If you’re stressed or anxious, these simple grounding exercises can help bring your nervous system back into balance and restore your sense of well-being. They’re easy to do. You can use them anytime and anywhere. And you can do them without anyone else knowing.
Read on to discover when and how they can help. Or, use the links below to jump right to the exercises:
Benefits of Mindfulness and Breathing Exercises
Research shows mindfulness and breathing exercises offer a number of benefits. Besides calming your body down in times of stress, these techniques help:
- Improve mental well-being: Taking slow, mindful breaths has been shown to help reduce stress and feelings of depression.
- Reduce anxiety. Deep breathing exercises are a fast and easy way to help with anxiety. In fact, a 2021 study found that one session was enough to reduce anxiety levels in adults.
- Better sleep. A few years ago, researchers brought together a number of middle-aged adults and taught half of them a few simple mindfulness techniques. Those in the mindfulness group had less insomnia, fatigue, and depression than those in the control group.
- Lower blood pressure. Just five minutes of slow, deep breathing has been shown to reduce people’s heart rate and blood pressure.
- Reduce pain. Researchers in Europe recently found that “participants reported less intense pain” when doing the deep breathing exercises as instructed.
- Improve concentration. In 2017, researchers examined the impact of slow, abdominal breathing on attention, stress, and emotions. After 8 weeks, people who did these breathing exercises performed better on attention tests and reported fewer negative emotions.
- Protect against future stress. These techniques don’t just help calm stress in the moment. They can also help make you more resilient to future stress and better able to handle difficult emotions.
When Can These Relaxation Methods Help?
These exercises are useful for a wide range of situations. You can do them at home. You can do them at work or school. You even can do them in the middle of a crowd without anyone knowing.
They can be especially helpful:
- During a panic or anxiety attack.
- When you feel “on edge” or your mind is racing.
- If you’re experiencing flashbacks from trauma or PTSD.
- Before a performance, presentation, exam, or any other high-stress situation.
- When you have a hard time falling asleep.
- If you’re having trouble concentrating.
- In the middle of a difficult conversation.
- When dealing with a challenging relationship.
These techniques aren’t only for difficult circumstances though. You can also take advantage of them when things are going well!
First, these grounding exercises increase your overall ability to manage stress and regulate emotions. That means you’re able to better deal with challenging circumstances… and less likely to fall into a panic or anxiety attack in the first place.
Second, practicing these exercises in “good times” makes them easier to use in difficult moments. If you’ve done them before, you’ll be more likely to remember them when stressed out or dealing with a panic attack.
OK, let’s get into the exercises.
This exercise may seem a bit odd at first. But it offers a surprisingly effective way to help with anxiety or a panic attack. It’s also very easy:
Take a deep breath in, put your thumb in your mouth, and blow out on it.
Repeat this as many times as you need to.
Note: If you’re someplace where you don’t want to draw attention to yourself (i.e. by sticking your thumb into your mouth), there’s an alternative method. Casually put your hand up near your face… and then exhale slowly while blowing cool air on your thumb.
Why Does This Work?
When you’re feeling anxious or stressed, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. This causes your heart rate and blood pressure to rise, and you may start to hyperventilate.
Thumb breathing can help stimulate your vagus nerve (a part of the nervous system that calms down your body’s fight-or-flight response). When activated, your vagus nerve lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, making you feel more relaxed.
When we’re stressed, our breathing gets shallow and fast. Shallow breathing can actually make us feel more stressed. So this exercise helps your body reset by taking deep, slow breaths.
It’s a quick, simple way to center yourself. You can use it whenever you’re stressed, tense, or anxious. And you can also use it to help fall asleep at night.
Here’s what to do:
Step 1: Breathe in through your nose while slowly counting to four. Feel the air enter your lungs.
Step 2: Hold your breath for a count of seven. (Try to avoid inhaling or exhaling.)
Step 3: Count to eight as you slowly exhale through your mouth. (You may find it helpful to lightly purse your lips while exhaling.)
Repeat these steps as many times as needed. Even just 30 seconds of deep breathing will help you feel more relaxed and in control.
Note: When first starting out with 4-7-8 breathing, some people may have trouble exhaling for the full count of 8… or even experience some slight lightheartedness. That’s OK. It’s just a result of learning to breathe more slowly. Everything will feel more natural with practice.
Why Does This Work?
Dr. Andrew Weil describes this technique as a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.” That’s for good reason. Counting helps take your mind off of unhealthy thoughts or other stressors. And deep breathing has been shown to quiet the body’s fight-or-flight response… making you more relaxed and at ease.
If you find 4-7-8 breathing too difficult in a moment of panic, you can instead try a similar method called 4-4-4-4 breathing (or box breathing). Many US Navy SEALs use box breathing to help stay calm in high-pressure situations.
- Breathe in through your nose while slowly counting to four.
- Hold your breath for another count of four.
- Count to four as you slowly exhale through your mouth.
- Pause without inhaling for a count of four.
Repeat as needed.
5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique
This is a simple method for when emotions or thoughts become overwhelming. Use your five senses to help your mind and body settle. This helps grounds you in the present when your mind is racing with anxious thoughts.
To start, take a moment to pay attention to your breathing. Slow, deep, long breaths can help you maintain a sense of calm or help you return to a calmer state. Once you find your breath, go through the following steps to help ground yourself:
Acknowledge FIVE things you see around you. It could be a pen, a chair, or anything in your surroundings.
Acknowledge FOUR things you can touch around you. You may choose to feel your hair, a pillow, or the ground under your feet.
Acknowledge THREE things you hear. Maybe you notice the rumbling of distant traffic, the chirping of a birds outside, or voices in the next room. Whatever it is… don’t judge, just listen.
Acknowledge TWO things you can smell. Maybe it’s the smell of a pencil. Perhaps it’s a scented candle nearby. Or, if you need to take a brief walk to find a scent, you could smell the soap in your bathroom or find something outside in nature.
Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste. Perhaps the lingering flavor of your morning coffee?
No matter how often your mind wanders, the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique can help your body relax and release anxious mental energy.
Why Does This Work?
According to Mayo Clinic, this exercise helps shift your focus away from what is causing you to feel anxious, grounding your mind and body in the present moment. And it helps interrupt unhealthy thought patterns.
Addressing the Root Cause of Your Anxiety
Using these simple meditation exercises can offer immediate relief during a panic or anxiety attack. But if you’re struggling with severe or chronic anxiety, you may benefit from additional support.
This could mean attending individual therapy or going to see a psychiatrist. Or you may consider a more focused program such IOP therapy.
IOP stands for intensive outpatient program. It’s a unique blend of group therapy and personalized care. And it offers a fast, effective way to uncover (and start healing) the root issue of your anxiety or stress.