Skill #14 How to Turn off the Fight/Flight/Freeze Response With Grounding Skills for Anxiety

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Grounding is a really important skill to have if you experience dissociation, anxiety, panic attacks, or flashbacks. Grounding strengthens the parasympathetic response (which is our body’s ability to return to calm effectively). This counteracts the fight/flight/freeze response. The more you practice it, the stronger your ability to turn on that parasympathetic response in your nervous system.

Grounding Skills for Anxiety

As we’ve learned in previous sections of this course, emotions are just as much in our body as in our minds. Anxiety, fear, anger, shame, and other core emotions are all rooted in a subconscious response deep in our brain, the fight/flight/freeze response. 

This response, also known as the sympathetic response, triggers waves of physical changes in our body, releasing stress hormones and adrenaline and speeding up our heart rate and breathing. This response also turns off digestion and the immune system, tenses our muscles, and leaves us feeling shaky and jittery. 

We can’t just turn off this response by thinking “calm down” or “relax” because our thoughts don’t directly control this part of our brain. 

But the body has a natural counterbalancing response, called the parasympathetic response — also known as rest and digest. This response slows your breathing and heart rate, releases muscle tension, and helps you relax, rest, and digest. 

Calm Body, Calm Mind

Since we cannot access the survival-oriented parts of our brain very easily with thoughts, it’s often more effective to calm our brain using our body. 

So to clarify, if using thinking to calm our body is referred to as a top-down approach, then using physical skills to calm our brain is called a bottom-up approach. This is a really effective way to start processing intense emotions and treating anxiety and trauma.  

The next section of this course is all about the top-down approach — changing how you think to change how you feel. But calming your body first lays the foundation for that cognitive work. 

We can turn on this calming response in our nervous system through body-based activities like we learned in the previous sections: deep breathing, PMR, the yawn, tapping, etc. But we can also use an important skill called grounding. 

Grounding Skills

Being grounded means that you are “in” your body, that you are aware of your body, aware of your present moment experience, and feeling safe. Our five senses anchor us to our bodies and our surroundings.  

Grounding is a really important skill to have if you experience dissociation, anxiety, panic attacks, or flashbacks. Grounding strengthens the parasympathetic response, which is our body’s ability to return to calm effectively. This counteracts the fight/flight/freeze response. The more you practice it, the stronger your ability to turn on that parasympathetic response in your nervous system. 

In the second half of this post, I’ll teach you an exercise that you can use to get grounded. But first let’s talk about how grounding turns off the FFF response. 

Perceived Danger

PTSD and other anxiety disorders are disordered because at their essence they are about feeling in danger when you are actually safe. Anxiety and depression are often about fearful memories of the past or anxious worries about the future. 

Grounding activities help us activate that safe feeling in our brain by reminding ourselves that here, in this present moment, we are indeed safe. When we are grounded and calm we are able to process through difficult memories and thoughts in a way that actually resolves them. 

With practice, most grounding exercises can help us to reconnect with the present moment. They often focus on breathing, increasing your awareness of the here and now, and they often focus on your five senses. Grounding exercises connect us with our body and help us reassert personal control. And they reorient us to the safe context of where we are. 

One of the ways that we gain confidence in our ability to decrease our anxiety is by checking in with ourselves before and after grounding exercises. In order to notice the small and gradual progress that you make, write about how you feel before and after a grounding exercise. You can use a 0-10 scale or you can write as much detail as you’d like. 

Practice these skills every day when you’re calm. As you get better and better at grounding, you will be able to begin to practice these skills in slightly difficult situations and then gradually use them to effectively calm your anxiety in more intense situations. 

Grounding Exercise

Okay, so let’s try one.

This exercise can help you come down from hyperarousal and find a more balanced emotional state. It can also be used to help ground people who are in freeze mode.

Write down your anxiety on a scale of 0-10. 

Sit on your chair. Feel your feet touching the ground. Stamp your left foot into the ground, then your right. Do it slowly: left, right, left. Do this several times. Feel your thighs and buttocks in contact with the seat of your chair (5 seconds). Notice if your legs and buttocks now feel more present or less present than when you started.

Now move your focus to your spine. Feel your spine as your midline. Slowly lengthen your spine and notice if it affects your breath (10 seconds). Move your focus toward your hands and arms. Put your hands together. Do it in a way that feels comfortable for you. Push your hands together and feel your strength and warmth. Release and pause, then push your hands together again. Release and rest your arms.

Now move your focus to your eyes. Look around the room. Find something that tells you that you are here. Remind yourself that you are here, now, and that you are safe. Notice how this exercise affects your breathing, your presence, your mood, and your strength.

Go ahead and rate your anxiety on a scale from 0-10 again. It’s not necessarily going to drop every time you do one of these activities, but if you practice them over and over you’ll notice a change over time. 

The more you practice grounding, the better you will get at inviting feelings of calm and moving through feelings of anxiety.

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