With the passing of time, there are many different reactions that we may be experiencing as our “new normal” unfolds during the COVID-19 pandemic. One feature that seems to linger is a persistent, low level anxiety that has shifted our baseline for stress tolerance. Things that were bearable annoyances in the past may feel like day ruining events in the moment, or we may feel so overwhelmed that we shut down. These reactions may in turn fuel our cycle of stress and worries, further exacerbating our sense that we don’t have control, and driving our feelings of helplessness.
Feeling a little out of control is normal right now. It is an uncomfortable reality. Sometimes we react to that discomfort with avoidance or by trying to assert control into more areas of our life – feeding into the idea that we can control the future. When we are in a more balanced space, we may be able to recognize that at times, even if we do everything “right,” things don’t always turn out the way we planned – sometimes heartbreakingly and other times to our delight. Acceptance does not mean resignation. Letting go of what we can’t control doesn’t mean that we’re giving up – it clears a path forward.
Anxiety has a way of robbing us of our experiences in the present moment. It tends to bring up thoughts and worries from the past, when we wish we had used our control differently, or take us to the future, to try to predict and create the perfect outcomes. These thoughts and feelings that arise are a part of the processes that have evolved with us over time to help us survive. There are times when anxiety’s tendency to push us to focus and re-experience can be helpful. There are also times when getting stuck in overly negative thoughts does not serve us and leaves us feeling more hopeless and depleted.
It’s important to acknowledge that our emotions and the way we experience them are complex. It is possible to simultaneously experience and hold positive and negative emotions. When we get too stuck on one side of that spectrum – particularly negative thoughts and feelings – it can be helpful to use an intentional practice to move towards a more balanced perspective.
Grounding strategies help shift your attention away from difficult thoughts, memories, or worries by refocusing on the present moment. Deep breathing is one type of grounding strategy that I’ve mentioned before. The activity below – the 5-4-3-2-1 technique – is another example of a grounding strategy.
What are 5 things you can see? Look for small details, such as patterns on the ceiling, the way light reflects on a surface, or an object you’ve never noticed.
What are 4 things you can feel? Notice the sensation of clothing on your body, the sun on your skin, or the feeling of the chair you are sitting in. Pick up an object and examine its weight, texture, and other physical qualities.
What are 3 things you can hear? Pay attention to the sounds your mind has tuned out, such as a ticking clock, distant traffic, or trees blowing in the wind.
What are 2 things you can smell? Try to notice smells in the air around you, like an air freshener or freshly mowed grass. You may also look around something that has a scent, such as a flower or an unlit candle.
What is 1 thing you can taste? Carry gum, candy, or small stacks for this step. Pop one in your mouth and focus your attention closely on the flavors.
Using our senses is one way to draw us directly into the present moment by bringing awareness to our body and our surroundings. The 5-4-3-2-1 technique engages all five of the senses. It can also be helpful to use brief variations of this exercise. For example, identifying three things that you hear and three things that you see in the present moment. Or you could place both feet firmly on the ground and take a minute to draw your awareness to your feet – specifically identifying the sensations you recognize: your foot in your shoe, the temperature, or sensations of softness or firmness.
It can be valuable to build “pauses” for grounding into our day – not with the intention of eliminating stress or negative thoughts and feelings, but to provide more space to make balanced choices in the present moment. Like with deep breathing, grounding is one way that we use our body to send a message to our brain that right now, in the present moment, you are safe.