Anxiety. It’s a totally natural, normal, expected response to the dizzying blur of activities that happen each holiday season. Of course, that doesn’t make it any less painful or convenient. But with an arsenal of grounding exercises under your belt, you can bring down your anxiety to a manageable level before the point of no return. Here are 31 grounding exercises to help you keep calm and carry on when you’re feeling anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed.
1. Try square breathing.
Square breathing is an awesome way to bring yourself down from a panic attack and back to the present. It’s easy, it’s quick, and you can do it anywhere without people noticing. It’s also a great way to ease into meditation. Here’s what to do:
- Inhale deeply for four seconds.
- Hold your breath for four seconds.
- Exhale slowly for four seconds.
- Pause for four seconds before repeating.
Begin by setting an intention for your breathing practice. This could be a word or phrase like “relaxation,” “calm,” or “healing.” You might also want to visualize a neutral or positive image that aligns with your intention, such as a calm sea, a serene landscape, or a warm, comforting light.
Why It Works: This controlled breathing technique helps regulate your nervous system, shifting you from a state of stress to one of calm.
2. Reframe “What If” questions.
You’re not alone if you feel prone to imagining worst-case scenarios. Transform anxiety-driven “What if I mess up?” into empowering “Even if I do, I’ll be okay.” This cognitive restructuring helps you confront fears with resilience. The next time you’re faced with a situation that triggers your anxiety, try this exercise:
- Identify your “What if” worries.
- Replace them with “Even if” statements, fostering a sense of resilience.
Example: “What if I embarrass myself?” becomes “Even if I embarrass myself, I’ll learn and grow from the experience.”
3. Count specific things around you.
If you feel a panic attack coming on, pick one broad category—a color, a type, or a size—and count how many of those things are around you. It’s a grounding technique that pulls you back from the edge of panic by anchoring you in the present.
For example, if you’re prone to getting panic attacks before a Zoom meeting, count how many white objects you see in the room around you, not counting twice. This helps you pay attention to your environment without feeling paralyzed by the drama in your head.
4. Do something simple to focus your mind.
When you feel a panic attack coming on, interrupt your thought stream by making yourself do something.
- Make your bed.
- Clean your bathroom.
- Fold your laundry.
- Brush your teeth.
- Pet your pet.
- Plan out the rest of your day.
It helps take your mind off your anxiety. Those few minutes could be all you need to reset your emotional state!
5. Chew gum.
Chewing tricks your brain into a state of calm by simulating an eating action – a state incompatible with danger. Opt for bold flavors like cinnamon for an extra sensory distraction.
You can distract yourself from your anxiety by stimulating your senses with extra spicy flavors, like cinnamon or ginger chews.
6. Chill out with a cold compress.
If you find yourself going down a rabbit hole of negative thinking, try grabbing a cup of ice from your freezer or a nearby restaurant. Hold the ice to the back of your neck or in your bare hands, then close your eyes and begin counting. Focus on your breath and the icy sensation until the ice melts. The cold sensation diverts your attention from anxiety to the physical sensation.
7. Do a walking reflection.
Sometimes, all you need is a good walk. Even a 10-minute walk can lower your heart rate, ease your anxiety, and relieve your stress. Just as stress releases hormones that wreak havoc on your physical and mental health, walking releases feel-good endorphins that serve as natural painkillers. Endorphins also help to balance out the stress hormones.
So grab your walking shoes and step outside for some fresh air. As you walk, reflect on things like:
- What you accomplished today
- What you accomplished this past week
- What you accomplished this past month
- What you accomplished in the past six months
- What you accomplished in the past year
By the end of your walk, you’ll have a nice inventory of all your proudest accomplishments this year. (As a bonus, try naming all the people who have helped you in one way or another.)
8. Jot down your thoughts in a journal.
Journals are an amazing tool to confess your struggles and fears without judgment or punishment. Keeping a journal helps you create order when your world feels totally upside down. You can even use the Notes app on your phone!
Your journal is a powerful tool to help you:
- Get in touch with yourself
- See the thoughts leaving your head
- Identify negative thinking patterns
- Track your triggers
- Prioritize your problems, fears, and concerns
- Practice positive self-talk
9. Slowly count from one to ten.
Start playing your favorite song in your head. Then, count from one to ten along the beat. You can even add in variations, like counting the number of clouds passing by or the number of soft objects around you. This technique diverts your mind from anxiety to the rhythm of the music.
10. Use the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.
Engage your senses systematically to stay present. This method is especially effective in managing overwhelming emotions.
- First focus on five things you can see around you.
- Next, notice four things you can feel.
- Then, name three things you can hear.
- After, notice two things you can smell.
- Finally, focus on one thing you can taste (or think about a taste you enjoy).
11. Keep a sentimental object that helps you feel safe and protected.
Some people use handwritten notes. Others use crystals. Whatever your sentimental object is, having a tangible sentimental object can make things feel a little less overwhelming. Just pull it out and hold onto it when you start feeling anxious.
- Usage: Carry a small item that holds personal significance.
- Effect: Provides a tangible sense of comfort and grounding during anxious moments.
12. Remind yourself that time heals.
Viewing anxiety through the lens of time can be helpful for some, as it offers a reminder that situations and feelings are often temporary and that circumstances can change. If you’re having a hard time thinking far into the future, find some perspective by turning on a movie that’s set in the past or the future. These films offer a refreshing contrast, and watching one can open you up to a window to the past or future.
Activity: Watch historical or futuristic films to gain perspective.
13. Nap with a weighted blanket.
Take a nap to shut down your brain. And if you have a weighted blanket, use it for some pressure therapy. But if you have respiratory problems or tend to feel claustrophobic or hot under heavy bedding, then you’re better off sitting out this tip.
14. Make sense of your space.
Piles of papers and old, non-usable electronics are exhausting, but they can hinder all aspects of your life—not just when you look at your tabletops or inside your drawers. Doing something that you do have control over, like clearing the clutter and staying organized, will help add some much-needed order to your life. This could include things like:
- Making your bed
- Cleaning your bathroom
- Clearing out your closet
- Tossing out junk items
- Throwing away old schoolwork
- Clearing emails out of your inbox
- Deleting old files you don’t need anymore
15. Try fear-setting.
We’re all familiar with goal-setting. But if you find yourself obsessing over the worst that can happen, try acknowledging your fear.
- First, define your worst-case scenarios.
- Next, ask yourself: “Can I live with it?” (Chances are, the worst that can happen isn’t so bad, and you can, in fact, live with it.)
- Then, define the steps you could take to repair the damage and get things back on the upswing, even if temporarily. (Chances are, it’s easier than you imagine.)
- Finally, bring yourself back to reality. Now that you’ve defined the worst-case scenario, what are the more probable outcomes?
16. Explore candy flavors.
Here’s another distracting technique for holiday anxiety that can help you shift your attention to something other than your anxiety: focusing on unusual flavors and textures. Experiment with hard candy, like Lemonheads, Warhead, and Jolly Ranchers, and soft candy, like sour gummy worms or Hi-Chews.
17. Name every color you can see or think of.
When you feel panic coming on, play the color game with yourself. Look around and name the color of every item in the room. If you start running out of colors, get more specific.
- Is that flower in the neighborhood a shade of lavender, raisin, or eggplant?
- And is that tree a shade of moss, pistachio, or emerald?
- This is also nice to play with a friend or family member, going back and forth until you run out of colors.
18. Pick up a coloring book.
On a related note, you can take color therapy one step further by coloring in a color book. Coloring is a simple, soothing activity that helps you flow your attention away from yourself. You can channel your inner artist while relaxing. Since the stakes are low—you can be as neat or messy as you’d like—it becomes a nice escape, rather than a demanding test of your capacities.
19. Do a quick puzzle game.
If you’re having trouble zoning out, zone in instead. Refocus your energy on a puzzle game—IRL or on your phone—like Sudoku, Solitaire, or 2048. It requires all your concentration but not a lot of effort.
20. Minimize sensory overload.
- Take a minute to look at your nearest electronic device.
- How many tabs and windows do you have open on your laptop?
- How many apps are open on your phone?
Many of us are taught that multitasking is a good thing. When it comes to the hustle and bustle of holiday anxieties-the more we can do, the better, right? Wrong! The reality is this: Humans are built to focus on one thing at a time. When we fall into the trap of doing too much, we suffer from sensory overload – also known as overstimulation.
So how do you know when you might be suffering from sensory overload? You may experience:
- Difficulty focusing due to too many competing sights, sounds, and
- Extreme irritability
- Restlessness and discomfort
- Urge to cover your ears or shield your eyes from sensory input
- Feeling overly excited or “wound up”
- Stress, fear, or anxiety about your surroundings
- Higher levels than usual of sensitivity to textures, fabrics, clothing tags, or other things that may rub against skin
Try reducing sensory overload in small increments:
- Turn your phone on airplane mode
- Mute social media and news notifications
- Stay on one browser window or app at a time
- Close the door, and turn your lights or music down to limit sensory input
- This can work wonders for your mind; you’ll be able to relax because you aren’t forced to switch between five different tasks.
21. Deprive your senses.
Sensory deprivation is another great way to battle sensory overload. Use foam earplugs, noise-cancellation headphones, and an eye mask to minimize visual and audio input. You can even go to a quiet place, like your closet with the door shut, to really step out of your thought cycle.
22. Do the 7-7-7 exercise.
When you find your anxiety creeping up about a specific past incident or future event, try asking yourself:
- Is this going to matter in 7 days?
- Is it going to matter in 7 weeks?
- And is it going to matter in 7 months?
- And work backwards from there.
- What happened 7 days before today?
- 7 weeks before today?
- 7 months before today?
Chances are, it’ll be difficult to recall your exact memories on each day. That’s proof of your resilience and ability to learn lessons from challenging events! After you realize how fleeting your anxiety is, try abiding by this rule: If it isn’t going to matter in 7 years, don’t spend more than 7 minutes worrying about it.
23. Pick a special song.
If you had a special teddy bear, blanket, or other sentimental item as a child, this exercise might be particularly helpful for quelling your anxiety.
Find a specific song to listen to that will relax you every time you feel bad. Try something that you associate with good memories, like a theme song or a classic oldie. Eventually, you’ll train your mind to relax when you hear it. When you’ve reached this stage, simply turn on your special song and let a feeling of calm wash over you.
24. Tap the power of aromatherapy.
Apart from providing a pleasant smell, aromatherapy is well-known for relieving stress. You can use fragrances to soothe or invigorate your mind and body.
Lavender is proven to reduce anxiety and improve your sleep quality. Recent research supports the use of bergamot and sandalwood essential oils for improving depressive symptoms, as well as yuzu for reducing negative emotional stress.
25. Fidget the stress away.
Fidget spinners have been around since the early 90s and came back in full force in 2017. They’ve become less popular over time, but if you’re prone to fidgeting, you might find relief in a stress toy.
The next time you feel nervous or anxious, try out the following fidget toys:
- Lavender-infused play dough
- Binder clip
- Hair elastic
- Rubik’s cube
- Infinity cube
- Sand garden
- Euler’s disc
- Newton’s cradle
26. Focus on the next 10 seconds.
In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the main character Kimmy says “I learned a long time ago that a person can stand just about anything for ten seconds, then you just start on a new ten seconds. All you have to do is take it ten seconds at a time.”
So when you’re starting to feel anxious, ask yourself: Can I handle this for another 10 seconds?
Every time you run through this exercise, you’ll realize that discomfort is only temporary and you will survive.
27. Plan for the next 10 minutes.
As you start to get better at coping, expand your focus into the next 10 minutes. You can’t control everything, but you can control the next 10 minutes. It helps enormously.
28. Practice PMR.
When you feel anxiety coming on, try progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). It’s a deep relaxation technique that takes your focus away from your anxiety and into the present moment.
Close your eyes and do the following, starting from your toes and up to your head.
- Inhale. As you inhale, flex one muscle group.
- Exhale. As you exhale, release the tension in that muscle group.
29. Play the Alphabet Game.
Choose a category, like animals, cars, or foods. Then, try to name one item for every letter of the alphabet. This will help direct your mind away from your spiraling thoughts and toward a neutral distraction.
30. Talk to yourself.
Especially when our minds start to race, it’s helpful to interrupt your inner monologue. The next time you start to spiral, tell yourself to STOP out loud. Then, ask: Is this helpful? If it’s not, why am I doing it? There’s likely no good answer for that last question, which makes it easier for the logical side of your brain to get back in the driver’s seat.
- Method: Use assertive phrases like “STOP” to interrupt negative thoughts.
- Result: Aids in regaining control over runaway thoughts.
31. Cook for yourself.
Prepare your favorite meal from scratch! Plan out your favorite meal, pick up the ingredients from your local market, and listen to your favorite music while preparing it. If you’re feeling up to it, invite some friends over to enjoy the meal together.
- Activity: Prepare a meal from scratch, focusing on the process.
- Benefits: Cooking is a creative and fulfilling way to practice mindfulness and enjoy a sense of accomplishment.
These 31 strategies offer a diverse array of tools to manage holiday anxiety. From cognitive reframing to sensory engagement, you’re equipped to handle whatever the season brings. Remember, the most effective approach is the one that resonates with you–personally. Embrace these methods and transform your holiday experience from stressful to joyful.