When anxiety hits, it can make you feel disoriented as though everything is spinning out of control. You might feel immobilized, not sure where to turn – or engage in acts that you think will reduce the sense of confusion, but they only end up making things worse.

People may tell you to “stay grounded,” but what does it mean to be grounded? I see it as being aware of your body and present in your surroundings. But how can you get there when your mind has whipped you up in a state for anxiety and confusion?

I have written a lot about the impact of attention on our experience. Our focus has a significant effect on our thoughts and feelings. Controlling our attention plays a crucial role in managing social anxiety and dealing with unwanted attention from others. You can also use your attention to deal with anxiety and calm yourself down. Remembering that you have control over where you put your attention is key to managing your anxiety.

How do you come back to your senses? Consider doing so quite literally by using your attention to focus on your five senses.

  • Begin with your breath. Tune into your breathing, notice whether you are holding your breath or breathing in your upper chest.
  • Intentionally bring your breath down to your belly so that you are breathing in three parts: breathing in expand your belly, rib cage, and collarbones and then breathing out by gently contracting your collarbones, ribcage, and belly.
  • Look in the mirror, notice yourself present in the moment, don’t look in your eyes if that makes you feel more anxious, but watch your body move with your breath.
  • Feel your body moving with your breath. Feel the texture of your clothes against your skin as your body moves.  Feel the air moving in and out of your nostrils, and feel the air brushing against your cheek.
  • Listen to hear your breathing. Expand your senses to listen to sounds in the environment. Don’t focus on identifying the sounds. Let them wash over you like sound waves.
  • Open your sense of smell. Can you experience smells without needing to label them? What is the quality of the scent – pungent, sweet, foul? Be with the experience not trying to avoid or enhance the sensation, but just letting it be present – as you are present.

Now intentionally expand your attention out to your surroundings and engage your five senses there. A popular meme of unknown origin suggests these five steps to engaging your senses.

  • Find five things you can see.
  • Find four things you can touch.
  • Find three things you can hear.
  • Find two things you can smell.
  • Find one thing you can taste.

Research in psychology on mindfulness suggests that this formula is, in fact, effective at bringing your attention back to the present moment and calming yourself in the here and now. Remember, no matter how out of control you may feel in the moment, you can always come back to your senses.

Dr. Tara Well is a psychology professor at Barnard College in New York City where she developed a mirror-based meditation called “a revelation” in the New York Times. She has taught hundreds of people how to use the mirror to awaken self-compassion, manage emotions, and improve face-to-face communication. Find out more at www.MirrorMeditation.com




Image courtesy of Lona.