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Using Grounding Techniques to Combat Stress and Anxiety

Anxiety and stress can often become distracting and unsettling and can prompt detachment from the present moment. At home, they can cause one to disengage from otherwise quality time with loved ones or to be unable to sufficiently rest and recharge for the coming day. In legal practice, this disconnect may cause an attorney to lose focus on his or her work, to neglect client needs, or to act in an uncharacteristic manner  ̶  and sometimes develop a pattern of behavior that may lead to disciplinary action. Almost everyone experiences some level of problematic stress or anxiety in his or her lifetime, but there are simple techniques that can quickly and easily alleviate physiological manifestations.

“Grounding techniques” are mental and physical exercises that aid in management of stress or anxiety by deepening one’s cognizance of surroundings and creating healthy detachment from stressors. As recently expounded in Psychology Today, “Grounding techniques work by ‘grounding’ you in the present moment and pulling you away from intrusive thoughts or feelings . . . [distancing] yourself from [a negative] emotional experience.” 

The stress of law practice and the consequent emotional fatigue put those in the legal profession at elevated risk for mental health challenges. As an individual recognizes that a negative feeling (be it worried thoughts or intense unease) or a physical symptom, like quickening heartrate, starts to become overwhelming, simple exercises can help to calm and to refocus attention on other healthy coping strategies. Grounding techniques are particularly beneficial in combatting strong pangs of stress or anxiety during a panic attack or sensation of dissociation. Ultimately, consistent practice of grounding suspends or lessens reactions to stressors and builds self-trust and self-efficacy.

What are some basic grounding techniques helpful to lawyers?

  • Engage your senses with the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. One of the most common grounding methods, this exercise calls first for slow, deep breaths. After establishing a satisfying breath, identify five things that you see around you. These should be stationary objects such as a cup of paperclips or a painting on the wall. Next, identify four things that you can touch (e.g., the keys on of your computer’s keyboard or the mesh of your desk chair). Identify three things that you can hear (e.g., an active printer or traffic outside). Then, identify two things that you can small (e.g., hand sanitizer or your lunch). Finally, identify one thing that you can taste (e.g., coffee or a breath mint). This and each subsequent practice may be repeated until a calmer state is reached.
  • Describe your environment in detail. Scan the room, exploring its physical features, large and small. For example, you might notice that your pen cup holds three black pens, two blue pens, a gray mechanical pencil, one green highlighter, and one yellow highlighter. Continue to move your eyes throughout the room for as long as is needed to feel calm.
  • Do a mental scan of your body. This technique begins by focusing attention to the top of your head. Then, slowly move your attention down your body to your toes. Acknowledge sensations felt at each point of your body.
  • Focus on your breath. Slowly inhale through your nose, observing how your chest and stomach move as your lungs fill with air. Then, exhale carefully through your mouth. Once again, repeat this exercise as many times as is warranted.
  • Play a game of categories. Mentally list items in a chosen category (e.g., college sports mascots or countries of South America), and see how many you can remember. Such brain games are effective in distracting the mind from anxious thoughts.
  • Play with numbers. Like listing items within a category, number games can assist in detaching from intrusive thoughts. Try counting backward from one hundred by fours. When one number sequence is completed, move on to a similar progression, such as counting backward from one hundred by threes.
  • Visualize something you are positively anticipating, big or small. This might include anything from playing a board game with your child after dinner to going on an extended vacation overseas.

How might grounding techniques be utilized most successfully? When practicing grounding, consider a few useful tips and reminders.

  • Grounding can be done discreetly at any time or place.
  • Begin exercising grounding sooner rather than later. The earlier a negative mood cycle is caught, the easier it likely will be to manage.
  • Keep thoughts neutral by addressing objective facts only. Avoid making qualitative judgements. For example, say to yourself, “The carpet is blue” but eschew any opinions of the carpet or the color blue.
  • Retain a handy list of grounding techniques that you find work best for you. You might enter a note into your phone or other personal device or place an index card or sticky note at your desk.

When faced with mental fatigue and frequent stressors, it is easy to become anxious and overwhelmed, and attending to anything else can become a formidable challenge. However, regular practice of anxiety and stress management can support a deeper connection to the present moment and to personal and professional priorities.

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