There is a technique in counseling called grounding that was developed to help people cope with severe anxiety, stress, disassociation, and trauma by pulling individuals out of their negative headspace, emotional distress, or down-spiraling by encouraging them to focus on their surroundings and engage with their current physical space. Some examples of these techniques are things like sitting in a chair where your feet are firmly on the ground and focusing on the physical sensations of the chair and the and the ground beneath your feet, or by counting down through your physical senses and engaging with each of them individually (think 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, etc.).
In simpler language: grounding gets us out of our heads and back into our present moment. It reminds us that we are real, that we are part of this world, that we exist outside of our thoughts and emotions.
Whenever we start to think about something we’re stressed or anxious about, our amygdala (part of our brain that is primarily responsible for our emotional responses, especially fear) begins to send out signals to our body that we associate with stress — so we experience increased muscle tension, rapid heartbeat, and faster breathing. Then the body sends a return signal to our brain that uses these physiological changes as further evidence that something is actually wrong, which of course just makes it worse, beginning a cycle that is hard to break. The amygdala is great at preparing for crises but sometimes jumps the gun and signals something as an emergency where there really isn’t one. Grounding helps because it forces our body to reconcile our physical reality with our cognitive perception and relieving the tension and the dissonance that we are experiencing.
Right now, I think we could all use a little grounding especially because things are constantly changing — between changing with expectations with the pandemic, not knowing who’s in and out of quarantine at any given time, uncertainty with our schedules and seemingly no way to plan for the future.
With all of that, I feel pretty safe saying that we’re spending a lot more time in our heads — and for the most part, I don’t think that’s a good thing. Whether we realize it or not, our brains use thousands upon thousands of pieces of data gathered from our past experiences to try to predict the outcome of any given situation. Here’s a good example: teenagers have a pretty good idea about what you’re going to say when they ask you for something. Sometimes you surprise them, but most of the time they already know deep down what your answer is going to be. And that instinct isn’t coming from nowhere; it’s built upon every interaction the two of you have ever had and the outcome from every time they have asked you for something before. Their brains pick out and store all of these tiny details, even if they don’t consciously know it: the mood you were in, the way your facial muscles responded when they asked, where you were when they asked you, and how it sounded and what temperature it was and whether or not there was music playing in the background. Brains are weird and awesome.
Right now, because everything is changing all the time, our brains are constantly trying to predict what’s going to happen next — but here’s the thing: our brains are trying to rationalize what is going on around us and trying to tell the future, and trying to pull all of it from out of thin air … Because we’ve never done this before! We’re in the middle of a pandemic that has changed everything about our reality, and the things we thought were constants — school, church, birthdays, holidays, traditions, rights of passage, and the seeming law of nature that is the family calendar — are now all up in the air, changing from this week to next. All of the things our brains would normally rely on for mentally and emotionally preparing for change or the future are gone, so they’re having to do it in real-time, or they’re working overtime to make almost no progress.
I guess I don’t know about you, but I can say that for me, it’s left me feeling … well, more than anything, tired. I’m tired of changing, of adapting, of making it work. Honestly, there are days I want to just give up, to go home and to take a nap.
Maybe that’s how you’re feeling this morning too. Maybe you’re feeling worn-out, worn-down. Maybe you feel like the wind got knocked out of you or that the ground has fallen out from beneath your feet. And if that is how you’re feeling, let me say this: It’s ok. Me too. You’re doing your best today, and you’re allowed to have all the feels in the world.
But here’s the thing: I didn’t quit, or go home, or take a nap. And I won’t. Because underneath that feeling of exhaustion, of defeat, of hopelessness, the reality is that I’m stubborn. I’m in this with you, no matter what. I took a deep breath, felt the ground beneath my feet and the air in my lungs, and took a step forward. Or sideways, or backwards, it’s unclear just yet which direction we’re moving.
That’s why grounding works. It’s a reminder that we’re still alive — and not just that we’re living, like that we have a heartbeat, but that we’re alive. We’re an active part of a living and breathing world, full of new creation and opportunity every day. Grounding works because it’s a reminder that sometimes things are much worse in our heads than they are at our feet.
I’ve been thinking about this concept of grounding for a while now, and I find it fascinating and helpful for a lot of different reasons, but the most common one is that it’s a reminder that I’m part of creation. God created this world and everything in it and called it good — that includes you and me. We are part of this world, we are grounded, rooted, part of this creation — we exist, we matter. And creation is never finished — it is constantly being made new, starting again, always changing, always growing. We are not finished. We are still growing, still discovering who we are, still becoming a better reflection of who God is and who we were created to be.
I don’t want to downplay how hard this season has been because it has been hard. We have missed out on things, we have struggled, we have been disappointed, we have not been at our best, but this has not been a season of death, but of new life. We have grown, we have changed, we have adapted, we have become more empathetic, more flexible, more resilient. We have become a better reflection of the people God has created us to be, and our stories aren’t done yet. There are chapters left to still be written, and we rest assured in hope because we know how the story ends: the work of redemption has already been done, and all things have been made new. There’s nothing we can do, nothing in this world that can change that.
In my head, and maybe in yours, things are pretty bad. COVID numbers are bad, schools are going back to online-only, we’re having to cancel and postpone programs that we were really excited about, and I don’t know when things are coming back.
But at my feet, things aren’t nearly as bleak. The ground is still solid, the air still has oxygen, I’ve still got some fight left in me, and we’re still here, grounded and growing.
We made you a promise before, and it’s as true now as it is was in September: we’re not going anywhere, we’re going to keep trying new things, we’re going to be here, no matter what.
No matter what, these things are still true: God is good. God is here. God loves us. It will be ok.
We see you. We love you. We’re glad you’re part of our world.
Associate Director of Youth Ministries
5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique
Sit in a comfortable chair. Close your eyes, and take a couple of deep breaths — in through your nose, out through your mouth. Then open your eyes and look around you. Name out loud:
5 — things you can see
4 — things you can feel
3 — things you can hear
2 — things you can smell
1 — thing you can taste
Take a final deep breath to end.