Two Essential Self-Calming Skills

A young woman in woods looks up.You’re worried about money. You’re afraid you’ll catch the flu. You can’t sleep because you can’t stop fretting: about your children, your family, your job, or lack thereof, or the state of the world—government, terrorists, the stock market, pollution, etc.

Feel overwhelmed? Anxious? Then it’s time to hop back into the driver’s seat of your own mind, take control, and calm yourself. Have you noticed that all your worries, no matter what you’re worried about, are about something that hasn’t happened?

Anxiety is about the future, which exists only in your brain. When you feel anxious, you fantasize the worst about some imaginary event and fear it. From a logical standpoint, that doesn’t make sense. Sure—some of the things you worry about may happen, but you use valuable energy to fear them, energy that could be better spent planning, preparing, or paying attention to what’s going on around you in the present moment.

When you catch yourself creating scary stories about the future, bring yourself back to the present moment. The easiest and best way to do this is to bring your attention and awareness to your breathing. When you worry, you either breath shallowly or hold your breath. Exhale as much air as you can. That makes extra space in your lungs so when you inhale again you can take in a deep, conscious breath.

As you breathe in and out, slowly and deeply, pay close attention to the physical sensations of breathing: the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen, the temperature of the air you breathe in and out, the sound of your breath. Paying attention to your breathing connects you back to your body, which is firmly planted in the present moment.

You may have other unpleasant physical sensations associated with the anxiety, so visualize your breath going to those areas of your body as you breathe. In your mind’s eye, see your breath washing over those areas like a wave of water, cleansing and cool. It’s nearly impossible to focus intently on your breathing and think of scary things at the same time.

Conscious breathing from your diaphragm is an important skill to have when you need to ground yourself back into the present moment. That brings us to the second thing you need to do when you’re stuck in the future with frightening thoughts. Ground yourself and your energy.

What does it mean to be grounded? You’ve probably felt the experience of being in the zone, centered, on solid ground, or focused in your thinking. This is what being grounded is like. We use phrases such as air-headed, up in the clouds, or flying off the handle, to describe how it feels to be ungrounded.

When anxious, you tighten your diaphragm in order to hold your breath or breathe shallowly. When your diaphragm is tight, your emotional energy gets trapped in your upper body and intensifies the feelings of panic and racing thoughts. The energy has nowhere to go but back into your head, making it difficult to think clearly. You are ungrounded. In order to ground your energy you need get the energy flowing through your whole body again, down past your diaphragm, through your legs and feet, into the ground.

Start the grounding process with the breathing described above. Next, if you are standing, put both feet flat on the ground. When you inhale, lower your body several inches, flexing at the knees. Then, as you exhale, straighten your body by pressing down firmly with the bottoms of your feet. Imagine as you exhale that your feet are doing all the work, lifting you, and that your breath is a stream flowing all the way through your body, through your legs and feet and into the ground, connecting you firmly to the earth.

Do this for two or three minutes. If you are sitting, use the same breathing technique, and, with both feet flat on the ground, press the balls of your feet down firmly and your hips into the back of the chair with each exhale. Let up slightly on the pressure with each inhale. Repeat this technique for several minutes.

This is only one of many grounding techniques. It’s easy, portable, and if you practice it frequently, you can become adept at grounding your energy and calming yourself during anxious moments. By using conscious breathing and grounding techniques, you can pull yourself out of your scary future thoughts and return to the only time that exists, the present moment.

© Copyright 2009 by Becki Hein, MS, LPC, therapist in Mckinney, Texas. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • BARNEY

    November 9th, 2009 at 10:57 AM

    Wow…never thought there could be something like a ‘earthing’ to get rid of negative energy…its just like passing on the extra current to the ground to escape an electric shock! Great technique explained in the article, thanks a lot… and yeah, you can be sure I’m gonna try this the next time I have any ‘future distress’ :)

  • Peter Siddle

    November 9th, 2009 at 11:10 AM

    You are so right!

    While i was reading the article,i was just reflecting back to the times and things i keep worrying about and just realized that most of it is centered around the future and some events that i don’t even have control on!Now what is the use of fretting and worrying for such things…? As if my worrying is going to solve the problems or is going to make sure I dont catch the flu;)

    It is infact more wise and practical to focus our energies on the present and accomplish goals and targets rather than wasting time over things that we have no control on, just as you have mentioned here.

  • wendy thomas

    November 9th, 2009 at 4:41 PM

    Yesterday was history, tomorrow is a mistery and today is a gift, and that is why it is called the present.

    One cannot stress enough about how true this statement is… we have little or no control over what is going to hapen in the future and worrying about it is just waste of time…

    Planning is good…planning is arranging something that is to be done when the future becomes the present, but worrying about it is worthless…

  • SHAWN ARMSTRONG

    November 10th, 2009 at 10:27 AM

    Although fretting is not too required, thinking bout it in moderation is a good thing… because just like you cannot just close your eyes and drive into a street, you cannot take everyday and longer future as it comes… you will have to plan and think and look ahead to the future.

  • Becki Hein

    Becki Hein

    November 10th, 2009 at 3:17 PM

    Barney – It is amazing, isn’t it?! In fact, I use that example when I teach people about grounding their energy. It’s like when you look at electrical lines, and every so often there is a line leading down into the ground, so that if there is an extra strong burst of charge, it goes safely into the ground.

  • Becki Hein

    Becki Hein

    November 10th, 2009 at 3:21 PM

    Peter, Wendy & Shawn, – I agree with you all! Planning is important. And there is a big difference between planning and worrying. Planning, for a finite period of time, is energy well spent. One doesn’t generally get spun into a distressing emotional state during planning. Worrying, however, is a waste of energy. One is expending massive amounts of (negative) energy on an imaginary event. In fact, spending that much energy on thoughts of the future can even cause them to have a higher probability of actually happening. You’re better off planning and then letting it be what it is. Thanks so much for your comments!

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