5 Things to Try When You're Feeling Overwhelmed


Sometimes we feel out of control. We may be overwhelmed by a sense of terror or feel like we’re going to die as we struggle to breathe (such as with a panic attack). We may be reliving a horrific past experience as if it’s happening again right now, complete with the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations from that moment (such as with a flashback). We may be feeling extremely agitated or extremely numb because something has triggered us to either be on alert or to shut down.

Trauma-informed therapy can be a helpful companion as we figure out why these things are happening to us. But whatever the reason, we still need to deal with the symptoms in the moment. One of the best things we can do is try to ground ourselves. Grounding means connecting with your tangible body and reminding yourself where (and when) you are so that you can feel safe again.

Here are 5 simple grounding techniques that you can practice basically anywhere, in any moment when you’re feeling overwhelmed:

  1. Hands - Slowly trace the outline of your hand with your finger. How does it feel? What do you notice? How many lines are on each finger? Now do the same with your other hand. How are they the same? Different?

  2. Feet - Feel your feet on the floor. What do they feel like? Press your feet into the floor. What do you notice in your body when you do this? Tap your feet one at a time, while saying to yourself, "Left, right, left, right.”

  3. Find - Pick a color that you find calming. Find all the things in your environment that are that color. Notice all the different shades of that color. Go back and order the items from darkest to lightest. If you get something out of order, no problem - start again.

  4. Read - Read something out loud. Choose something that is not stressful or triggering - whether that’s a random book off a shelf or a dictionary app on your phone. Listen to your voice. Feel your mouth making the words. Pay more attention to what your body is doing as it speaks the words than the words themselves.

  5. Stretch - Stand up. With your arms at your sides, lift your arms up to the sky as you inhale and bring them back down as you exhale. Try to get your breath to match your movement, so that your hands are up at the end of your inhale and down at the end of your exhale. Repeat several times. Then try going side to side - lift your arms to the sky as you inhale, and lean over to your right side as you exhale. Inhale back to the middle, exhale and lean to your left side. Repeat several times.

*Note: If you are in a dangerous situation in the present moment, remove yourself from the situation before practicing grounding techniques.

So you’ve read the list - great. But if you really want these to be helpful, you need to practice them right now, when you feel safe and calm. Go ahead, I’ll wait... :)

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Now that you’ve practiced them, they will hopefully be easier to remember when you’re in a difficult moment. I know they may seem too simple, but sometimes all we need is to get back into our body and back into the present time/place. Once you’re back, take a few deep breaths. You are safe.

If you are looking to better understand why you’re feeling overwhelmed or to decrease how often you feel this way, consider seeing a trauma-informed therapist.

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© 2016 by Amanda Hofbauer

Tel: 312-857-6270

Amanda Hofbauer, MA, LMFT

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