretch the palm of your hand as much as you can and feel all the muscles involved. Crack your knuckles (it doesn’t cause arthritis)
  34. Write random words on a piece of paper and analyze your hand movements in writing each letter. Read the letters of the words one by one.
  35. If you think you can calm yourself down enough try and Meditate. Otherwise distract yourself with TV/games/reading enough to break the negative thought cycle.


Grounding exercises for anxiety and PTSD

Exercises are different from techniques in this guide in the sense that they can be done daily and take a little bit more time and planning, but all in all are more powerful in reducing anxiety and stress. Doing them every morning will help you combat anxiety in the long term. The practical thing is that most of them can be done any place and any time.

  1. Coming back to the present (More suitable for anxiety)

Close your eyes and imagine that you have half the years of what you actually have now.  How do you look? What are the major life events marking that year? How did your birthday go? Now progress one year. How was that year? What changed in you since the year before? Any major world events that year? Continue doing this until you reach the present. When you reach the current year, create a mental image of yourself. Now put your current self next to your old self. Notice all the changes and progress. In order to develop the skill to stay in the moment fully, do this exercise as often as you can (once a day is enough).

  1. Take walks

As silly as it sounds, the habit of taking a walk is one that only few anxious people possess. The trick here is to walk somewhere alone. Every person needs a little bit of solitude and it will help you clear your mind. While you’re walking, make yourself aware of every step you make. If you want, you can play some soothing music as well as it will help you distract your thoughts. If you feel like the last thing you need are people, go to nature or to a place where you wouldn’t be disturbed.

  1. The five senses

On a piece of paper outline the palm of your hand and attach each of the five senses to a finger. Now associate something pleasant to each of the senses. Let’s say your thumb is taste, and you really enjoy chocolate cake. Write down chocolate cake on your thumb on the paper. Repeat this for all of the five senses and take the paper with you. At first it might be harder but in a day or two you will memorize what each finger means. Now whenever you have the time (or if you feel that the anxiety is building up) stretch your hand in front of you and look at each finger. As you look at your finger, try and recall the sensation of the object it represents. E.g. look at your thumb and try as best as you can to imagine the taste of chocolate in your mouth.

   4.  What’s New and Current

Find news of current events and read them aloud. Preferably, find something that you are less interested in. On a piece of paper copy the text from memory with your non-dominant hand. The sheer amount of attention that you need will distract you away from your negative thoughts. Unlike other skills for this one you need the time but you will be amazed how much mental effort you need to put in it. Repeat this as much as you’d like. While your handwriting skills will get better with time, becoming aware of current events will ground you in the present. After some time, you will be able to draw parallels between events that affect each other or news that seem related.

  1. Build yourself a grounding box

The grounding box is simply a collection of grounding objects (technique 31). Find at least a dozen objects and memorabilia that you have pleasant memories about. The more detailed these items are the better, or in other words, the more sensory response they produce the better. Whenever you feel in emotional distress just open the box and closely examine each of the objects. Objects that have more than a couple of dimensions work best for this. A little bottle of perfume will provide you with an object to touch and feel the shape of and hopefully colorful liquid to notice on top of the pleasant smell. Small music boxes work very well in this aspect as well. A lighter or an old banknote will do the same. Any item that you feel attached to can be a part of the box.

  1. Reality check

Turn to your immediate surroundings. Analyze each object without adding a personal component to it (This is a blue chair that I hate because it reminds of depression will turn into this is a blue chair). Once you thoroughly analyze it, try and rotate the object in your mind. How would it look like from bird’s perspective? How about if you watched from the floor? From an airplane? Once done go ahead and touch the object. Notice if it feel like you thought it’s going to feel.

  1. 5 to 1 relief technique

Again we are turning back to the five senses. Turn around and acknowledge 5 objects around you. After this, touch 4 objects fully feeling the shape and the material that they are made of. Next is to hear 3 different things. If you are in a quiet environment, try to squeak with you chair or tap a surface. Next, try to experience two different smells. Since we usually adapt to the smells that we constantly feel, you might need to move around. So go to the bathroom smell the soap, or open a can of coffee or even an old sofa cushion will do. At last, taste one thing. You might already have an aftertaste from your lunch or you might be chewing gum, but feel free to taste anything that might seem pleasant to you.

  1. Feeling your body

Sit on a chair with you back upright and close your eyes. Feel your focus as a spotlight. It does not burn it just slightly warms the area. You will take your focus to each part of your body paying attention to each for at least 30 seconds. Start by feeling your toes. Wiggle them a little. Try to feel each toe separately. After this shift your focus on your knees. With as little movement as possible move your knees and acknowledge them. Continue by now focusing on your thighs and notice both the inner and other portion of it. Now shift your focus to your butt and genital area. Do you feel these muscles? Move to your abdomen and lower back, flex your abs and move your stomach through breathing. Notice everything that changes. After this move to your chest and upper back, and flex them gently. Finally focus on your neck and shoulders before moving on your head. Try and focus on your ears and move them (some people can). The exercise finishes by focusing on your face and jaw muscles, acknowledging all the small muscles present.


Grounding skills for anxiety and PTSD


Just as exercises are a bit more complex than techniques, skills are a bit more complex than exercises.  They are something that you develop over the course of time but they also provide you with entertainment and it’s much easier to plunge into them and lose track of time. As you will read below, the basic grounding principles still apply, you still perform actions that will bring you and ground you in the moment, only this time is a whole developable set of skills that you might actually find fun.

  1. Start doing sports

Doing sports is sure to bring you in the moment, since you have to pay attention to your movements and actions, especially if it is your first time trying the sport. Physical sports have an advantage here because it’s much easier to ground yourself in the moment when you are trying to execute a movement perfectly. Learning to dance can also be of great help, since usually dance steps require doing strictly defined moves at exact times. This alone requires a great deal of coordination which in turn will force you to stay in the moment. As time passes, your mind will get used to being constantly aware of your body and muscle movements and it will be harder for your thoughts to drift to negative anxious cycles. Going for practice when the negative thoughts have already started building up will also help you break the cycle and let you clear you head. There is also the fact that exercising will help your brain bring your hormones back in balance and flush your system with dopamine. When it comes to mental sports, chess is one sport that you can try, since the huge amount of attention that you need to pay will divert your thoughts away from anything else.

  1. Pick up a hobby

Hobbies can be a great way to pass the time while learning something new. Simply choose something that you are passionate about or If nothing comes to mind, pick something that you might want to try or learn more about. In terms of anxiety, hobbies will help you relax while you are doing something that you are familiar with and it will keep you occupied. Knitting is a great example of a hobby that both relaxes you and keeps your hands busy. It is also quite cheap to start.  Collecting just about anything can also work wonders for you, since paying attention to objects will help you focus on what is in front of you and it won’t let your thoughts stray away.

  1. Get a pet

Pets provide an immense anchor to the present in two ways. The emotional bond that you create with your pet will comfort you once the cycle of thoughts begins. Think of it as a grounding object that you love, in the form of a dog or a cat. Second, it might be considered a hobby as well because of the constant care that you need to provide for the pet. Having to keep in mind that you need to feed or walk your pet will constantly bring you back to the present moment. If you do not have an environment suitable to keep a pet like a dog or a cat you can always opt for something smaller like a fish, parrot or a hamster. It’s really up to you, but keep in mind that a dog or a cat will also provide more emotional bond.


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