Grounding: What To Do When You Feel Unstable

You know those moments when you feel like you’ve lost your footing? When you feel spacey, wobbly, scatty and unclear? It can happen when we are stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, or too far out of our comfort zone. Knowing how to ground ourselves in such situations, can make a huge difference to how we feel.

In this article, we look at:

  • What is grounding?
  • How grounding helps.
  • How to ground yourself to feel calmer.
  • Further grounding resources.
What is Grounding?

To ground ourselves is to do any activity that makes us feel solid, centred, balanced, contained or connected to ourselves – particularly to our body. It literally means, connecting to the earth.
I think of it as a ‘coming home’ to ourselves. It is a way to anchor ourselves down when we feel like we’re disconnecting. Grounding brings us back into our personal power.

When we ground ourselves, we are directing our attention and our energy downward, toward our bodies and the earth. In comparison, when we feel ungrounded, or flighty, our energy and attention is focused upward, away from the ground and our bodies. In this case, we are either too much in our heads, or have abandoned ourselves altogether – we have dissociated.

Sensorimotor Psychotherapist Pat Ogden, describes grounding as “a felt sense of connection to the ground” and as “the capacity to direct somatic energy toward the ground.”

How Grounding Helps

How can this help me you ask?
Through doing a variety of simple and very accessible activities, we have the ability to calm ourselves, gain better focus, recover a sense of safety, stay in the present moment and feel more in control.

These skills can be useful before or during stressful situations such as exams, job interviews, first dates or public speaking. Grounding can also be beneficial whenever we feel panicked, overwhelmed or confused. In such situations, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) has kicked into action, causing either a flight, fight or freeze response. Grounding exercises are effective because they act to reverse our SNS response and help to trigger our parasympathetic nervous system (PSN), which is responsible for slowing the heart rate and relaxing the muscles, making us feel calmer. When we feel calmer, we generally feel more at ease with ourselves, with others and with our surroundings.

Using grounding techniques will not necessarily change our situation, but it will change how we cope with that situation.

How To Ground Yourself To Feel Calmer

Of the following activities, choose a few that appeal to you the most, then try them out and notice how they feel for you.
If they don’t feel right, they might not be right for you. Trust that feeling and then maybe try some others and notice how they feel for you.

Different things work for different people. It is important you listen to what feels okay for you.  What is soothing to one person, can be uncomfortable, or even triggering for another. If you find that being too connected to your body is confronting, you may find that something more subtle works better for you – such as pressure (pushing into a wall, or squeezing your hand or a stress ball).

Grounding Activities
  • Place one hand on your forehead and one on your heart or belly (or one hand on belly and one on heart). Apply a little bit of pressure if you like. Breathe.
  • Rub the palms of your hands together so they feel warm. Place one palm over each eye and apply a little pressure. Breathe.
  • Sitting comfortably, place both feet flat on the floor. Close your eyes, or look downward and inward. Take a long, slow, deep breath in through your nose, for the count of 3-4. Then a long, slow, breath out through your mouth, for the count of 4-5. Repeat two more times. Now, bring your attention to your feet. One at a time, gently push each foot into the floor, then release. Pay attention to the area of your feet, lower and upper legs. What sensations are you aware of? Remember to breathe. Now, notice the weight of your legs, resting on the chair, being supported by the chair. Notice the back of the chair, supporting the back of your body. Take some time to really feel into these parts of your body – the pressure and sensations of your body being supported by the chair and the floor. If you find it difficult to feel where your body meets the chair, you could try wriggling around a little to increase the sensations in your legs, buttocks and back. Take 3 more long, slow, deep breaths in and out. When you are ready, open your eyes and notice your surroundings. How do you feel? (Adapted from a Pat Ogden exercise).
  • Cross your arms over your body and squeeze your upper arms with your hands, from the shoulders, all the way down the arms and back up.
  • Give yourself a hug. Focus your attention on where the edges of your body are (this is how you can feel contained). Breathe.
  • Place your right hand on the left side of your chest and stroke downward from your shoulder to your heart (like stroking a cat).
  • Practice taking long, slow, deep breaths in through the nose, whilst counting to 3-4. Imagine the air is filling you all the way to your belly. Then slooooowly breathe out, counting to 4-5. Repeat this at least two more times – or more if you’d like.
  • Place one foot on top of the other and apply pressure. Swap feet.
  • Lying down, push your palms – or your whole arms – into the floor or bed. Release, then repeat.
  • Lying on the floor or a bed, push your whole body into the surface. Release, then repeat. Breathe. Feel that you are contained in your body.
  • Squeeze your toes, release, then repeat. Squeeze your hands, release, then repeat.
  • Focus on something in your immediate surroundings. Notice its colour, size, shape and texture. Breathe.
  • Try the yoga position known as Mountain Pose, or Tadasana, which involves standing straight, tall, balanced and centred with feet evenly connected and grounded with the earth. Remember to breathe.  For a more detailed explanation of this pose, look here.
  • Walking or sitting in nature (whether in the garden, a park or out in the bush).
  • Bake something, putting all your attention into what you are doing.
  • Go camping.
  • Activities that involve physically connecting with the earth, such as:
    Gardening
    Clay work
    Building a sand castle
    Holding a smooth rock
    Walking barefoot or lying on the earth
Further Grounding Resources

The Art Of Healing Trauma
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Interventions for Trauma and Attachment – Pat Ogden and Janina Fisher
Eckhart Tolle on Youtube – ‘How to Inhabit your Body in a Stressful Environment’

For more support or information, or if you are concerned about your ability to cope, please see a psychotherapist, psychologist, GP or other health professional. This article provides general information and cannot respond to the needs of specific individuals.

About Toni Jackson

I am a Psychotherapist and Counsellor in Fremantle, Western Australia. I also work in Mundaring, Perth, Western Australia. I specialise in working with women around the issues of self-worth, anxiety, trauma, body image and personal power. I am a certified Gestalt Therapist, with a BA Psychology and a Grad. Dip. Women’s Studies. I am a verified HAES practitioner.
I have a strong interest in trauma therapy and use both body awareness and art therapy in my work.
If you would like to book an appointment, please contact Toni Jackson.
Phone: 0439 995 302
Email: toni@tonijacksoncounselling.com

Counselling in Fremantle

Counselling in Mundaring

Photo credit: Canstock

2 Comments on “Grounding: What To Do When You Feel Unstable

  1. Thanks Toni, this is great practical advice that people can use anywhere, anytime to help soothe themselves in difficult circumstances. These techniques can really make difficult situations more bearable.

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