In this article, we explore what grounding is and why it works. You will find nine of the best grounding techniques for calming panic attacks listed below for you to try, plus a full explanation of the theory behind them. As you will read, everyone is different, so experiment and see what works for you.
What is a grounding technique?
When we talk about someone being “down to earth” or having their “feet on the ground,” the concept is similar to “grounding.” Within mental health, grounding describes a type of coping strategy that many people find helpful during times of emotional and psychological stress. It is a way of redirecting our attention back to the present moment through focusing on physical sensations or mental distractions.
Grounding techniques can help sufferers of anxiety, depression, anger, low mood, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dissociation, flashbacks, nightmares, unwanted memories, negative or challenging emotions, and panic attacks.
What is the science behind grounding techniques?
The concept of grounding was first developed by Lowen, who was one of the first body psychotherapists. One 2014 study of 113 practitioners revealed that nearly half of the therapists contacted used grounding exercises to foster psychological health and stability.
Although grounding techniques are an accepted approach that has been commonly used within the therapy community for decades, there isn’t actually a huge amount of research behind grounding techniques.
Our bodies are the main way in which we experience the world. This can be thought of in two ways: input and response. The first describes how we take in information from the outside and from our surroundings through our five senses. The second describes the bodily responses we have to this information.
Two people can experience the same sensory input in very different ways. This could be because of our past experiences, which have a big impact on how we perceive the world. Is it a safe place or is it dangerous? The differences in response might be due to a lack of support or education around how to cope with the stresses of living. Or, it could be because of certain physical or mental health conditions, such as sensory processing disorder.
Whatever the reason, we can learn to respond differently to the information we receive from our senses. When the world feels frightening, reconnecting with our bodies in the present moment is an effective way to reduce the distress we’re feeling. This is grounding.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is an episode of extreme anxiety, agitation, and fear. It usually occurs rapidly, without much warning, and typically peaks in around ten minutes.
Panic attacks are very frightening for the person experiencing them, with sufferers often reporting feeling like they were going to die. While relatively brief in length (usually between five and 20 minutes), panic attacks can happen at almost any time and are usually unrelated to a trigger.
- Discomfort or chest pain (“feeling like a heart attack”)
- Fear of dying
- Shaking / trembling
- Change in temperature – feeling cold or warm
- Dizziness, faint-headed, unsteady
- Nausea, vomiting, and stomach pains
- Increased heartbeat
- Feeling short of breath, like you can’t catch your breath or that you’re choking
- Feeling like you are out of control
- Feeling detached or that you aren’t real anymore
- Feeling of numbness, tingling in limbs
Anxiety attacks are similar to panic attacks in symptoms and duration but they have identifiable triggers. Panic attacks do not.
Nine grounding techniques
The following nine grounding techniques are suggestions you might want to try if you feel a panic attack is about to happen. They incorporate physical and emotional aspects to offer a variety of changes to your bodily state that are designed to make you feel safer. Everyone is different, so experiment to see what works best for you.
1. The 5-4-3-2-1 method
The 5-4-3-2-1 method is a grounding technique that many panic attack sufferers find incredibly helpful. Plus, it’s very simple to do and easy to remember.
Look around you and name:
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can touch
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste
The 5-4-3-2-1 method brings you back into the present moment by pulling in stimuli through all five senses to reassure your nervous system that you are safe.
An easy and quick way to alter your physical and psychological experience is through water. There are many different options you could try depending on where you are, how much time you have, as well as personal preference.
For some people, taking a shower is a simple but rapid way to change how you’re feeling. You could try running the water hotter or colder to see how it feels on your skin. Likewise, soaking in the tub can help to settle your nervous system and create a sense of relaxation.
If you aren’t able to take a shower or soak, try running water over your hands. Again, experiment with the temperature of the water and with the flow of the faucet. Observe the water running over your hands, think about what it feels like, whether you can change the pressure of the flow, and notice if that changes how you’re feeling.
Ice can also be helpful in grounding yourself. You can watch a piece of ice melt on a plate in front of you. Alternatively, you can hold the ice in your hands and feel its coldness. Feel the water dripping through your hands. Notice when your hands begin to numb and how quickly the ice melts.
3. Move your body
Panic attacks trigger a stress response in our nervous systems, making us feel like we want to run (“flight”), become angry or agitated (“fight”) or we might feel like our body has shut down – also known as “freeze.”
Moving your body can help your system to process the stress chemicals racing around and to discharge them in other ways. This can halt a panic attack in some sufferers.
Ideas for moving your body in this way include running on the spot, going for a walk, or doing some jumping jacks. Other ideas include playing music and dancing along, which can be very effective for many panic attack sufferers. Try making a playlist of songs you find comforting so you have it on hand for future attacks.
If you are feeling ‘frozen’, start to reconnect with your body slowly and gently. Wiggle your toes, place your feet flat on the floor, or rise and lower on your tiptoes for several rounds. Another helpful movement is to stand with both feet firmly on the floor. Keep the lower half of your body still while you swing your arms from side to side through the waist.
If you find yourself feeling panicked or frozen in a situation that requires you to stay in the room or in your seat, rubbing or massaging your earlobes is proven to be a very helpful way to ground yourself.
Rapid, shallow breathing is one of the symptoms of a panic attack and breathing techniques are a classic suggestion for helping soothe a panic attack. Try slowing down your breath and breathing deeply into your belly as a way to signal to your body that you are safe.
“Box breathing” is a technique that has much evidence to support its use in reducing the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.
- Start by sitting upright in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Imagine a square or box and, as you breathe, trace the sides of the square in your mind.
- Slowly inhale through the nose to the count of four as you trace the top of the square.
- Finally, hold your breath again for four more beats as you trace back up the other side of the square.
- Repeat as required.
Another breathing technique is called the 4-7-8 technique or the “relaxing breath.”
- Begin by breathing in for four seconds.
- Then, hold the breath for seven seconds, before finally exhaling for eight seconds.
- Repeat as required.
As well as panic attacks, 4-7-8 breathing is a useful technique to try if you’re suffering with insomnia.
Applying pressure can help to relax the nervous system making it a helpful option for those suffering from panic attacks. Pressure reminds us that we are in our bodies. There are several ways to achieve this.
Weighted blankets were originally designed for autistic people but are becoming increasingly popular within the general population. Studies show that weighted blankets and vests can prevent panic attacks, making them a useful investment if you know you suffer from panic disorder or are at risk of panic attacks.
If you don’t want to buy a weighted blanket, you can use a regular blanket to wrap around yourself. Pull it tight so that you feel comfortably constricted. Tight squeezes and hugs from other people have a similar effect.
There are many ways to distract yourself when you feel a panic attack coming on. Examples include:
- Describing your surroundings. Focus on what you can see, list out the colors of items around you, describe a route you can take from here to your car. This is about very objective, practical descriptions rather than how you feel about your surroundings.
- Describing an everyday task. How do you make your breakfast in the morning? What’s your routine for getting to work or school? How do you do your laundry? Again, keep it very straightforward and descriptive.
- Describe who you are. List out your full name, your date of birth, your age, your address. Include where you are right now, who you’re with, what you can see, etc.
7. A hot beverage
There is a reason a cup of hot tea is advised when people are shocked or distressed. In the same way that water can help to ground you in your body, a hot beverage can help in a range of ways.
Firstly, the act of brewing a drink can take you through the motions of a familiar routine, which in itself is grounding. Secondly, holding your hands around a warm cup draws your attention to the change in temperature in your body. And thirdly, mindfully drinking the warm liquid soothes your nervous system.
8. Smell something familiar
The part of the brain connected to our sense of smell is the one closest to the part of the brain responsible for memory. That means smelling something familiar is a shortcut to retrieving happy memories, while being an easy way to use your senses to ground your body.
It could be a favorite perfume, an essential oil, a herb or spice, cosmetics or toiletries, or a scented candle. The key thing is it’s accessible, immediate, and has positive associations for you.
9. Body scan
A body scan is a type of mindful meditation with lots of evidence to show it can be helpful in managing panic attacks. A simple body scan practice requires you to sit or lie somewhere comfortable and supportive. You could even lie on the floor.
- Close your eyes and begin to deepen your breath (slow it down and start taking deeper belly breaths).
- Begin at the top of your head, observing how it is feeling and whether you can relax your muscles and soften into any sensations you notice.
- Continue down the body, spending a minute or so on each area, taking note of any feelings of discomfort or pain.
- Keep breathing deeply. If any pain arises, use your exhale to release it from your body. If it’s helpful, you could imagine your inhale filling your body with golden light.
- Some distracting thoughts are likely to arise, but don’t worry about this. Just notice them and let them go.
- When you’ve finished scanning your whole body, sit for a minute or two and notice how your body now feels compared with the beginning of your body scan.
- Take a moment before opening your eyes.
Is there any treatment for panic attacks?
If you have tried these grounding techniques and would like to investigate further treatment options, contact us today. There are a range of treatments for panic attacks, including talking therapies and medication.
The Center • A Place of HOPE has an excellent track record in treating anxiety, with personalized treatment plans that are individualized for each client. Recognized as one of the leading mental health treatment centers in the world, The Center is ready to help you or a loved one with anxiety. Call The Center today at 888.771.5166 to learn more.
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 Integrating Complementary Therapies into Community Mental Health Practice: An Exploration
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